Reggie Williams once came into the Chicago Stadium and lit the Bulls up for 36 or 40 points–some obscene number. The Bulls won, but on this night nobody they had could stop him, not even Scottie Pippen. Yet Williams never had a reputation as an explosive offensive player. He’d come out of Georgetown as a defensive specialist good on the dribble and with a decent midrange jumper, but he’d never developed the shooting touch it takes to become a reliable scorer in the NBA, where the interior defense is tougher and tends to push midsize players outside. At the time of his career game against the Bulls he was a journeyman with the Denver Nuggets.

But he’d just put together a streak of several good games, and when I asked Pippen afterward what had made the sudden difference in Williams’s play, he answered “confidence,” as if that were the most obvious thing. Because Williams thought his shots were going to go down he was playing with more initiative and his shots were going down.

As I watched the Bears plod through this most disappointing of seasons, I kept thinking about Williams and his sudden transformation–only in reverse. The Bears, to be sure, suffered numerous costly injuries this year, and some had a ripple effect on the team. The loss of Ted Washington made the defensive line susceptible to the run, which increased the linebackers’ workload, which when combined with minor injuries to the likes of R.W. McQuarters made the secondary susceptible to the pass. Voila: the defense so stingy during the Bears’ 13-3 season last year was suddenly a sieve. On offense, the line–already under reconstruction–likewise was shattered by small but significant injuries.

Yet those losses didn’t fully explain the Bears’ transformation from a Super Bowl contender (or so they seemed until they got drubbed in the playoffs by the Philadelphia Eagles) to the 3-9 team that lost last Sunday in Green Bay to the Packers. Plainly put, after the Bears blew a 21-0 lead in their third-week loss to the New Orleans Saints, they played like a team without confidence. As the losses mounted and their bad breaks seemed to multiply, they were coached without confidence as well. Perhaps the Bears could have salvaged their season–or at least what remained of their pride–by upsetting the defending Super Bowl champs, the New England Patriots, three weeks ago; but they blew the game on the field and on the sideline as well. The Bears played a marvelous game and built a big lead. Emboldened by some Bears miscues, the Pats rallied, but they still needed to score twice and time was running out. Then defensive coordinator Greg Blache called an ill-advised blitz on third and long. The Pats’ Tom Brady threw a bomb for a touchdown, and with the Bears’ offensive line unable to sustain a reliable ground game when it counted (that had been a hallmark of last year’s team), the Pats soon got the ball back and drove again for the winning touchdown.

Confidence can mask flaws–it did with the Bears last year–and when it evaporates it reveals them. Williams lost his shooting eye after that seemingly definitive outburst against the Bulls, and he was soon out of the NBA.

Last Sunday’s Bears-Packers game perfectly illustrated the role of confidence. The Bears were coming off a victory; and though it was over the woebegone Detroit Lions–playing with even less talent and confidence than the Bears, the Lions gave the game away at the end with bad execution and some even worse coaching decisions, such as the one to give the Bears the ball first in overtime–nonetheless it ended a franchise-record-tying eight-game losing streak. The Bears’ season was down the tubes, but like so many college games between archrivals, the trip to Lambeau Field gave the Bears a chance to redeem the season at a single stroke: many Bears fans would rather beat the Pack than reach the Super Bowl.

In the first half the Bears showed plenty of moxie. On the Pack’s first possession, blitzing Rosevelt Colvin swatted the ball out of the hands of quarterback Brett Favre, and the Bears recovered at the Packers’ 19-yard line. The Bears’ offense went nowhere–quarterback Jim Miller was obviously limited by the tendinitis in his throwing arm that had kept him from practicing–but then the Bears eschewed a first-blood field goal in favor of a fake. In marked contrast with a couple of other fakes earlier this season–disasters in design and execution–this one was perfect. First, the Bears put Brian Urlacher in motion from left to right; as it was supposed to, this set off alarms on the Green Bay side. With the snap the entire offensive line flowed to the right, as did holder Brad Maynard and kicker Paul Edinger on an apparent option play, but tight end Dustin Lyman went against the grain to the left. Maynard hit him with a shovel pass, and Lyman cut inside a stunned Green Bay player and into the clear, waltzing in for a touchdown that put the Bears up 7-0.

Favre, however, never seems to be without confidence, not even after back-to-back losses in which he threw seven interceptions. He marched the Pack right back, with the help of a 42-yard catch that saw safety Mike Green first lose track of Donald Driver, then miss the tackle by trying to take his head off. The Bears’ swarming defense held, forcing Green Bay to settle for a field goal. So the Bears led 7-3 at the end of the first quarter.

