By Chris Emma--
CHICAGO (CBS) -- Apathy filled famed Soldier Field on Sunday. Many of those enthused enough to see the Bears' clincher of a third straight losing season left early and nearly missed quite the comeback.
Instead, this struggle of a season found new disappointment in a 27-21 loss to the Titans. The Bears literally let victory slip right through their hands and dropped a comeback bid from down 20 points in the fourth quarter.
Josh Bellamy went from the fun-loving receiver who wears shirts of his own likeness to the ire of Bears fans' anger after dropping the go-ahead score in the end zone in the final minute. There was no excuse.
"I'll beat myself up because I expect more out of myself," Bellamy said. "I know I should've made that play."
Fourth-string quarterback Matt Barkley led the Bears to the goal line after being down 27-7 through three quarters. He just needed a receiver to catch the football. Bellamy's drop was the most egregious, but Deonte Thompson also could've caught the winner on fourth down. Instead, he faltered, and the Titans took a knee.
In fact, the Bears had 10 drops on the day, according to metrics authority Pro Football Focus, which is the most since the site began counting in 2006. In the postgame aftermath, teammates were left attempting to console Bellamy, who was struggling to pull himself together. He was crushed.
Such is reality for the Bears, who were counting on Barkley, Bellamy and Thompson instead of Jay Cutler, Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White. This is what to expect from a 2-9 football team.
"This is not on one person or one group," Barkley said. "Nobody let anybody down. We're playing for each other."
The Bears last played the Titans back in Week 9 of the 2012 season, a 51-20 victory in Nashville. Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall connected for three touchdowns, Matt Forte rushed for 103 yards and a score and Brian Urlacher logged a pick-six of Matt Hasselbeck.
Sunday at Soldier Field offered a juxtaposition of two franchises. Since that November day four years ago, plenty has changed for the Bears and Titans. Chicago's team has become one of the NFL's worst, while Tennessee's is on the rise.
Troubles for the Bears began with the firing of Lovie Smith and hiring of Marc Trestman after that 10-win 2012 season. Combined with bad personnel decisions by general manager Phil Emery, the Bears have found a state of despair. Four years removed, the Bears will be lucky to win four games.
The Titans used their 2-14 campaign in 2014 to change their direction by drafting Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota with the No. 2 pick of the 2015 NFL Draft. They surrounded him with young talent, a steady offensive line and are now starting to reap the rewards. Tennessee is right there in the AFC South playoff picture.
Coach Mike Mularky said this week that Mariota's mere presence inspires hope in the Titans' building. It's understandable why -- Mariota is one of the best young quarterbacks in football. He was making all the right decisions and slinging darts, recording 226 yards and two touchdowns in the win.
Then there's Barkley, who was a tale of two halves in his first NFL start. Once viewed with first-round potential, Barkley continuously threw off his back foot and into coverage early Sunday. In fact, he had two more red-zone interceptions Sunday than Mariota has in his entire career.
Barkley salvaged his stat line in the fourth quarter, compiling 316 yards and throwing for three touchdowns on the day. Had it not been for those two costly interceptions and many drops, the Bears would've won.
"He was better late than early," Bears coach John Fox said in his evaluation of Barkley.
Watching from above, Bears general manager Ryan Pace saw on the opposite sideline what he can hope for his team. The Titans were in a desperate place before bringing in Mariota, whom Pace evaluated while holding the No. 7 pick in 2015. Rookie Titans general manager Jon Robinson inherited Mariota, then built around him.
Titans running back DeMarco Murray is a terrific runner, while Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe and Delanie Walker are big targets. A revamped offensive line that now includes first-round pick Jack Conklin at right tackle and veteran center Ben Jones has also made a difference around Mariota.
The Bears can only hope for better health in 2017. That would be a start. Development must continue during this offseason, and Pace must hit on another round of draft picks.
Identifying the Bears' next franchise quarterback is the most important item on Pace's agenda. It's the decision that will define his tenure as general manager and underscore the franchise's future. Pace has to get this right.
Like the Bears, the Titans, too, know some dark days. Having a leader like Mariota -- the league's next great quarterback -- has transformed Tennessee's team into a budding contender.
The Bears have faced several of the NFL's top young quarterbacks this season -- Mariota, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Jameis Winston -- and been beaten. Pace must be itching to get his next quarterback, especially as he lives in an existence where evaluating Barkley is all they can currently do.
Perhaps there are better days ahead for the Bears. Becoming a winner starts with finding the franchise-altering quarterback, just like the Titans did with Mariota.
Until then, Soldier Field will remain the home of apathy for at least three more Sundays.
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