New year, new coaches, new players–same old Bears.

Under new coach Lovie Smith, the Bears fell into the same aggravating rut they’d been in with Dick Jauron. They got off to an awful start, then salvaged some self-respect on the way toward what appears to be another mediocre finish–not good enough to make the playoffs, not bad enough to merit a top draft choice. After the Bears lost second-year quarterback Rex Grossman–the player they’d based their offense upon–in the third week of the season, they fell to 1-5. Yet they won at Soldier Field on Halloween night over the San Francisco 49ers and followed that with impressive road victories in New York over the Giants and in Tennessee over the Titans. At 4-5, and with so-called parity reigning over the National Football League, they were only a game behind the first-place Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, tied with the Detroit Lions in the NFC North. Even so, they hadn’t really beaten anyone of consequence, and Smith acknowledged before last Sunday’s game against the high-powered Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning that the Bears were “anxious” to see how they’d perform against a bona fide Super Bowl contender. If you were going to say you had the best defensive line in the league, as rookie tackle Tommie Harris had declared, or one of the best defenses in the league (their 159 points allowed in nine games was best in the division and third-best in the NFC), Smith felt you had to prove it against the league’s best offense.

When Smith said anxious no doubt he meant expectant, but he had it right in stressing the anxiety. Without middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who’d injured a calf in the previous game, the Bears’ defense was open to slashing, spinning runs up the middle by Edgerrin James, which gave Manning an extra option he didn’t need in order to pick the Bears apart by air. He marched the Colts to a touchdown on their first possession, and though the Bears’ defense stiffened for a stretch, by the end of the first half he had it figured out and was showing off–going without a huddle, calling audibles at the line, and just generally treating the Bears like sandlot players he could have beaten with a squad of peewees and a bottle cap for drawing up plays in the dirt. It was 27-3 Indianapolis at the intermission on three Manning touchdown passes, and he added another one in the third quarter on a ball perfectly thrown deep to Reggie Wayne over two defenders. A CBS graphic informed the TV audience that the four touchdown passes on the day equaled the Bears’ total for the season. Rookie quarterback Craig Krenzel got the Bears up to five with a toss to tight end Dustin Lyman after engineering a drive against the Colts’ prevent defense late in the game, and the final score was 41-10. So much for finding out how good the Bears really were against the league’s best.

On the surface, the Bears looked like a Jauron team. They’d won three in a row on the strength of a defense that took the ball away from the other team and produced its own touchdowns, much as Jauron’s lone playoff team, the 13-3 2001 Bears, had. But when linebacker Lance Briggs bobbled and dropped a potential interception with nothing but open field in front of him, and Adrian Peterson forced a fumble on a kickoff only to watch Todd Johnson boot it out of bounds, the Bears blew their two first-quarter opportunities to alter the course of the game. Like that 2001 team, when they weren’t producing their own breaks they looked helpless against a superior opponent. They looked like a team that’d be hard-pressed to do any better than the 7-9 that was both last year’s record and Jauron’s average over his five years.

Yet, that said, it didn’t do justice to this season’s Bears. Not to establish myself as the Pollyanna of Chicago sports after writing such relatively kind things about the Bulls last week, but in spite of–no, because of–the injuries they’ve suffered, this season’s Bears proved to be surprisingly fun to watch. First of all, the utter ineffectiveness of the offense after Grossman went down brought defense to the fore, and there’s nothing a Chicago football fan likes better than a tough team defense. The Halloween win at Soldier Field gave hints of a defense coming together, and the mauling of the Giants and ballyhooed quarterback Kurt Warner in New York confirmed it. At 262 pounds, defensive end Alex Brown, who produced four sacks against the Giants, is a relatively lithe defensive lineman by today’s standards. He played great in a 13-10 loss to the Washington Redskins early in the season, took the next week off in Tampa Bay–inconsistency is symptomatic of a young player still finding his way in the league–and after that became a beast. At least that’s what he was until he disappeared again against Manning and the Colts, just when the Bears needed him most. (The Bears were lining him up unusually wide to the right, theoretically to put his speed to better use, but he could never use it to get to Manning.) With Brown leading the way, rookie defensive tackle Harris looked better and more confident every week and eventually proclaimed the defensive line best in the league. The rest of the line consisted of the other end, newly acquired all-pro Adewale Ogunleye, who’d proved with a big game against the Titans that he was worth the cost of wide receiver Marty Booker, and rookie Tank Johnson, who split time with Alfonso Boone at the other tackle. It looked as if Harris had a point, especially with Michael Haynes added in. Filling in at almost every position across the line, Haynes showed against the Titans that he may yet be worth the first-round pick the Bears spent on him in 2003 by spearing a short pass out of the air and running it back 45 yards for a touchdown–shades of Keith Traylor and his eye-popping interception return during the 2001 season.

