The moment that convinced me the Bears were for real this season no doubt prompted many fans to abandon all reservations. It was, of course, the fake field goal against the Washington Redskins two Sundays ago, so beautifully designed and executed it plays again and again in the mind’s eye. Brian Urlacher, the young middle linebacker who has come to epitomize the Bears’ new can-do excellence, tipped the team’s hand by going in motion from left to right as Paul Edinger prepared a 46-yard field-goal attempt. At the snap, holder Brad Maynard–who, like Urlacher, has had an excellent season in his proper role, as punter–rose with the ball and rolled right, with Edinger running wide in what looked like a college option play. Edinger, who has a kicker’s spindly body, wasn’t much of a threat, but he served as a fine decoy, drawing the defense up. Urlacher, meanwhile, ran past the onrushing defenders and into the clear. Maynard–on the run, looking like his number four Green Bay counterpart Brett Favre–delivered a soft spiraling ball that Urlacher latched onto with a little skip rhythm to get in step and ran in against minimal opposition. His career record remains perfect, for Urlacher caught six passes in college–all for touchdowns.
Yet it wasn’t just the beauty of the play and Urlacher’s involvement that made it memorable; it was the circumstances. The Bears, trying to stay in front of the Green Bay Packers in the National Football Conference’s Central Division, had looked vulnerable in Washington, as the Redskins at the time had playoff hopes of their own and were playing the Bears tough. In fact, they’d taken control of the game in the fourth quarter, seizing a 13-10 lead. The Bears were typically timid on offense, though they remained composed. And then coach Dick Jauron in one stroke dismissed all thoughts of timidity, rejecting a potential game-tying field goal to go for the win.
After that 20-15 victory, no one could say the Bears’ record was a fluke or that the team didn’t deserve its elevated place in the standings. Last Sunday’s win over the Detroit Lions made the Bears 12-3, with a single regular-season game left to play this weekend at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Before Urlacher’s touchdown, my favorite moment of the season had come in one of the Bears’ losses. In the second defeat at the hands of the Packers, there was a play in which Urlacher came on a delayed blitz. All afternoon, Favre had spun this way and that avoiding the Bears’ rush; this time he didn’t get a chance. The Packers’ pass blocking opened a lane and Urlacher burst through it at full speed. He closed so fast that all Favre could do was cover up the ball and take the hit. It was like watching some wild beast strike its prey on Animal Planet.
Urlacher doesn’t play with Dick Butkus’s ferocity or Mike Singletary’s intensity, but he has more speed than either, and he’s just as entertaining to watch. Oddly enough, this is especially true on artificial turf, which until now has never brought out the best in any Chicago football player–with the possible exception of Walter Payton. (That famous play where he came to a screeching halt, threw his weight backward at the shoulders, contorting himself wildly, and tore off in the opposite direction without even steadying himself by touching the ground would have been unthinkable on Soldier Field’s new sod.) As the WSCR radio host Dan Bernstein has pointed out, Urlacher is genuinely scary on turf–a high-performance vehicle operating under ideal conditions–and this offers the Bears their one hope should they meet the Saint Louis Rams in the playoffs.
With the Rams’ high-octane offense back at peak efficiency under quarterback Kurt Warner, it looks as if the road to the NFC championship and Super Bowl will go through Saint Louis. Urlacher and the rest of the Bears’ stingy defense would be sorely tested there. Yet this is a different Bears defense, one based on speed and quickness belied by the clunky-looking high-top shoes the Bears prefer. I think these Bears might actually be able to play with the Rams. The trouble is, they might not be able to play with the Packers or the San Francisco 49ers. The Bears would conceivably face one of these teams in the second round of the playoffs if they beat the Jaguars to clinch a bye (with the Rams) in the opening wild-card round.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves by worrying about the new year’s challenges; let’s sit back and appreciate what the Bears have achieved. Urlacher dominates the team’s public profile, especially nationally and even more so after his touchdown. Yet it’s become more and more apparent that even his success is due to the holistic approach of his team. He owes his freedom to roam to the monumental new defensive tackles Ted Washington and Keith Traylor, who stifle the run and put up a wall of flesh in the middle that allows not only Urlacher but also outside linebackers Warrick Holdman and Rosevelt Colvin to prowl with impunity. This prowling has allowed defensive coordinator Greg Blache to put together an array of blitzes that have not only made defensive ends Phillip Daniels and Bryan Robinson more effective but also minimized the shortcomings of cornerbacks Walt Harris and R.W. McQuarters. The corners have been aided by safeties Mike Brown and Tony Parrish, who also play roles in the blitz packages.
Urlacher is a flashy and impressive player, but the same was true last season, when the Bears stank. The difference this year is that the Bears are playing sound fundamental football. Even when the defensive backs get burned, they make tackles. The Bears probably allow fewer yards after the catch than any other team in the league. And on offense, the line–for all the cries of overcaution–does its job and blocks. My grandfather, a college football coach, used to say that football was a simple game: you’ve got to block and you’ve got to tackle. The simple truths of that philosophy have been borne out by this season’s Bears. They block, they tackle, and they don’t beat themselves. The detail lost in all the fuss over Urlacher’s razzle-dazzle touchdown is that the Bears didn’t commit a single penalty in that game until a bogus pass-interference call against backup safety Mike Green in the final two minutes (though he’d actually committed pass interference that wasn’t called on a couple other plays on the same drive). This performance clearly reflected the coaching staff’s devotion to fundamentals.
The Bears don’t have a cautious offense; they have an offense that takes what the opposing defense allows it. Against a team like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who played the Bears tight on the line of scrimmage to stop rookie running back Anthony Thomas, the Bears struck for long passes down the middle. The same was true Sunday in Detroit against the Lions, who were crushed 24-0. But a sturdy defense like the Redskins’ is apt to give the Bears fits. Then the Bears have trouble doing what they want to do–create their own shot, to borrow a basketball expression. Their offensive line has shown a strength and stamina that have enabled it to take over games late, but is that enough in the playoffs?
As I’ve said, with or without home-field advantage the Bears are in trouble against either the Packers or the Niners. Green Bay beat Chicago twice with an offensive line that opened gaping holes in the Bears’ usually run-resistant defense while Favre chewed them up in the air. If the Bears blitzed, Favre took advantage of single coverage; if not, he had abundant time to wait for his receivers to get open. The Niners, meanwhile, feel they’ve already beaten the Bears once in Chicago, though losing 37-31 in overtime on the first of Brown’s miraculous back-to-back game-winning interceptions returned for touchdowns.
None of this, of course, diminishes what the Bears have done so far. And with the NFL as crazy as it’s been this season, the Bears may find a way to sidestep both the Packers and the Niners. Of course, they first have to beat the Jags Sunday and clinch that week off. A loss that allows the Pack to claim the Central title and deprive the Bears of their week off would certainly tarnish the season. But it’s not going to happen. I’m a believer. This year is no fluke. In the end, the Bears have been both lucky and good.