The Bears are a team in disarray, and have been since Mike Ditka diagnosed the problem a decade ago. The team got no better under Dave Wannstedt, and is now getting no better under Dick Jauron. This is a difficult state of affairs for Chicago sports fans, to whom the Bears–inexplicably, to my way of thinking–have always been of the utmost importance. Over the last ten years they have seen the Bears first drained of all character by Wannstedt and now drained of all passion by Jauron. Why bother caring anymore?

Why, indeed. My buddy Boom-Boom brought his brood by to watch Sunday’s Bears game, just as in the old days we’d gather–though back then we didn’t have broods, only hangovers–and we dutifully sat ourselves down while the kids entertained themselves. This is how the curse is passed from one generation to another: bore the children, deprive them of attention, and they’ll grow up to be Bears fans easily entertained on a Sunday afternoon. Yet it soon became apparent that the current Bears lack even the inept but lovable character of the Bears of our youth. The late-60s Bears had Dick Butkus and Doug Buffone, and the mid-70s Bears maintained that hard-hitting defensive pride in players like Doug Plank. They had Walter Payton too, it’s worth noting, who endured long enough to see the defense hardened and augmented with players like Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton, and Steve McMichael while the offense was fleshed out with the likes of Jim McMahon, Willie Gault, and Jimbo Covert. The result was the cocky shuffling crew of the 1985 championship season. Since then the Bears have seen their pride and character diminish, like the noteworthy qualities in some inbred European royal family. It was one thing to have Neal Anderson and Trace Armstrong become the team’s source of pride, quite another to have the Wannstedt era end with Barry Minter, Jim Flanigan, and Bobby Engram upholding the Bears tradition. Sunday, as the Bears finished the first half of the season at 1-7, it was difficult to identify anything for a fan to take pride in. The Bears, as ever taking on the personality of their coach, were faceless and passionless. At one point late in the game, with the Bears settling for a meaningless field goal that would make the final score 13-9 in favor of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Boomer lay back on the couch, closed his eyes, and said, “Wake me when I’m supposed to feel pain.”

This lack of any overriding sense of identity is why Bears fans have seized so fiercely on rookie Brian Urlacher as a source of pride, though he is but a nascent talent as a National Football League middle linebacker. The first to admit he has much to learn about the schemes of NFL offenses and defenses, Urlacher at this point is really little more than a natural. He came out of New Mexico, where they had him playing safety or what’s sometimes called roverback–a free-flowing defensive back with the job of running around and hitting people, preferably people carrying the football. This is a role anyone who remembers Doug Plank can relate to: Plank, with that great name that suggested someone who could lay the lumber, roamed the Bears’ secondary for much of the 70s with no clear purpose other than to clobber people. Urlacher, however, though slight by the standards of present-day linebackers, is much bigger than Plank ever was, thus the move to linebacker. His inexperience dictated putting him in the middle, where he has fewer assignments and responsibilities than he did on the outside, where the Bears played him in the preseason. As a middle linebacker, Urlacher isn’t as intimidating as Butkus was, and he isn’t as ferocious a hitter. Plainly put, current NFL rules don’t allow that sort of ferocity anymore (which is what the renegade XFL, arriving in Chicago in February, is all about, but I’ll leave that until then). And Urlacher isn’t as intense as Singletary. He is more like a big, romping puppy, and when he makes a good tackle he is apt to get up with a big, goofy smile, not with big eyes glaring out from the cage of his helmet. Yet Bears fans can also identify with the pure pleasure of playing and playing well, rare as it is on this team. Urlacher is incredibly fast for a big man, and when he runs down one of the current breed of mobile quarterbacks in the open field it is a thing of natural beauty not normally seen other than on the Discovery Channel.

Sunday he made some costly mistakes, and they allowed the otherwise equally inept Eagles to score what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown shortly before halftime. Urlacher got burned first by former Northwestern star Darnell Autry, who came out of the backfield on fourth and seven to catch a first-down pass deep in Bears territory, and then by tight end Jeff Thomason on a three-yard scoring pass. That was the bad news. The good news was that he not only extended his sack streak to six games–all six he has started–he also made what might have been a critical play late in the game. The Eagles, having thrown an interception resulting in the field goal that made the score 13-9, were playing cautiously. Needing the ball back, the Bears forced third down and seven yards to go, and the Eagles called an end run keeper for quarterback Donovan McNabb. The aim was simple: keep control of the ball, perhaps get the first down, but in any case take time off the clock. Urlacher pursued the play along the line of scrimmage, shot through an aperture between blocks, and not only tackled McNabb but blasted him out-of-bounds to stop the clock. The Eagles had to punt the ball, and the Bears got it back with more than a minute to play.

Yet what good is a play like that on a team like the Bears? What good was the preceding field goal, which left them still needing a touchdown? The Bears, having squandered two timeouts earlier in the half and burned the last to get in an extra play before the two-minute warning, came out after that final Philly punt and threw dinky passes over the middle, when longer passes over the middle or dinky passes to the sideline were called for. The Bears ran off several plays, but when time expired they were still shy of midfield. That’s just stupid; and the truly disconcerting thing was that like so many of the Bears’ errors this season, it wasn’t stupidity just on the field but also on the part of the coaching staff.

To be fair to Jauron’s staff, they did nothing to raise hopes for this team during the preseason, though they seemed truly to believe it would be better than last year’s 6-10 club. This wasn’t a case of falling down after proclaiming “all the pieces are in place,” the way Wannstedt did. Yet the coaches misjudged things in several areas. All late summer and into the fall they talked about improved team depth, but they weren’t a month into the season before they had no fullback and no tight end (and that’s after pressing a tight end into duty as a fullback when Curtis Enis went down with an injury). As it’s now all too easy to say, if Jauron truly believed the Bears had a shot at the playoffs he should have started Jim Miller and let Cade McNown learn on the bench. McNown soon established himself as an uncertain apprentice at the quarterback position. With his beady eyes and happy feet, he came off as the NFL equivalent of the gingerbread man, running around until the fox devoured him week after week. And Bears fans were no more likely to identify with Enis than with McNown–for the simple reason that they couldn’t identify which type of player Enis was from week to week or season to season: talented runner or fumble-prone flake, light-bodied scatback or heavy blocking back.

On Sunday, McNown, scrambling again, got rolled onto his throwing side, and the result was a separated shoulder that possibly ended his season. Those cheers heard all over the Chicago area came from Bears fans happy to see him join Enis on the sideline. But a best-case scenario for the fans, who wanted them both gone, was a worst-case scenario for Jauron and his coaching staff. They no longer had the inexperienced McNown and the flaky Enis as scapegoats. They had to go with Miller and James Allen and with the receiving core they’d claimed was so deep–which has turned out to be Marcus Robinson catching underthrown balls from whoever heaves them up. Earlier the Bears could say they were going through the growing pains that were required to acclimate McNown to the NFL. Certainly that was a defensible position once McNown himself had helped them to an 0-4 start. Now the coaches have to prove they know what they’re doing with the backup players they thought so much of. This is no longer McNown’s team–as if it ever was–it’s Jauron’s Bears and no one else’s.

There is no buffer and no excuses. Wake me when I’m supposed to feel pain.