Considering the ineptitude of the Bears offense against Tennessee, and how Haynes’s touchdown turned a 7-0 deficit into a tie game at halftime, one could argue it was the play of that game. But so many key plays followed in the second half: R.W. McQuarters’s punt return (all flowing braids) for a touchdown to give the Bears the lead; an Urlacher interception that was wrongly ruled a dropped pass, resulting in a gift of a critical three points to the Titans; a David Terrell catch on fourth down (he’d dropped three passes earlier) as Krenzel engineered a drive to a game-tying field goal in the fourth quarter; and, of course, the safety that produced the sudden-death 19-17 victory–only the second safety to decide an overtime game in NFL history, yet not entirely unexpected given how the Bears’ defense was their best offense.

If the season has produced bittersweet dreams of what might have been had Grossman not been injured, it’s also produced an offense that flowered like a cactus–on rare occasion and despite harsh conditions, which made the few blooms all the more beautiful. Jonathan Quinn, the original backup, proved with miserable performances against Washington and Tampa that he had no business on a football field, and then rookie Krenzel came in; and like the doctor he aspires to be, trying first to do no harm, he led the Bears to their three straight victories. Krenzel is out of Ohio State, which has produced more doctors than quarterbacks over the years. Even if that’s not saying much he did manage to win a national championship there, and for all his inexperience and miscues he had the air of a winner about him. He reminded me of the way a patzer like me plays eight ball: muck up the game, take the opponent out of rhythm, don’t leave any easy shots on the table, and above all don’t fail to sink the black ball at the end. In the process, he became the Bears’ first rookie quarterback to start out 3-0 since Virgil “Chickenshit” Carter back in 1968. Though limited by nature, and though exposed in the game against Indianapolis as incapable of providing the Bears the lift they need against a top-quality team, he has all the makings of a decent NFL backup quarterback. He may have to put off med school longer than he expected.

Through everything runs the placid calm of Smith. To be sure, Jauron radiated his own calm, but it bordered on the soporific while Smith’s seems to mask a warrior mentality. It can be sensed most of all in the moxie of the defense, which is at the beck and call of Smith and coordinator Ron Rivera–yes, the old Bears linebacker and running mate of Mike Singletary. The defense boasts that it will take the ball away from the other team and score, and then it does. Yet Smith’s steadiness can also be seen in his lack of panic when injuries have forced him to put faith in younger players.

For the second straight year the Bears have the youngest team in the league; and injuries to key players like Grossman on offense and Urlacher on defense have nearly crippled them. But like the Bulls, the Bears have a lot of talent and a lot of promise (and at the end of the calendar year they’ll probably have more wins than the Bulls will). The defense really is one of the best in the league–the 41-point shredding by Manning and his boys notwithstanding–and it figures to remain intact next season, which means the Bears can concentrate on drafting an offensive lineman and an impact receiver–not unreasonable needs for general manager Jerry Angelo to meet.

The Bears returned this week for the first time in years to the national TV stage of a Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas against the Cowboys. With Urlacher at their disposal to run wild on the turf at Arlington Stadium, they’d have been much more likely to win; but even without him it was safe to say a Chicago fan could sit and watch at no risk to his or her appetite. They can whet it on the future, when Urlacher and Grossman are healthy and a few more college prospects have been added to the promising nucleus they’ve already put together.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Scott Cunningham–Getty Images.