Now is perhaps the best time to celebrate the 1985 Chicago Bears, champions of Super Bowl XX. Because if there was ever any doubt that that was a great team–a great team not only in what it accomplished but in its comprising a unique and enduring group of characters–the season just completed last Sunday proved the point once and for all. The core of that team remained intact through this season, and–in all likelihood–it will remain on into next season. Dan Hampton is the only player who has announced he will not return. Yet 1991 does not bode as well for the Bears as 1990 did, and when we look back at what poor prospects 1990 held for the Bears a year ago–well, that’s putting a dim cast indeed on the future.

We have to remember how dire things looked for the Bears a year ago in order to appreciate their season, and we have to remember what pleasure these players have offered during the course of their careers–most of them getting on toward ten years or more–in order to bring the entire picture into focus. The 1985 Bears were a great team, a gathering of characters that comes along once a generation, like the 1969 Cubs. What’s clear now is that, beneath the flash of “Super Bowl Shuffle” stars Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, Willie Gault, and William “Refrigerator” Perry (all but Perry now departed, and he, even, possessed of a very different character now), there lurked a core of great players who possessed no less character than those stars and who were, in the end, more important to the continuing success of the team (if not to the team’s Super Bowl chances from year to year). Hampton, Steve McMichael, Jay Hilgenberg, Jimbo Covert, Mark Bortz–along with lesser lights of the “Shuffle,” Mike Singletary and Richard Dent–what characters they were and are, how clearly they demonstrated that character in almost every instant they appeared on the field, and, in the end, what great football they played. That they rallied their forces, one last time, to make the playoffs after everyone else–fans, writers, and this column included–had written them off, was perhaps the most amazing feat of their careers. Because make no mistake: they will never again reach the playoffs as an identifiable group of 1985 holdovers.

For the best, most recent parallel to the Bears, look at the Detroit Tigers of the mid-80s. The Tigers put together an amazing group of young players under Sparky Anderson, they came of age in 1984, when they won their first 9 games and, even more amazingly, 35 of their first 40, and went on to sweep the American League playoffs and defeat the San Diego Padres in five games in the World Series. It was a great performance; a dynasty was declared. Yet the team fell victim to the usual injuries and defections and never reached that level again. In 1987, however, after they had been written off, the old veterans, aided by youthful tuckpointing, finished first again, only to lose to the eventual champions, the Minnesota Twins, in the playoffs.

That performance was, in a way, deceptive: the following year the Tigers became a team that was clearly long past its prime. It was, however, one last moment in the limelight, a moment that no one was promised and that the team had to prove it deserved. Great teams prove themselves in such a fashion. Sports history is filled with wonderful one-shots, teams that put it together for the instant, but a great team does it for seasons at a time, and a truly great team does it beyond the years that it should. The Bears had no right to win 12 games this season, much less finish first, but they did. To put our feelings most plainly, that made us happy for them.

If that sounds slightly patronizing, we should perhaps point out that their season, if not an active deception of the fans, was at least something of a mirage. They couldn’t beat a decent team, and that included their opening-round playoff victory against the New Orleans Saints. We withdrew our prediction the Bears would lose to the Saints immediately after seeing New Orleans’s last game the Monday before the playoffs began. The Bears are a team of aged, great players who aroused themselves for one last season; the Saints are not only incapable of arousing themselves half the time, they have few good players, let alone great ones. The Bears beat the Saints and went on, last Sunday, to lose miserably to the New York Giants. It was no decent way to go out, but “in life,” as coach Mike Ditka says, there are few good exits.

The defeat bore telltale similarities to the crushing Bears’ losses of years past. First the Chicago offense–saddled with a backup quarterback–was inept, then the defense fell quickly to pieces. The Bears’ apologists this season pointed to the defense and said it was revived, that no one could run against it. The Giants ran all over the Bears at the end of the first half and again to open the second half, and they made it look easy. The Giants ran at will over left end and up the middle. They were able to run left because Richard Dent, like the other members of the Bears’ defensive line, was concentrating on the pass rush, but also because linebacker Ron Rivera played miserably in his second game back from a knee injury. They ran up the middle because–after a few early rebuffs–they were able to handle Perry with single-team blocking, freeing up a lineman to take on Singletary, who spent the day claiming tackles by falling on players who were already down. It was his worst game of the season, and it made us wonder whether it was a good thing or bad that he’ll have a shot at redeeming himself next season.

