The 2013 Chicago Bears season came to a fittingly sad conclusion.
Chris Conte, one of the emerging stars of the previous campaign who seemed to have not only lost his way in the secondary but his confidence as well, missed an assignment. The physical side of the game had let him down all season long. Now the mental side was delivering a final, crippling blow. Peppers leaps. Kuhn blocks. Rodgers scrambles. Cobb scores. The culprit was Conte. Not only had he, in that moment, become the poster child for this devastating loss. That wasn’t enough to pour onto the slumping shoulders of a beleaguered safety. No, in that moment, Conte became the symbol of the entire season’s defensive futility.
Shots were fired at Conte from every discernible angle. Once news of an off-season surgery surfaced many, myself included, wrote off Conte’s potential future with the Chicago Bears. When Marc Silverman of ESPN Radio bet Tom Waddle Conte would not play a down for the Bears this season, Conte met that challenge with a Twittery terrific, “fuck u all.”
That response was the most impressive defense Conte had played in well over a year.
But one does not need to spend much time in the Stats Inc. research room to come to the simple conclusion that Conte, bitter and embattled, is the club’s best option at free safety for the 2014 season. Better than relocating Ryan Mundy to a position of non-strength. Better than forcing a special teamer like Danny McCray to be an every-down contributor. Better than relying upon a mid-round rookie like Brock Vereen who registered only three interceptions for the entirety of his college career at Minnesota.
Because Conte, despite the belief of many fans, is not a terrible player. He simply had a terrible year. It was a year in which injuries up front forced him to run defend in ways in which he’d never previously been asked. It was a year in which the Bears so lacked for pass rush that opposing quarterbacks had weeks to throw the ball. No safety in the league can cover for five or six seconds. If they could, they’d play corner and collect those paychecks. It was a year in which the Bears best defensive player and the greatest cornerback in their history spent months on the sideline. Conte was not without blame. I’d have to believe he’d admit to playing poorly.
But 2013 was something of a perfect storm around Conte and the high winds picked him out of his desk seat and sat him squarely in the dunce’s corner for all the other schoolkids to gape at and mock.
2014 is an opportunity for redemption and boy does sport love a comeback story. If Conte uses the anger he’s feeling towards fans and media to channel the near-Pro Bowler of a few years ago, he could anchor a defensive renaissance in Chicago. If Conte plays like the man who picked off Aaron Rodgers in the end zone last December and not the one who let Randall Cobb roam free, he could find himself engulfed in the warm embrace of the Soldier Field faithful instead of the object of their derision.
The pass rush, run defense and health of unit will all be better. The free safety position is his. What he does with it in 2014 will define his NFL career. If he plays well, it could also go a long way towards defining the Bears season on the defensive side of the ball.