This is the Bears’ town, and a baseball fan might as well tell the sun not to rise as argue otherwise. From the moment their training camp opens in July the Bears tend to dominate the city’s sports coverage, which this summer has been especially galling for White Sox fans, whose team seems playoff bound and entered this week with the American League’s best record. Sox fans fully expect the Cubs to dominate normal baseball coverage, but when the Sox play as they have this season they take an ascendant position in the daily sports sections–ascendant except for the Bears, that is.
And a perplexed baseball fan might ask, just what have the Bears done–especially lately–to deserve such treatment?
To be sure, football is the most popular American sport. It’s a gambler’s sport, and there’s always a Rinaldo Cantabile around the neighborhood to take anyone’s action. It’s also a tough sport, and Chicagoans like toughness. Of late it’s helped that second-year head coach Lovie Smith has reinstalled an aggressive defense. Abandoning the bend-don’t-break posture of Dick Jauron and Dave Wannstedt, Smith has set fan favorite Brian Urlacher free to roam from sideline to sideline and lay claim to a place in the Bears’ pantheon of great middle linebackers. Yet the current Bears aren’t as tough as the 1985 NFL champions, which brings me to something else that sticks in a Sox fan’s craw.
The ’85 Bears are back in our heads this year in a big way, reaping more acclaim (and money) 20 years later as the city’s last and only Super Bowl champs, a team of character and characters from gritty, combative coaches Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan on down. They’re remembered for the defensive line of Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, Dan Hampton, and, last but certainly not least, William “Refrigerator” Perry, for the Doberman linebackers Otis Wilson and Wilber Marshall flanking the intense Mike Singletary, and for Gary Fencik laying the lumber in the secondary. They’re distinctive in Bears history for matching a sturdy offensive line (built around tackle Jimbo Covert, center Jay Hilgenberg, and guards Tom Thayer and Mark Bortz) with a daring quarterback, Jim McMahon, who overruled Ditka’s natural caution to throw deep to Willie Gault–that is, when he wasn’t simply handing off to Walter Payton, quite possibly the most well-rounded player in the team’s storied past.
Yet I have mixed feelings when I see those Bears hanging around today. Memories of that season, such as the mauling of the Cowboys in Dallas and Singletary standing up the Los Angeles Rams’ Eric Dickerson in the playoffs, are as precious as the Super Bowl videotape I’ve packed away in the basement–but that team should have won more championships. Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers won more, as did Bill Parcells’s New York Giants. But the brittle McMahon went down with an injury near the end of the ’86 season, and Ditka defied convention and the doubts of his own team by making Doug Flutie the quarterback. The following year, Ditka lost the team entirely when he backed the replacement players during the players’ strike. Both those seasons, ’86 and ’87, he was badly outcoached by the Washington Redskins’ Joe Gibbs in the playoffs, and the Bears never really challenged for the Super Bowl again. They began a long downward slide that persists to this day.
You’d never know that from studying Bears fans, whose arrogance far exceeds their team’s accomplishments. Bears fans have the Cubs fans’ talent for self-delusion without their sense of tragedy. They aren’t as clear-eyed as Sox fans, nor as loyal in the face of adversity as Blackhawks fans. (Bears fans, after all, boo when riled, and most of them sided with Ditka in supporting the ’87 scabs.) As for the Bulls and their fans, let’s be clear: when the Bulls put together a great team with a great player they sustained that greatness over six championship seasons. Compared to that, the ’85 Bears truly are a shufflin’ crew.
Violating my own rule that football should wait until baseball season is over–over in Chicago anyway–I watched the Bears’ opening game in Washington Sunday. They’d already lost their starting quarterback, the ballyhooed Rex Grossman, to a broken ankle suffered in an exhibition game (Grossman is proving to be McMahon’s heir in the whirlpool if not on the field), so they’ve fallen back on rookie Kyle Orton, a big, hard-throwing if raw kid fresh out of Purdue. After the Redskins fumbled the second-half kickoff, Orton guided the Bears to a touchdown that put them up 7-6 even though they’d been dominated for most of the first half. But the vaunted defense was still allowing the ‘Skins’ Clinton Portis to run over it, and a classic Gibbs drive–all trapping runs and one key misdirection bootleg off a fake reverse–put Washington in front again with a field goal. In the fourth quarter Orton found his rhythm for a while but he couldn’t keep his fidgety offensive line composed, and Washington’s blitz threats and a loud hometown crowd flustered the Bears into three straight false-start penalties and a sack that pushed them back from the ‘Skins’ 34 to their own 38. Gibbs put in a two-tight-end lineup to run down the clock, and when the Bears finally got the ball Orton fumbled it away on the team’s final possession to seal the dreary 9-7 loss.
Bear down Chicago Bears, indeed. This year’s team can’t be compared to the ’85 champions, and that group–not to put too fine a point on it–has overstayed its welcome. So let’s all pledge to watch no more football until baseball is over. And may the Sox repeatedly extend their season.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joe Robbins–Getty Images.