The temptation after the Bears’ playoff loss was to believe their surprising 11-5 season had been a mirage, a fantasy brought on by the NFL’s unbalanced scheduling and emphasis on parity. Their flop after the week off they’d earned as one of the top two teams in the NFC was a rerun of their last playoff appearance in 2001, when they were beaten after a 13-3 season earned them a first-round bye. Once again the Bears had bamboozled fans, embittered backers, and vindicated skeptics; criticism rained down on the players, the coaches, and the management. I was prepared to pile on myself. But then I reviewed my notes and began to appreciate just what this team had offered, for all its faults. Time spent with the Bears this season–at least after the White Sox ended their World Series run–was time well spent. The key is to appreciate the 2005 Bears for what they were rather than what they weren’t.

The biggest obstacle to this is the 1985 Bears, who returned en masse to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their Super Bowl championship season and loomed over their present-day heirs like the Monsters of the Midway they were. Those Bears were not just a great sports team–many football experts still consider them the best in NFL history–but a cultural phenomenon, full of players with oversize personalities and guided by coaches who were no slouches either in that regard. You didn’t have to be a football fan or a sports fan to love those Bears.

But fans need to get a couple of things straight about them. As great as they were–for that one season–they were among the most underachieving teams in all sports history. As a championship team they were one and done, losing the next two years to the Washington Redskins in playoff games that saw them outcoached and outplayed, and eventually collapsed in a heap of injuries, misjudgments, and hubris. So let me send Bears fans to John Mullin’s fine, evenhanded The Rise and Self-Destruction of the Greatest Football Team in History: The Chicago Bears and Super Bowl XX rather than Mike Ditka’s self-promoting In Life, First You Kick Ass: Reflections on the 1985 Bears and Wisdom From Da Coach or any of the other retrospectives published to cash in on the 20th anniversary.

But there’s no denying those Bears changed the standards for how the team has been judged ever since. Mere proficiency or excitement is never enough; it has to lead to an NFL title. This obsession led to the almost inevitable failure of the coaching regimes of Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron, and it tainted the pleasures of that 2001 season, when the Bears were charmed by luck–epitomized by the two games safety Mike Brown won by returning interceptions for touchdowns. No, that wasn’t a great team, but it sure was fun to watch.

So I went over this season’s notes and measured the Bears not against the overblown standard of the ’85 Bears but by whether they provided sporting entertainment of the sort this column has always appreciated–personality, a little drama, and beauty in style and execution. For various reasons I found myself satisfied.

Coach Lovie Smith went his mellow, considerate way–even when it led to uncomfortable comparisons with the departed Jauron–and produced a team that won games with its composure. No one reflected composure better than rookie quarterback Kyle Orton, who looked like a Wilco roadie with his scruffy beard but did all he was asked to do and rarely overstepped in guiding the Bears to a 10-5 record as a starter. Rex Grossman returned to provide something more at the end, even though his own lack of experience showed in the early and closing moments of the playoff game.

The offensive line was reformatted with the addition of Fred Miller at right tackle, the shift of John Tait to left tackle, and the return of guard Ruben Brown, and the trap-blocking linesmen worked so well together they even overcame a midseason off-the-field fight between Miller and combative center Olin Kreutz–he of the anxiously twiddling fingers presnap. The defense returned to form with the return to health of Brown, Charles “Peanut” Tillman, and Brian Urlacher, who was named the league’s defensive player of the year, and the ascension of tackle Tommie Harris to star status.

So sure, the Bears twice gave up an easy touchdown to Carolina (once on the second play from scrimmage) when they were caught out of their usually reliable “cover-two” deep defense and a cornerback, first Tillman and then Chris Thompson, fell down. And defensive coordinator Ron Rivera never did find a way to stop Panthers receiver Steve Smith, who scored both those touchdowns. And it took offensive coordinator Ron Turner until late in the first half to come up with a way to attack the Panthers defense. Grossman’s potential clearly had gone to Turner’s head, and he was eschewing the run, though that’s what the Bears have traditionally relied on. Overall, Lovie Smith’s mellow approach produced a team that simply wasn’t ready to play, which was the case with Jauron’s team four years ago.

Yet there were moments in the Panthers game to stir a fan’s heart, such as Urlacher’s athletic interception, when he leaped to pluck the ball one-handed out of the air. And Grossman and wide receiver Bernard Berrian looked like a combination that will pair up often in the years to come.

The Bears have almost all their starters committed to multiyear contracts, giving them an opportunity to develop continuity that’s rare in the age of parity. They have much more promise than Jauron’s lightning-in-a-bottle 2001 team. Because injuries and other uncertainties can hobble the most promising young team, the Bears need to ask the Cubs about the dangers of coming close and settling for thoughts of next year. But remember–few expected this year’s Bears to even finish with a winning record. I fully intend to enjoy this club come what may and hope they win an NFL title sometime in the next five years. If they don’t, the 25th anniversary of the 1985 championship team will be, yes, unbearable.

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