The Bears just finished a season in which their two best players–Brian Urlacher and Rex Grossman–were out with injuries for weeks on end, making it difficult to gauge the first year of head coach Lovie Smith. After an upset win over the Minnesota Vikings to open December, the Bears flirted with the idea of making the playoffs, but they finished with four straight losses to close at 5-11. Smith established a reputation for calm leadership with the youngest team in the NFL; but then, calm leadership was exactly what management had rejected in firing coach Dick Jauron, who’d guided last year’s youngest team in the league to a 7-9 record. Had the Bears made any progress whatsoever? There were reasons for optimism, especially in light of the injuries–rehabilitation has combined with opportunistic draft picks to provide the stuff of many a Super Bowl contender–but the signs of progress were piecemeal and open to debate.

To begin with, a lot of Bears fans–who by the end of the season had gone from bitter disappointment to simple surliness–might dispute my choice of the two best players. Urlacher came under fire for missing games with a hamstring injury that nagged him from the first day of training camp and a calf injury that required surgery at midseason, but when he was blindsided by an article in the Sporting News calling him the most overrated player in the league–a shameless if successful bid for newsstand sales from a once-proud publication, the so-called bible of baseball–Bears fans were rightfully riled. No one knows Urlacher’s shortcomings better than they, and while they criticized him last year for soft play and this year for being injured, there’s little doubt of what a beast he is when healthy. The Bears didn’t win a game this season without him, which perhaps says more than any individual statistic can about his importance to the team and–more specifically–to the concept of team defense. With Urlacher the Bears’ defense functioned as a unit; without him it produced brilliant plays–most by the maturing defensive end Alex Brown and linebacker Lance Briggs, if not rookie Tommie Harris–but also cataclysmic collapses, most in the secondary.

By contrast, if Grossman can be labeled the Bears’ best offensive player, it’s by the process of elimination. The Bears won games without Grossman, but won them on defense. Their offense without him never functioned at anywhere near the level it did during the first two and a half games, before he blew out his knee leaping awkwardly for the end zone in Minnesota. In fact it set records for ineptitude. First with Jonathan Quinn (the Peter Principle incarnate where NFL quarterbacks were concerned), then with rookie Craig Krenzel, then journeyman castoff Chad Hutchinson, the Bears looked incompetent with the ball. Only running back Thomas Jones resembled a quality professional. The offensive line allowed a team record for sacks, including nine in Sunday’s finale at Soldier Field against the Green Bay Packers.

For better or worse, the Bears find themselves in the same basic position as their NBA counterparts, the Bulls. Both teams this fall had coaches in their first full seasons. Both teams have been rebuilding for years and have by now put together rosters full of promise largely unfulfilled. The Bulls’ is primarily offensive. Thanks to their skilled young perimeter players, if the Bulls get any kind of presence from Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler near the hoop they can be dangerous, as they showed recently when they ran off five straight wins–their longest streak since the Michael Jordan era. As of the start of this week, however, they carried a humble 10-17 record.

The Bears are a mirror image, with most of their skilled young players on defense. Urlacher, Briggs, and rookie Hunter Hillenmeyer–forced inside to replace Urlacher–make a good crew of linebackers. Brown and Harris look solid in the defensive line, especially when bolstered by Adewale Ogunleye. Rookie Ian Scott looks like a possible run blocker when he “fills out” at defensive tackle, and if Michael Haynes has never lived up to his billing as a first-round draft pick, he may yet solidify the line as a situational player who fills in at all positions. Like Urlacher, Charles “Peanut” Tillman suffered injuries this season, but he remains a tall and athletic cornerback, increasingly teamed opposite rookie corner Nathan Vasher as the season went on. If Mike Brown returns to form as a safety with a nose for the ball, the Bears will need only to find another safety and a nickel back–with Bobby Gray, Jerry Azumah, and perhaps R.W. McQuarters to pick from–to field a formidable defense.

