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Panthers-Bears Was Not Bad Enough

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - NOVEMBER 09: Head coach Matt Eberflus of the Chicago Bears reacts after a 16-13 victory against the Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field on November 09, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Every now and then sports asks you the existential question, "How much is too little?" What happens when you are watching a game you believe will be truly abominable, and you're only watching out of obligation in hopes that it will be so ghastly that you can talk about it in the morning at work, and it turns out not quite abominable enough?

Well, we give you Panthers-Bears, or more specifically, we bring you the game's only discernible highlight:

That's it. Ihmir Smith-Marsette knifed through whatever Chicago's punt coverage was, barely touched or forced to even veer from his path as he ran 85 yards for Carolina's only touchdown. The rest of the evening was Panthers-Bears as Panthers-Bears as can be, with two non-functioning offenses run by two undergunned rookie quarterbacks meandering back and forth for three hours to no meaningful effect, and the dramatic game-deciding play was a 59-yard field goal attempt that traveled about 53 yards. As games go, it was the gray T-shirt with no writing on it of the NFL schedule when it could have been so much less.

People were ready for Panthers-Bears because it was two of the worst teams in the league getting ready to see how they could push the boundaries of bad football. That’s the only reason anyone watched, and yes, that includes Panthers fans and Bears fans. They correctly hate their teams, Bears fans especially because they have so much more practice at it, reduced as they were at game's end to chanting "Green Bay sucks!" because that's all their view of the universe will allow.

Between them, they entered the game with an aggregate record of 3-14, bereft of hope and knowing that the prevailing story line going into the game was "Why does Al Michaels sound so miserable?" The answer was clearly "This! This is why! Right in front of you, you couch barnacles!" but people wanted to ignore the obvious in favor of more crackpot-ish theories that he is too old for this nonsense, or he hates Kirk Herbstreit, or he longs for the untrammeled joys of network work. In fact, the game was so consistently this that you half-imagined Herbstreit grabbing Jason Kelce by the leg, Van Gundy–style, and begging him to stay for the rest of the half just so Kirk didn't have to break down one more three-yard pass on third-and-9.

There was the hope of bad weather (but no, kind of cold and a little windy but nothing visually arresting), or lots of turnovers (none), or lots of punts (only six per side, over the league average to be sure but hardly the stuff of Giants-Jets), or a ridiculously low score (the game ranked 121st out of 137 played for combined points this year, but somehow 16-13 doesn't seem all that hideous), or terrible individual performances (none to speak of, though the only play that went over 20 yards was a late first-quarter pass of 45 yards from Bryce Young to Mike Strachan, who was targeted only once more the rest of the game).

It was just wall-to-wall porridge: nothing to hold on to, nothing to remember, nothing to like or hate, not even Matt Eberflus's postgame burst of improv. There was Ihmir Smith-Marsette and then there was 54 minutes and 16 seconds of nothing to see here citizens, just move along, we need to keep the sidewalk clear.

And frankly, we deserved less. Making the effort to navigate Prime's various hurdles to get to this game meant we were committed (well, deluded, more like) to seeing something genuinely awful—Tyson Bagent throwing more interceptions than passes, maybe, or D'Onta Foreman tying his shoelaces together, or Eddy Pineiro not just missing the 59-yard field goal but whiffing on it altogether.

That stuff’s not really the essence of bad football. That's the essence of grand football, the kind you can laugh at between now and Sunday morning's resumption of play. This is what bad football actually is: flashes of orange and teal that all turn out gray in the end, with nothing to show for it but three wasted hours of humdrum before you return to your humdrum lives, which you watch football specifically to forget and instead get something with zero hum and little drum.

You got a staff meeting with a punt return, and the truth is that was what was advertised all along. You can dress up a pig and maybe get a few laughs out of it (plus one needlessly annoyed pig), but you cannot lay that dress over a mud puddle and get the same response. You wanted Panthers-Bears, and you got Panthers-Bears. They've won four games between them in 19 tries, because they are consistently and relentlessly this.

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