Talk about curses. Few teams, not even the Cubs, are more accursed than the Bears and their quarterbacks. For some reason it’s typical for sports franchises to have a hole in their fabrics that persists through generations. Both the Cubs and the White Sox have had problems at third base, with the Sox’ Robin Ventura and the Cubs’ current Aramis Ramirez two of the few to hold down the position with any dignity for any length of time since the days of Ron Santo and Bill Melton. Consistently the Bulls have lacked a dominating center even in their championship seasons, with Artis Gilmore in the late 70s the lone exception. Yet the Bears have had even worse luck with their quarterbacks. Since Hall of Famer Sid Luckman invented the modern quarterback in the era commemorated in the team’s official fight song–“We’ll never forget the way you thrilled the nation, with your T formation”–the Bears have struggled along with lesser talents at the key offensive position. When they did stumble on a capable player, such as Jim McMahon of the 1985 championship team, more often than not he proved brittle.

So there was something eerily familiar about Rex Grossman going down in Minnesota the third week of the season. The Bears and new coach Lovie Smith had placed almost all their hopes for improvement in Grossman’s development, and at first they seemed justified. Displaying a rifle-accurate throwing arm and a new maturity in only the second game of his second season, he led the Bears to an upset of the archrival Packers–at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, no less. Suddenly the Bears, who’d looked as if they might go at least their first four games without a win after opening with a loss at home to the Detroit Lions, were playoff contenders. Yet just as suddenly, a week later Grossman was lost for the season. Trying to rally the Bears in the second half, he scrambled near the Vikings’ goal line and dived for the end zone, getting the nose of the ball across before dropping it when he hit the ground. A replay was required before his lunge was ruled a touchdown, and while the referees sorted it out Grossman lay sprawled on the artificial turf, apparently thanks to a Minnesota defender who had made him pay by crashing into his shoulder at the goal line. But it soon became apparent that it was not Grossman’s shoulder but his right knee that was hurt. Additional replays showed that he’d flexed it oddly diving for the goal line before any defender even threatened him. Without Grossman, the Bears’ rally fell short at 27-22; back in Chicago the following day doctors found he’d snapped the anterior cruciate ligament. The injury was even more freakish than Corey Patterson’s blown-out knee last year from stepping awkwardly on first base, and in light of Grossman’s season-ending injury a year ago–he broke his thumb when he was sacked–it raised concerns that he, like McMahon, simply may not be durable enough for the sport.

The Bears had banked everything on Grossman. In the era of the fixed salary cap, general manager Jerry Angelo decided last summer to take the advice of new offensive coordinator Terry Shea and bring over bargain-basement backup Jonathan Quinn from the Kansas City Chiefs to serve as Grossman’s understudy. The Bears devoted their limited resources to other pressing concerns, such as the offensive line, where they added tackle John Tait, and didn’t draft a QB until the fifth round, when they took Craig Krenzel out of Ohio State. Quinn debuted in the fourth week of the season and looked rusty as the Bears fell to 1-3. After a bye week that allowed Quinn to study his craft, he looked even worse when the Bears returned to action at home against the woeful Washington Redskins. It wasn’t just rust; it was ineptitude. Quinn was booed mercilessly as he trotted to the locker room at the end of the game; a picture of a fan giving him the finger made the back cover of the Sun-Times.

Yet there was something comfortingly familiar about all of this. The Bears had the look and feel of the teams I grew up on in the late 60s and early 70s, teams of hard-hitting but mistake-prone and in any case snakebit defenses; of woeful offenses–whenever Gale Sayers wasn’t healthy enough to run the ball there was no offense–distinguished by inferior quarterbacks (anyone remember Jack Concannon? Larry Rakestraw?); and of terrific punters (Bobby Joe Green anybody?) who excelled in part because of all the game-situation practice they received.

That was precisely the Bears’ persona in their 13-10 loss to the Redskins. Sure, the Bears gave up 171 yards rushing to Clinton Portis, but otherwise their defense gave the team a chance to win–in fact presented it with its only touchdown, on an interception return by Jerry Azumah. League-leading punter Brad Maynard pounded away with a 45-yard average on ten kicks to keep Washington honest in its field positions. But the offense was dead. The game was much more lopsided and dispiriting than the score would indicate, which is why the fans vented their frustrations on Quinn, who displayed the poise of a West Point grad who in combat forgets everything he’s learned.

