Moving from baseball to football, as hockey and basketball begin to percolate, one is struck to discover that the source of continuity among sports these days is an almost universal revilement of owners. The Bears’ Michael McCaskey is regarded as a cheapskate and blamed for many of the team’s woes, as is the Tribune Company for the Cubs’ and Jerry Reinsdorf for the White Sox’. The Blackhawks run true to form, with widely hated Bill Wirtz blamed increasingly for the team’s poor fortunes. The departure of Jeremy Roenick and the Hawks’ inability to sign even his relatively low-budget replacement, Alexei Zhamnov, during the off-season only confirmed that belief.
Reinsdorf, however, in a most noteworthy seasonal transition–no mere oak tree manages anything like his change of colors–is considered the almost benevolent owner of the Bulls, though he’s given little credit for the team’s success. (That goes to Michael Jordan or Phil Jackson or, begrudgingly where most people are concerned, to Jerry Krause.) We’ve always believed that it is hard work to be an athlete, but we are increasingly coming to the point of view that it is also hard work to be an owner in these overexposed, media-savvy times.
Yet one thing tempers our sympathy: the knowledge that athletes are rich and make their money off their own labors, while owners are rich and make their money off the labor of athletes.
Baseball owners have been in the spotlight because of the sport’s labor woes, but sticking to the action on the field, no other sport seems to call for strong ownership the way football does. The sport’s most recent dynasties, in fact, have been dynasties of ownership, not of coaches. Bill Walsh and Jimmy Johnson might have built dynasties with the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, but they did so with the aid of strong owners, Edward DeBartolo and Jerry Jones, and when the coaches went off on their own it was the owners who saw to it that the dynasties were maintained. Walsh’s former assistant George Seifert may be an excellent coach who would have won anywhere with the proper financial backing, but that’s debatable. And no team argues as forcibly for the influence of the owner as Dallas, which became Super Bowl champion earlier this year in spite of the efforts of its coach. Jones put so much talent on the sideline, not even a bonehead like Barry Switzer could mess it up.
Where the Bears figure in all this is that McCaskey, while likely to receive much of the credit for the team’s successes–if any–also gets much of the blame for its failings, which right now are numerous. This is because coach Dave Wannstedt was McCaskey’s handpicked choice to replace Mike Ditka–one of the last legacies of “Papa Bear” George Halas, the former owner and coach who was McCaskey’s father-in-law–and last year received a contract extension into the next century though he remained a largely unproven talent as a National Football League coach. This is because McCaskey, while loosening the purse strings a little to sign a player like Bryan Cox during the off-season, has been loath to try the innovative schemes to circumvent the salary cap that have made Jones a god in Texas and anathema everywhere else. This is also because of the team’s supposedly inferior practice facilities, as well as McCaskey’s ineffectiveness at hardball politics where a new stadium is concerned.
Present-day pro football is an owner’s game like no other sport. So it says something about the Bears, awful as they have been this year, that McCaskey has dodged responsibility. To be sure, ultimately the fault is his, because Wannstedt is his man and the guy who assembled this team. Yet Wannstedt has received the lion’s share of the blame for the Bears’ 2-5 start, and his miserable, worried, clueless look on the sideline has come to epitomize the season. Wannstedt was Jimmy Johnson’s defensive assistant, the guy brought over from the Cowboys to remake the Bears in their image. Instead, he has led a return to mediocrity.
In hindsight, Wannstedt set himself up for punishment when he said during training camp that “all the pieces are in place” for the Bears to make a run at the Super Bowl. The beat reporters covering the Bears greeted this with the newspaper equivalent of a guffaw. Clearly, the Green Bay Packers had improved themselves more during the off-season and were much stronger than the Bears to begin with, and the Bears also shared their division with playoff-worthy teams in Minnesota and Detroit. As the Bears stumbled through the preseason Wannstedt’s words were flung back at him in print, and though the opening Monday-night win over the Cowboys silenced the critics for a week, losses to the Washington Redskins, the Minnesota Vikings, and the Detroit Lions followed in quick succession. It also turned out that a win over the Cowboys was not the thing to brag about that it would have been a year ago. (In spite of Jones’s best efforts, Dallas suffered a hemorrhage of free agents during the off-season.) The Bears salvaged a comeback win at home against the Oakland Raiders before losing large to the Packers, and last weekend blew a 17-7 halftime lead to lose in New Orleans against the Saints. All the pieces were in shambles, the Bears in greater disarray than they’d ever been under Ditka.
