Regular readers of this column know how loath I am to get to the Bears before the end of the baseball season. Not only do I find the idea of football in July–when training camp begins–utterly intolerable, I don’t even like the idea of football in September. If the Cubs and White Sox are still playing, the Bears can wait. In fact, the Bears can usually wait until after the World Series. This season, however, demands a different approach. The fifth year of the Dave Wannstedt administration finds the Bears spinning their wheels. There is little doubt that they are a worse team now than the team Wannstedt inherited from Mike Ditka (a haunting presence we’ll soon return to). They failed to make the playoffs last season yet were cursed with a punishing schedule this year, especially in the opening weeks. On Sunday I made time to sit down with the Bears, knowing that if I didn’t their season could be over before I got to them.
Their season is now over anyway. Not only will the Bears have to wait until after the World Series for me to make time for them again, they’ll have to wait behind the Blackhawks. Once the Bulls get started in November the Bears won’t begin to figure in my sporting schedule. The Bears, the most popular franchise in town only a few years ago, are in danger of becoming a Chicago nonentity.
The season got off to an inauspicious start with the latest in a series of humiliating losses to the Green Bay Packers, this one in front of a national Monday-night TV audience. If there’s one thing the Bears players and their fans both hate, it’s losing to the Pack; the rivalry is the longest and most storied in the National Football League. Fifteen-point underdogs, a spread they may have used to psych themselves up, the Bears came out playing with intensity at Lambeau Field, and after allowing the Pack to draw first blood with a field goal took the lead with a touchdown. What’s more, it looked as if the breaks might run the Bears’ way: when holder Todd Sauerbrun muffed the snap on the point-after attempt, he rolled out and, as he was tackled, lobbed an underhand pass–more a 16-inch-softball pitch, really–to Jim Flanigan for an unplanned two-point conversion. (The son of a former Green Bay player, Flanigan is one of the few Bears who have played well consistently against the Pack.) The Bears’ defense kept the vaunted Green Bay offense under control until Chicago quarterback Erik Kramer threw an interception that jump-started the Packers, setting up a touchdown and two-point conversion that put them back in front. The Bears tied the game with a field goal late in the first half, but Green Bay scored another touchdown before halftime to crush the Bears’ spirit. That’s what good football teams do, as any fan of the Bears of a decade ago can attest, and the defending NFL champs are a darn good–if not downright splendid–football team. The Packers added a couple of field goals in the third quarter, then a touchdown early in the fourth, and it took all the Bears’ luck–and a wonderful long run for a touchdown by Raymont Harris–for Chicago to cover the spread with a 38-24 final.
The mid-80s Bears haunt the current team the way the antebellum South haunts the characters in Faulkner. That was a team of character, a team of courage, a team, above all, of great ability, and if coach Mike Ditka is largely to be blamed for the fact that those Bears never returned to the Super Bowl after their victorious 1986 trip, that hasn’t kept him from being the most monstrous and persistent visage of past glories in the eyes of the current Bears. After years serving as a network-TV football analyst and as a weekly guest on a local radio show, Ditka has returned to the sidelines this season as coach of the New Orleans Saints. In July, when the Bears camp usually pushes the Cubs and Sox from the head of the city’s sports coverage, the Bears instead had to compete with reports from Ditka’s first Saints training camp, likewise taking place in Wisconsin. WGN-AM and WCIU-TV Channel 26 soon picked up his weekly radio and TV shows for the Chicago audience. This Ditka renaissance has no doubt been an irritant–sometimes acknowledged, more often not–to the Bears and especially to Wannstedt.
The Saints’ fortunes may not be brighter than those of the Bears this season–they too have started 0-2–but one gets the impression from Chicago fans that that’s irrelevant. As anyone who remembers the Abe Gibron era of the 70s well knows, Bears fans are much happier with a team of cantankerous, hard-hitting if untalented characters like Doug Plank than they are with namby-pamby “west coast offense” types who are content to trade touchdowns with the opponent. The traditional rough-and-tumble personality of the Bears defense seems concentrated in one man these days–middle linebacker Bryan Cox–and it has proved an inhuman concentration. (Cox was taken out of the Green Bay game after three straight personal fouls.) Yet beyond aesthetic preference, fans are leery of the current Bears because of their sheer lack of ability and football acumen. Five years into the Wannstedt regime, the Bears are a bad team, and Wannstedt is providing his own proof of the Peter Principle. That’s a business-oriented theory Bears owner Mike McCaskey should know something about. Unfortunately, to recognize it in Wannstedt he is going to have to recognize that he made a mistake in hiring him in the first place. For someone who refuses even to see the logic of the Bears staying downtown in a refurbished Soldier Field, that’s a tall order indeed.
