The Bears have been an unusually difficult team to get a grip on this year. Though they embarked on the season optimistic about making the playoffs, optimism soon turned to despair. Yet if the Bears and their fans were despairing, they weren’t hopeless. While compiling a record of 4-11 going into this weekend’s final game, the Bears nevertheless put together victories in Green Bay against the Packers and at home against two legitimate Super Bowl contenders, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts. They also posted a less stunning but overall more impressive victory over the New England Patriots two weeks ago, when for one game it all came together.

Yet what exactly is “it all”? The Bears defense was better than it had been in recent seasons but it was hardly the team’s defining element, not the way it had been in the Abe Gibron days and the early years of Mike Ditka’s regime. And despite the startling performance of Shane Matthews against the Pats, the Bears offense was even mushier than the defense. This was not the wide-open, west-coast offense Dave Wannstedt had Erik Kramer running in a desperate attempt to save his coaching reputation. For most of the season it looked downright inept. No, the Bears were ending the season an even more ill-defined and fogbound bunch than they’d begun it.

The team’s shifting fortunes have been reflected by the divergent paths traced by their two highest-profile players: Cade McNown and Brian Urlacher. McNown began the season as the player to watch, a young quarterback pressed into service perhaps prematurely but as the hope for the future. Urlacher, by contrast, began the season on the bench, but as McNown went bust he emerged as a legitimate heir to Chicago’s long line of distinguished middle linebackers and became the sign of hope. The two are ending the season as the Bears’ version of the masks of comedy and tragedy–one renowned for his “goofy grin” while the other, despite possessing all the attributes Bears fans usually love in a player, has been labeled a loser.

As a punky quarterback in the town that nurtured the original “punky QB,” Jim McMahon, McNown would seem a natural Chicago favorite. He has the short hair and upturned nose of a lifelong brat and an off-field reputation to match, from his part in a plot to abuse handicapped-parking permits during his college days at UCLA to recent reports of his stealing one of Hugh Hefner’s favorite Playboy bunnies during a visit to “the mansion” in Los Angeles and spiriting her off to Mexico. There have been myths built up around Chicago quarterbacks from McMahon back to Billy Wade, and even a skeptic must admit that McNown’s capers show an innate intelligence and a courage bordering on stupidity that ought to serve a player well on the football field. Yet sport is unforgiving: win and those stories become myths, lose and they’re evidence of serious character flaws. McNown has lost, and his return to the lineup for last Sunday’s penultimate game of the season, in San Francisco against the 49ers, cemented a sorry reputation. Where the week before a borderline pro like Matthews had run the Bears offense like a nervy stock car driver behind the wheel of a purring machine, at one point completing a team-record 15 straight passes in leading the Bears to their 24-17 win over New England, under McNown’s direction the same machine sputtered to a halt. Once again victimized by dropped passes, poor blocking, inopportune penalties, and his own abundant miscues, all frequent problems earlier in the year and now aggravated by the ‘Niners’ array of blitzes, McNown never once drove the Bears beyond midfield as they fell 17-0 in a game even more one-sided than the score would indicate.

With McNown dragging the team down fast, it’s no wonder fans have seized on Urlacher as the sign of what must be better days to come. I realize I’ve focused on him every time I’ve written about the Bears this season, but this is no time to stop. Urlacher’s performance has diminished a little toward the end of the year, no doubt under the exhaustion of his first 16-game pro schedule and the increased attention opponents have devoted to him, but he still gets off a hit or two a game that find him rising from the pile with that already infamous grin on his face. What is amazing about Urlacher is that, as good as he’s been this year, all signs indicate he’ll soon be even better. He is fit as can be, but he hasn’t yet put on the bulk that will serve him better as a middle linebacker. (Dick Butkus arrived from the University of Illinois carrying baby fat and only later grew into the broad-shouldered, thin-waisted bull he was in his prime.) Yet it’s worth pointing out that in the National Football League a young, inexperienced defensive player has it all over an offensive player with the same faults–especially in a town as traditionally defense-oriented as Chicago. Dick Butkus thrived for years on abysmal teams but he never took any blame for the losses. Much the same way, Urlacher, for all his youthful mistakes, has avoided blame even for the defensive lapses, as when the ‘Niners’ Terrell Owens caught a record 20 passes in burning the Bears defensive backs.

That said, McNown played miserably on Sunday. When an offense goes that flat under a new quarterback’s direction it suggests he doesn’t have the respect of his teammates. Aside from McNown, head coach Dick Jauron deserves blame and he knows it. Give Jauron credit for being consistent this season: he said all along the team had to find out if McNown could play, and as soon as McNown was recovered from his midseason shoulder separation and had practiced an extra week, Jauron threw him back in to find out. At the end of only his second season, McNown is still raw by the standards of most NFL quarterbacks, and in hindsight it seems to have been clearly wrong to make him the starter at the beginning of the season; it would have been better for all concerned to go with Jim Miller. Now the pressure’s on Jauron. What do the Bears do now? Write McNown off and look elsewhere? Draft another quarterback and start anew? Keep throwing him out there in the hope he develops the mixture of rashness and discretion that has made the Packers’ Brett Favre so great? McNown looks a long way from being a Favre. If, upon the departure of perhaps overambitious offensive coordinator Gary Crowton to Brigham Young, the Bears suddenly looked more proficient against New England two weeks ago with the more conservative, run-oriented game plan of John Shoop, what does it say that, as the former quarterback coach, Shoop was in charge of McNown’s (nonexistent) development this year?

After beating New England, the Bears looked like a team that was straightening out its problems. Shoop’s emphasis on running the ball, controlling the clock, and keeping things simple suited the temperament of Bears fans and also the winter conditions at Soldier Field, where the team evidently will be playing for some time to come, now that the big stadium rehab has been approved downstate. Yet McNown came in Sunday and brought everything to a halt. The Bears have to find out if McNown can play, but at some point they also have to make a decision. Two years in the league may be too soon to decide about McNown, but wait another year and it may be too late to save Jauron. That’s the hopeless dilemma of being the Bears’ head coach. For now, Fox network football analyst John Madden may have put it best at the end of the game with the ‘Niners when he said, “The Bears look like a team that’s broken.” They may be broken past the point where just the right quarterback could fix them. Urlacher had better hurry up and get awfully good if he’s to offer fans, his teammates, and the coaching staff a diversion.

How bad a year was it for Chicago sports? Every local major franchise posted a losing record but the White Sox, who concluded their miracle first-place finish with a playoff flop. And consider that as Tiger Woods put together what could be called the greatest season in the history of professional golf with nine victories, three in major tournaments, and $9 million in earnings, his worst finish was his tie for 23rd in the Western Open at Cog Hill, where he’d previously won twice. The greatest active athlete on the planet enjoying his best season played his worst golf in Chicago. Coincidence?