McCaskey could be excused for being a poor judge of talent; after all, didn’t Wannstedt fool us all into thinking he was a good coach in his first few seasons? It was Wannstedt’s questionable choice of talent that became the issue as the Bears’ season went down the tank. His decision to let Jeff Graham go in favor of Michael Timpson proved wrongheaded, and when tight end Keith Jennings went down with an injury Ryan Wetnight likewise proved an inferior replacement. (Wetnight’s failure reopened an old wound, as Jennings was a holdover from the Ditka days, a large, soft-handed tight end who had once been cut by Wannstedt; injuries forced his return, and he then reclaimed his spot as a starter.) These were just two instances. A fan could easily doubt Wannstedt’s wisdom in picking Dave Krieg, the NFL’s all-time fumbles leader (TV announcers assert it’s because he has small hands for a quarterback), as a backup to Erik Kramer, as well as half a dozen other personnel moves. And it hasn’t helped Wannstedt that the Indianapolis Colts got off to a strong start with a team made up largely of ex-Bears. (Local sports-radio hosts have taken to calling them the Indianapolis Bears.) Throughout the first few weeks, Wannstedt kept insisting that the team just had to “make plays.” Yet it takes players to make plays, and by the time of the Packers’ rout it was obvious to analyst John Madden that the Bears didn’t have the players to compete with the NFL’s best teams.
Madden was unwilling to grant the Bears their best and most persistent excuse: a rash of injuries. Kramer missed the Green Bay game with a career-threatening neck injury, fullback Raymont Harris also was sidelined, and halfback Rashaan Salaam played still hobbled with hamstring problems (midway through Salaam’s second year, he had yet to play a down with Harris, the team’s starting fullback–in theoretical terms on the depth chart, anyway). Cornerback Donnell Woolford was out, and his fellow cornerback Walt Harris, a talented rookie brought in specifically to address the Bears’ shortcomings at that position, was suffering from “turf toe,” an injury brought on by playing on artificial turf. Chris Zorich was missing from the defensive line, as was Jim Flanigan, thus exposing the Bears to the run. So, sure, the Bears were without some players, but Madden pointed out that all teams suffer injuries and the good teams find ways to prevail. The Bears weren’t close to prevailing; they couldn’t even look decent in defeat.
They suffered their worst loss of the Wannstedt era against the Packers, clearly one of the best teams in the league this year. Last Sunday, however, the Bears didn’t have the players to compete against mediocrity. The 2-4 Bears went up 17-7 at halftime against the 1-5 Saints on the strength of a Krieg-to-Curtis Conway touchdown pass (on a nifty hitch-and-go pattern, complete with a Krieg pump fake) after a New Orleans fumble, and a touchdown in the final two minutes on a drive well executed by Krieg. Yet the Saints came out rumbling in the second half. They marched over the Bears’ defense for a field goal, and followed that with a touchdown on a pass over Harris.
Harris was suffering typical rookie problems in that his play was impressive but erratic. With the Bears blitzing, he knocked down a critical third-down pass on the Saints’ opening second-half drive to force them to settle for the field goal. As good as that play was, however, that’s how bad Harris looked on the following touchdown, a pass he got turned around on and didn’t come close to stopping.
Rookie mistakes are to be expected. The most demoralizing element of the Bears’ loss to the Saints was the way both the offensive and defensive lines were manhandled. Time and again, the Saints’ Ray Zellars rumbled off tackle for big gains, and the Bears didn’t come close to stopping him. In the end, the Saints amassed over 400 yards of offense (about half that is a good performance by the defense), with half of the total in running yards, almost all of it from Zellars. On the other side of the ball, the Bears continued their attempt to go the entire 1996 season without scoring a touchdown on the ground.
Somehow (sheer New Orleans stupidity comes to mind) the Bears got the Saints to bite on a play-action pass that opened Conway deep, and Krieg hit him in stride for a 53-yard bomb that made it 24-17. The Saints marched right back but turned the ball over. A Chicago punt later they marched back again, this time all the way, Zellars finishing with a touchdown run on third and goal from the three-yard line.
After the Green Bay debacle Cox had berated the team for a lack of heart; this time, at least, they showed some. The Bears drove into New Orleans territory, with the big play a gutsy third-and-short play-action pass to Wetnight (at last a “play,” though the ball was almost dropped by the wide-open tight end). Then turning cautious, the Bears decided to settle for a go-ahead field goal from 32 yards out; and newly acquired Jeff Jaeger, who’d won the Raiders game, missed his first kick since joining the team. In response, the Saints ran Zellars off tackle for a couple of big chunks of yardage before the Bears’ defense stiffened to force a 54-yard field-goal attempt. But Doug Brien made it, and Krieg fumbled the ball away on the Bears’ final possession to seal the defeat.
Through it all, Conway has seemed the only offensive player talented enough to play on a Super Bowl contender. The defense has been generally woeful, but at least Cox has been a vision there, flying after ballcarriers, clogging up the middle, dealing out punishment whenever and wherever possible. If he hasn’t exactly been a Mike Singletary or a Dick Butkus, he has at least rekindled memories of the way those two functioned on mediocre Chicago football teams. Wannstedt and McCaskey got one right in the off-season.
Thus, a simple correction: instead of “all the pieces” being in place, two of the pieces are now in place. That state of affairs does not offer much support for the owner and his coach.