Yet Wannstedt’s shortcomings have become increasingly obvious. The Bears again started strong in their home opener Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. They survived a couple of early mistakes without losing their heads. Rashaan Salaam–he of the too small hands–fumbled early on, but the defense pushed the Vikings out of field goal range with a big third-down sack. The very next Chicago play from scrimmage went to Salaam, a daring, confidence-boosting call that would soon pay dividends–before exacting a costly price. (Of course, it doesn’t take much to look “daring” on a team that habitually gives the ball to Raymont Harris–either on a draw play or a flare pass–on third down and long yardage.) When Sauerbrun, who runs a close second to Salaam as the Bears’ most erratic high draft pick of the Wannstedt era, made his second bad punt of the first quarter, the Vikes marched back for a field goal and a 3-0 lead. But Kramer executed a 12-play drive, with Salaam making a couple of nice runs and the series finishing with an end around on third and long. It didn’t get the first down but it was a genuinely daring call, and it put kicker Jeff Jaeger inside the magic 40-yard mark for a field goal attempt he would convert to tie the score. After an interception Kramer again drove the Bears downfield. Having drawn the Vikes’ defensive backfield up toward the line of scrimmage with a relentlessly conservative array of plays–all trap runs and quick-slant passes–he hit Ricky Proehl on what looked to be a stop and go, and Proehl ran it in for a 25-yard touchdown to give the Bears a 10-3 lead at halftime.
The most damning aspect of the Bears’ play over the first two games–at least where Wannstedt is concerned–was the way the opponent made halftime adjustments the Bears weren’t able to counter. Like the Packers, the Vikings rolled up most of their yardage in the second half, and they quickly indicated what was in store by driving for a field goal to make it 10-6. Then Salaam committed a second fumble–this time the ball squirted up out of his hands to be plucked out of the air by Orlando Thomas and run into the end zone for a 13-10 Minnesota lead. On Chicago’s next play from scrimmage Harris worked out of a one-back set, which the Bears maintained for most of the rest of the game.
Still, the Bears soon put together another good drive. Kramer completed five of seven passes for 52 yards on the possession, finishing on a post pattern to Bobby Engram that put the Bears back up, 17-13. The Vikings drove right back, scoring on a pass to Jake Reed, who had Walt Harris (yet another of Wannstedt’s erratic top picks) so fooled on a stop and go–complete with a pump fake by quarterback Brad Johnson–that Harris pretty much dug a hole in Soldier Field to bury his head in as Reed pulled in the pass. That made it 20-17 Vikes.
The Bears drove to third down and one at midfield and made another “daring” call–a trap to the lone back, Harris. Tame as that play might have been, just as in the Green Bay game Harris burst through a hole, past everyone at the line of scrimmage, and into the clear. He romped 59 yards for a score that put the Bears up 24-20 midway through the fourth quarter. It appeared that, finally, the Bears’ luck might outweigh their inferiority.
“Can Bears stop Carter and Reed?” I jotted in my notebook, and the anxiety was well placed. Johnson threw again and again to Reed and Cris Carter–they finished with 12 and 9 catches on the day–usually to whoever was being guarded by Walt Harris. The Vikes drove to first and goal, but Carter missed a one-handed catch in the end zone, the Vikes committed a costly penalty (negating a touchdown), and Flanigan made a terrific sack, pushing the Vikes beyond the 40-yard mark for a field goal. Greg Davis missed the attempt. But then the Bears were three and out with a cautious series, and the Vikes got the ball back with plenty of time for another drive.
Johnson to Carter, Johnson to Reed–whoever Harris guarded–was it them or was it the defender? The answer came on the winning Minnesota score, a pass to none other than Chris Walsh, guarded by Harris. Or was it Wannstedt’s fault? That final Minnesota score found Harris playing eight yards off Walsh, even though Minnesota had the ball inside the Bears’ 10. Harris, in short, was in a defensive scheme that had him just inside the Bears’ goal line on a play the Vikings had to score on to win. Walsh ran straight at him, cut to the outside–without Harris even touching him–caught the ball, and tumbled over the goal line. The Bears’ defensive coordinator, Bob Slowik, later accepted the blame for sending in the wrong defense.
There isn’t enough blame to go around for a loss like that–but there soon will be. The Bears have a hellacious schedule that finds them playing their third division rival this weekend–the Detroit Lions here at home–followed by road games against the Super Bowl-contending New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys. That’s just a warm-up for a home game against Ditka and the Saints in front of a national cable-TV audience, followed by the Pack at home, the Dolphins in Miami, the Washington Redskins back in Chicago, and the Vikings in Minnesota. It’s not out of the question that the Bears could be 0-10 by then, and that would still leave two games against up-and-coming division rivals the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It doesn’t take much to see that Wannstedt’s future–just as if he were a college coach–will come down to one game, the big sudden rivalry with Ditka and the Saints. If he loses that game–and he has already lost to Ditka in the preseason–he’ll be toast. Not even McCaskey will be able to rationalize that one. McCaskey, however, might be able to gloat over one noteworthy achievement: After getting Nike to sponsor the Bears in exchange for putting its trademark swoosh on their uniforms, McCaskey might be able to charge Nike double to take it off.