Any student of Bears history knows the real danger is when inferiority becomes a morass. The 1-13 Bears of 1969 weren’t a bad team. Dick Butkus anchored the defense, and Sayers returned from a career-threatening injury to run for a thousand yards. But each week their weaknesses combined with bad breaks to produce yet another loss. That was the feel of Sunday’s game in Tampa Bay against the Buccaneers. The Bears’ first play from scrimmage was a beautifully designed screen pass in the flat from Quinn to Thomas Jones, who ran down the sideline for a 77-yard touchdown–which was called back when offensive pass interference was called on David Terrell, whose premature block had almost nothing to do with the play on the other side of the field. After that, Quinn was good for about one nice play a possession, and again he seemed utterly incapable of checking off to a second or third receiver. Rookie defensive lineman Tommie Harris had a couple of good plays in the first series, but then he jumped offside and compounded the error by knocking over Tampa Bay quarterback Brian Griese, just when the Bears seemed about to trap the Bucs at their own end. The 15-yard personal-foul penalty gave the Bucs breathing room, and Griese hit Michael Pittman on a pass over Brian Urlacher–hustling, but clearly not at full speed thanks to the hamstring injury that has plagued him since training camp–to begin a march downfield. The Bears stiffened inside their own five yard line to force a field goal that opened the second quarter, but gave up a 96-yard drive and a touchdown right before halftime that made it 10-0 at the intermission. The offense had done nothing.

That was it for Quinn. Smith and Shea called on Krenzel to open the second half–though before he came on the Bears fumbled the kickoff and the Bucs kicked another field goal. Krenzel wasn’t exactly Brett Favre, but he offered a refreshing upgrade–actually looking one way and throwing the other to fool the defense from time to time. But again it was the Bears’ defense that gave the team its only chance at victory. Urlacher got even with Pittman by swatting the ball loose on an end-run tackle, and safety Todd Johnson recovered it at the Tampa Bay 30. The Bears ran Jones down the Bucs’ throats, his stutter step especially nice on the touchdown that made it 13-7. The Bears forced another turnover when linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer shot the corner to tackle Joliet product Mike Alstott, who gave up the ball as his knee bent sideways in the pileup, Mike Green recovering. But the Bears got a galling penalty for taunting on the play–what, the Bears weren’t allowed to exult over a fumble?–and the 15 yards pushed them out of field-goal range. The offense couldn’t put the Bears back inside it, and the score remained 13-7 at the end of the third quarter.

The Bears’ luck held true to form in the fourth quarter. R.W. McQuarters–he of the flowing braids pouring out the back of his helmet–made a terrific interception but was called for pass interference on the play. That allowed the Bucs to keep the ball just when it seemed the Bears were going to pin them down at their end of the field. When the Bears got the ball back Krenzel overthrew Bryan Johnson coming out of the backfield; Johnson tipped the ball up and Ronde Barber picked it off and returned it to the Bears 12. Pittman ran in from there and the Bucs led 19-7 midway through the final quarter. Krenzel rallied the Bears with a short march against the Bucs’ prevent defense, but it stalled at the Tampa 33 and the Bears never mounted another challenge.

Actually, it wouldn’t be quite right to say things felt comfortingly familiar. One felt for players like Urlacher and Jones, just as one used to feel for Butkus and Sayers. But the Bears were too erratic to deserve better. Terrell’s early penalty took points off the board, and Harris’s later one led to a Tampa scoring drive. Harris played well aside from that goof, but defensive end Alex Brown, who looked like a world-beater against Washington, utterly disappeared in Tampa. Such is the inconsistency of younger players, and the rebuilding Bears are the youngest team in the league–for the second straight year, it should be mentioned. The Bears drafted Grossman a year ago because they saw in him the promise of a trip back to the Super Bowl. They placed so much emphasis on his development that without him they have nothing. This has made it almost impossible to gauge the impact of Smith and his new coaching staff.

It looks as if the Bears face another season of character building. But character was just about the only thing the previous coach, Dick Jauron, instilled in the Bears. They had the character part down. As for winning games without a National Football League quarterback, that’s another set of skills entirely–a knack the Bears have never mastered.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jeff Gross–Getty Images.