Miller, too, always seems to play with confidence even when there’s no apparent cause for it–his confidence was the key to many of the comeback victories last year, and even during the eight-game skid he had the Bears on the verge of victory two or three times before the breaks went against them at the end. He soon shook off the rust and found a rhythm, hitting several crossing patterns to wide receivers over the middle, underneath Green Bay’s zone defense, as the Bears returned to Packers territory. (Fox commentator Dick Stockton rightly called it a “hunt-and-peck” offense.) With fourth down and a yard to go and Edinger facing a long field goal, Chicago went for it instead. Again confounding expectations (and reflecting the lack of confidence in their offensive line), the Bears went with a play-action pass, but Miller had to scramble. Just as he was about to be tackled he found tight end John Gilmore open and hit him for a first down. In addition, the refs called a ticky-tack foul on the Pack for roughing the passer, so the ball wound up on the 11-yard line. Two plays later, Miller spotted Lyman waiting in the end zone like a bootlegger who’d crossed the county line ahead of the law, and hit him for a touchdown to make it 14-3.

Favre, as ever, kept the Pack in the game, leading them to a field goal, so the Bears were up by eight with a minute left in the half. But they declined to simply take that lead into intermission. They combined time-outs with draw plays to Leon Johnson, who’d replaced Anthony Thomas in the backfield because Thomas had a broken finger and because he was clearly running with more confidence anyway. But Johnson coughed up the ball at midfield. Favre now had a chance to give Green Bay more points with 22 seconds to go. He hit a pass, but an incompletion left the Pack outside field goal range with time for one more play. Favre hurled the ball toward the end zone and the Bears’ Damon Moore picked it off. Looking for someone to lateral it to on the old ladder play, Moore fumbled at midfield, but then a Packer did the same–this looked like a rugby game between drunkards, if that’s not a redundancy–and the Bears’ Roosevelt Williams plucked the ball out of midair with nothing but open field in front of him. If McQuarters had thrown a block on Green Bay receiver Javon Walker, Williams would have scored. As it was, Walker dragged him down. The Bears had not only kept the Pack from exploiting Johnson’s error but almost padded their lead. Nevertheless, the chaos left a bad feeling; cracks were showing in the Bears’ facade.

Those cracks widened as Favre led the Packers to a touchdown on their first possession of the second half. The Bears still led, 14-13, but they needed an answering score to regain the momentum. Miller almost produced it. He hit Dez White with an 18-yard pass, and Johnson, shaking off his fumble, had a couple of nice runs to move the Bears into field goal range. Then Miller gathered his resources for a long pass to Marty Booker in the end zone. It was ruled incomplete by a referee who seemed preoccupied with calling a pass-interference penalty against the Green Bay defender. Even so, the Bears had the ball at the one-yard line.

Here’s where the game changed. Coach Dick Jauron challenged the call on the field. Indeed, it did look as if Booker had picked the ball above the turf while being pushed down, but the refs ruled the replays weren’t convincing enough to overturn the call. Minutes had gone by. Which team would benefit from the break? An angry John Shoop, the Bears’ offensive coordinator, yelled to his players, “Let’s get this done!”–or so it seemed reading his lips on TV. But Miller fumbled the snap on the very next play, and the Packers recovered.

The TV coverage offered few replays of the moment. It looked as if a Green Bay lineman might have penetrated quickly enough to slap the ball away in the instant center Olin Kreutz was snapping it to Miller. Regardless, the fumble so crushed the Bears that the rest of the game almost isn’t worth recounting. Starting at his own one, Favre took the Pack 90 yards for a go-ahead field goal, at one point leading Terry Glenn with a perfect pass lofted where only Glenn could reach it, which he did with a full-out leaping grab for a big gain.

Miller got the Bears back into Green Bay territory, but then his arm came up short on a pass down the sideline that was intercepted. The defense held once, but when White coughed up the ball at midfield on the Bears’ next possession, Favre turned that into a touchdown to make the score 23-14. He was helped by some fine running from backup Tony Fisher, who provided fresh legs after Chicago nemesis Ahman Green went out with a twisted knee. By this time it was midway through the final quarter. Miller again rallied the Bears, but a third-down sack extended an Edinger field goal try to 52 yards, and he missed it badly. Starting on his own 42, Favre led the Packers to another TD, aided by another ticky-tack foul called on Mike Brown when he hit Fisher at the sideline. As the clock wound down, Miller brought the Bears back to midfield, and strong-armed backup Henry Burris came in to heave a pass toward the end zone. A Green Bay defender deflected the ball and Marcus Robinson grabbed it, but there was nothing confident about this–just desperate–and the TD merely made the final 30-20.

In baseball, the popular term for what makes a team successful is chemistry. In football they say, “Players make plays.” In all sports, winning produces winning–which is the story of last year’s Bears in a nutshell. The common denominator is confidence, something the Bears seem to lack–or, having obtained it briefly, relinquish at the slightest wave of opposition. The Bears should have beaten the Saints, which might have helped them prevail against the Buffalo Bills, and they should have won their first game at home against the Lions, and they should have held on to beat the Eagles and the Pats, all of which would make them 8-6 and on the verge of the playoffs, even with their injuries. Realizing this, however, only reduces their confidence further. It’s a vicious circle, and the only escape is to start over, which is what Chicago fans refer to as “next year.”