Driving back to Chicago after Christmas, I stopped at a fast-food restaurant in the suburban outskirts and looked up from my burger to see a kid standing in line wearing a number 8 Cade McNown Bears jersey. There was this season’s Bears resurgence in a nutshell; while 34 Walter Payton jerseys and 51 Dick Butkus jerseys are fashion fixtures around here, it’s been a while since a local kid has wanted to wear the jersey of an active Bear. McNown, however, has a puckish playing personality kids can identify with. There’s the name, for one thing; it has quarterback star quality, the same way “Brett Favre” does. In addition, McNown has beady eyes, a pug nose, and a penchant for wearing his Bears cap backward on the sidelines, all of which make the rookie from UCLA seem even more like a kid. On the field he has a scrappy, scrambling style, and he’s left-handed, which makes him pleasantly unpredictable by definition. He was all of this at the beginning of the year, of course, but the turning point–what emboldened that kid to wear his McNown jersey out in public–was the big game against the Detroit Lions with two weeks left in the season.

McNown was the team’s top draft pick last year. New coach Dick Jauron nursed him along, which is how rookie quarterbacks must be treated, but he also took the unconventional tack of inserting him into the action for one series each week, just to give him a taste of the National Football League. This policy was widely criticized, but in hindsight it couldn’t have worked out much better–for the Bears or for McNown. Shane Matthews was the starter at the beginning of the season, but his temperament was placid enough and Jauron’s rationale convincing enough that McNown’s little auditions never seemed to bother him. As a result, when Matthews went down with an injury McNown wasn’t inserted into the starting lineup cold. His first go-round as a starter couldn’t exactly be called a success, but it wasn’t an embarrassment either. When McNown joined Matthews on the injured list, third-stringer Jim Miller came in and proved to have more zip on his throws and more on-field savvy than either. Yet he too was lost to the team, running afoul of the NFL’s drug rules by using a taboo fitness supplement. By that time the Bears were all but out of the playoff race–though they’d surprisingly reestablished respectability–making it an appropriate time to give McNown more experience as the starter. And because the Bears were enjoying a late-season bye, Jauron and offensive coordinator Gary Crowton had an extra week to prepare McNown for the Lions. The result was a game full of big plays and excitement–and the Bears’ first dominating victory in years. Oh, they had occasionally scabbed out with a lucky win against a better team in the Dave Wannstedt years; but against the Lions, a team then atop the rough-and-tumble Central Division, they controlled the play on offense and defense and won convincingly, 28-10. It was a game to give a Bears fan hope for the future.

The game’s key element was the linking up of McNown with wide receiver Marcus Robinson, who in his second year in the league established himself as a graceful, leaping receiver of the sort the Bears have never had. The Bears have had possession receivers like Johnny Morris, Dick Gordon, and Dennis McKinnon, and even speed burners like Willie Gault and Curtis Conway, but never a player who could go up into the air and get the ball the way Robinson can. Like Lynn Swann, Robinson has a sense of balance and of where the ball is that makes his play a thing of beauty. He also senses where the sideline is, displaying athletic intelligence. Most important to Bears fans, he is willing to catch the ball in traffic, on a quick slant or a screen, and take the punishment to get a few extra yards. With McNown simply throwing the ball to places where Robinson could go up and get it against shorter defensive backs, the two of them provided the Bears with most of the team’s big plays and much of its yardage on the day. They were a promise of better things in the years to come.

The question now is whether McNown and the Bears live up to that promise. The development of young quarterbacks is notoriously difficult to predict. While McNown’s pluck and derring-do sometimes arouse memories of Favre–which is why Mark Hatley, the Bears’ director of player personnel, drafted him–more often than not they just seem rash and lead to interceptions, a problem that afflicted him the last two games of the season. McNown doesn’t have the zip on his passes that Favre does, though Joe Montana and Fran Tarkenton, to name a couple of scrambling passers, certainly did more with less. Will McNown develop their savvy at reading defenses and making astute decisions? Is it best to throw him into the fire as the starter next season or nurse him along for another year? These are the dicey questions facing Jauron. The best situation would probably be for Miller to return to the team as the starter, with McNown learning on the sidelines for a second season and Matthews adding insurance as a third-stringer (a role he seems suited for). But that requires Miller to re-sign with the Bears as a free agent this off-season, and also to have told the truth about the supplement, rather than having added arm strength through means that may yield diminished results over time (i.e., steroids).

And it’s best to remember that the Bears did end the season a humbling 6-10, even if they surprised by establishing respectability early and even impressing from time to time later on. The same newspaper writers who groaned about their failure to make the playoffs were saying before the season began that they’d be lucky to win more than three games, which shows just how far the team came this year (far enough to encourage kids to not only buy but wear McNown jerseys). Yet at the end of the year, the Bears still had glaring problems on both the offensive and defensive lines. The offensive line could never open holes big enough for Curtis Enis, who remains an enigma. (Will the powerful running back who came out of Penn State two years ago regain his quickness and strength after a year recovering from knee surgery, or is he simply the soft, easily tackled, Playgirl-centerfold-posing runner that he seemed to be for most of this season?) On defense, the continued development of Barry Minter–a new, more mobile breed of man in the middle for the Bears, who are used to hardier types like Butkus and Mike Singletary–alongside quick, lithe rookie Warrick Holdman gave the Bears a crack linebacking crew. But troubles persisted in the secondary, troubles that would be lessened if they could pressure the opposing quarterback now and then. (Recall my favorite quote from an NFL coach, Bill Walsh’s edict that a pass rush late in the game is the key to winning in pro football.)

If the Bears could add a stud offensive guard and a pass-rushing defensive end in the draft, they would be instant playoff contenders. Unfortunately, their 6-10 record is not quite bad enough to give them the pick of the litter in those areas, and the NFL salary cap complicates improving via free agency. Hard as it was this season to take those first steps toward respectability, from here on the road only gets harder as expectations increase.

Even so, this season the Bears reminded Chicago that this is still their town. Michael Jordan’s ESPN coronation as athlete of the century notwithstanding, the Bears are the team the city most glories in–even a baseball fan like me has to admit that–and the local sports scene is notably diminished when they’re not worth watching. This team is a far cry from the Monsters of the Midway of the 80s or the 40s, but it has the look of something fans can take pride in–to the point of again wearing their hearts on their sleeves and now their McNown jerseys on their backs, with 88 Robinson jerseys surely soon to come.