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HOUSTON - The Bears are close.
That was the message from head coach Lovie Smith after his defense gave up 455 yards to a 7-8 Texans team playing merely for the privilege of finishing .500 Sunday.
On a day when Tampa and Dallas were handing the Bears a gift, a free ticket to the postseason, Smith's Bears couldn't stop Texans QB Matt Schaub, who threw for 328 yards, or receiver Andre Johnson, who caught 10 passes for 148 yards.
The Bears are close? Close to what?
The Bears tried Sunday. They did give an effort, but when they eliminated themselves with a 31-24 defeat to finish 9-7, it should have said more about how far away they are than where the head coach thinks they are today.
"It's a disappointing end to the season," Smith said. "But when you're 9-7, you're close."
Close to being .500?
That's where most NFL teams reside, in a world where a game or two, here or there, means the difference between 7-9 and 9-7.
And what's that? That's the choice between a better draft pick and getting knocked out in the first round.
The Bears aren't on the verge of something great. They're officially stuck in NFL limbo, with a defense that needs a new philosophy, several new players and the Fountain of Youth.
"When you're 9-7, you don't need an overhaul," Smith said in disagreement, during a postgame news conference in which he appeared agitated a few times. "You need to add a few pieces to the puzzle."
Sure, if the pieces are Dan Hampton, Lawrence Taylor, Deion Sanders and Ronnie Lott.
Otherwise the Bears today have nearly as many questions to answer as when the season began, coming off a 2007 in which they finished 7-9.
"We did make progress from last year," Smith said. "But our goal is to win the world championship, and you have to get into the playoffs to do that."
Realistically, it's more than that.
Lots of mediocre teams make the playoffs, but you also need an offensive line and perhaps an NFL quality wide receiver or three.
"You've got to have some explosive players and make big plays in order to score a lot of points," admitted offensive coordinator Ron Turner, who probably did the best he could this year with that he had. "It factors into everything you try to do."
The Bears at least found out they have a quarterback in Kyle Orton after they finally woke up and gave him a chance. Before hurting his ankle midway through the season, Orton showed he could handle the job both physically and mentally.
That's the bright side, that the Bears have a quarterback and a solid running back in Matt Forte, who also played hurt the last couple of weeks.
But even usually reliable tight end Greg Olsen dropped 2 touchdown passes Sunday.
"It's a disappointing end," Turner said. "Any time you have a disappointing end, I think you look to upgrade at certain positions."
There are plenty on offense and even more on defense, where the Bears are overpaid, old and ineffective.
Besides Lance Briggs and sometimes Kevin Payne and Marcus Harrison, where do they go from here?
"We didn't get it done. Something has to change," said cornerback Charles Tillman. "What will change? I don't know."
Maybe Smith has to say that his team is close, but it's hard to believe he sees it that way when Turner and Tillman all but said the Bears are several players away.
True, they're close to being a playoff team, but what good does that do you?
If they're serious about wanting to win it all, they do need a major overhaul, or else 2009 will be yet another season of mediocrity.
"This isn't good enough," Forte said. "But we'll remember this."
They should remember Green Bay, which is the essence of the 2008 season.
In that 37-3 loss at Green Bay on Nov. 16, when Orton played hurt and didn't play well, he got absolutely no help from anyone on the team.
The Bears didn't even care enough to show up for a dreadful loss to a dreadful Packers team that promptly lost its next five games, and only ended the season with a win because it got the Lions on Sunday.
Had the Bears won the NFC North, it would have been akin to being named least offensive pig at the county fair.
Had they slithered into the playoffs with a wild-card berth, they would have hardly separated themselves from what passes as NFL football for most of the league's 32 teams.
You win about as many as you lose, hang around the playoff race for most of the season, and in the end you know precious little more about your club than you did in late July.
If you're not one of the two or three teams competing for the Super Bowl every year, this is your lot in life unless you're willing to tear it apart and start over.
Instead, five months and 16 games later, nothing much has been resolved.
That Super Bowl appearance a couple of years ago is more memory than barometer, and there are only more questions about the coach and GM than when the campaign began.
Their job security is going to be a hot topic of conversation next year.
Close? Perhaps Smith meant closer to the end than the beginning.