That would allow them to concentrate their high draft picks on offense, and as woeful as the offense looked this season its weaknesses may turn out to be easily fixed. The Bears should first look to beef up the offensive line, where center Olin Kreutz is the only starter who really deserves to return. (The unfortunate result of the Bears’ late-season move toward respectable mediocrity in Jauron’s last season is that it cost them any shot at behemoth tackle Robert Gallery out of Iowa.) Offensive linemen are abundant coming out of college and relatively quick to adapt to the pro game, unlike “skill position” players like quarterbacks. The Bears might be hard-pressed to find a game-breaking receiver in the draft, especially if they spend their top choice on an offensive lineman, but decent receivers are widely available during the off-season and once the cuts begin to be made in training camp.

So I look at the Bears just as I look at the Bulls and insist that as bad as their record was they’re not that far from being an interesting team. (Sometimes, as with backyard rosebushes, one cuts away to encourage growth.) Bearing their future in mind, even frustrating losses like the penultimate defeat, in Detroit, had value. The Bears produced one of their typical defensive performances in that game, then seemed to steal a win at the end with a long touchdown pass from Hutchinson to rookie Bernard Berrian. But the pass was inexplicably ruled incomplete, even by the replay official, though those replays seemed to show Berrian had made the catch. It was the best of all possible worlds for the Bears, allowing them to claim a face-saving late-season victory, that didn’t show up in the wins column and thus cost them draft position.

But there was little if anything encouraging in Sunday’s home finale against the Pack. Wide receiver David Terrell, the “Michigan man” who’d already all but played and talked his way out of town, predictably had a good game just when the Bears were at their worst. His long catch on the Bears’ first possession, coming back for an underthrown ball from Hutchinson and scooting through the scattered Green Bay secondary, led to a first-blood touchdown by Jones. After that, however, the day belonged to the Packers and their quarterback, Brett Favre. Having clinched the NFL North Division title the week before with a comeback win in Minnesota, Favre led the Pack back with two quick scores–the Bears’ secondary seemed on premature vacation–before taking the rest of the day off midway through the second quarter. The Packers scored another TD on an interception return against Hutchinson, and then Green Bay’s Craig Nall showed Hutchinson how a backup quarterback is supposed to perform, throwing for another touchdown to make it 28-7 at the half. The Bears spent the entire second half considering going for it on fourth down, and after Hutchinson hit Berrian with a nice pass to convert a fourth down in Green Bay territory, another Jones touchdown cut the lead to 28-14. But Nall led the Packers right back for a momentum-quashing field goal, and that was the end of the scoring. Bears fans never got to see newly signed backup Jeff George (no matter what anyone thinks of him as a person, it’s inexcusable the Bears’ coaches never tried to find out if he had anything left on the field), but they did see once-ballyhooed tackle Marc Colombo. As admirable as it is that Colombo worked his way back from a career-threatening knee injury, he didn’t appear to be the answer. Lacking mobility, he allowed Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila to blow past him for four sacks. All afternoon KGB was like a kid speeding around a street corner into a soda shop.

Fans booed at the half and at the end of the game and after every timid play in between. It wasn’t the bitter, frustrated booing of Quinn’s first games earlier in the season, more a resigned, deep-seated booing over years of mediocrity. Offensive coordinator Terry Shea came in for a lot of it, and he was sacked as soon as the season ended. But he’d helped run a high-powered offense for years in Kansas City, and he didn’t become stupid just by moving to Chicago.

I prefer to think fans got a better idea of what this team and this coaching staff were capable of in the earlier game against the Packers, when the Bears went to Lambeau Field and, led by Grossman, pulled off an upset win in the second week. That win served only to build up unreal expectations. Even so, if the Bears could win one game with Grossman and four games on defense alone, it’s tempting to consider where their season might have gone had they had him all year. It’s worth noting that an 11-loss record earns the Bears an 11-loss schedule against the league’s patzers next season. So, as a way out of 2004 and into 2005, celebrate the Bears’ misfortunes; they looked so bad against the Packers that there truly is no place to go but up.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jonathan Daneil/Getty Images.