The key moment in the game came with six minutes left in the first half. The Bears trailed 10-3, but they had just put up their first points of the game on a Kevin Butler field goal. They had moved the ball well against the Giants on two of their three possessions, and if they could just stymie the Giants here they’d get the ball back with good field position (the Giants were facing into the wind) with a chance to tie the game before the half. The Giants, however, ran right over the Bears, mostly to the left over Dent and Rivera on this drive. That tendency toward the left set up the best play of the sequence, a naked bootleg to the right, against the flow, by quarterback Jeff Hostetler on fourth down and a yard to go. It was a perfect play call, but it also benefited from some rash play by the Bears’ pass-rushing linebacker Ron Cox, who took an inside route only to watch Hostetler run outside for the first down plus nine yards more. When the Giants scored, that crushed the Bears, and when they ran the ball down the Bears’ throats in similar fashion to open the second half, that was the game. This was not a tragic defeat; it didn’t involve us, as fans, the way great sport is supposed to. We were pleasantly surprised by the Bears’ 9-1 start this season , and we were happy they defeated the Saints, but we expected them to lose to the Giants–although we did our best to affect a game-time intensity during the first half. By the second half, however, we had settled in with a cigar and a beer, and we watched the Bears go down like the sun on a cloudy day. There was no feeling of lost possibilities, as in the 1987 loss to the Washington Redskins in the playoffs, no impression of being cheated by fate, as in the 1988 loss to the ‘Skins, just a feeling of watching a bunch of men getting what they unfortunately deserved: a drubbing at the hands of a younger, better team. We celebrated Dan Hampton, we felt the cruel punishment of age when his last play from scrimmage turned out to be an opposing touchdown, but there’s no real tragedy in that. “I have no regrets,” he said afterward in a televised interview. “I poured it all out. The body’s empty.” There’s only a certain dignity in that, in those words and in Hampton’s carriage throughout his career with the Bears, dignity he carried even through the high-heeled tiptoeing toward the quarterback he did through his final season, when his knees were shot and he knew it and played anyway.

There was one last glimpse of the great Bears. McMichael rushed the quarterback in the first half so viciously that he pushed his blocker straight back into Hostetler, forcing a famble. Hampton pounced on the loose ball, and for a moment, in our mind’s eye, we saw the way he arose from the artificial turf at the Superdome in New Orleans in Super Bowl XX, brandishing the fumble Richard Dent had caused with a terrific tackle of the New England Patriots’ Craig James. That image of Hampton, palming the ball, holding it high, mouth open roaring, became one of the emblems of the Bears’ 46-10 rout in that game. It’s an indelible image, and it’s how well always remember Hampton. If they can put that on his plaque in the Hall of Fame, they should.

In the end, however, our response to the Bears’ defeat was mild. They had a great season, and like we said we were happy for them, but it ended when we expected it to end and in no great fashion. Their end was not the end of tragedy, but of age and resignation. We resigned them to their fate; there was nothing more to do. Next year, the holes from injuries and defections will open too fast for them to be adequately filled. The offensive line will crumble beginning with the tackles and moving in, for Covert–great as he once was–faded with each game of the second half of the season, right up to where he missed his block on the Bears’ fourth-and-goal run in the first half. Singletary, who has already been relegated to the bench in passing situations, will see too many games resemble this one with the Giants. The Bears will lose ten games next year, and though we’ll be there to watch them we’ll be watching with resignation. The Bears are old friends it’s really impossible to ignore, but they’re making fewer demands on our time and attention these days. Next July, when they return to training camp, we figure to be devoting ourselves to the first-place Cubs and to sizing up the White Sox’ new ballpark.

The Bears’ loss was a beginning to lose its bite by the time the lockerroom interviews began. By the time we went to the Stadium last Monday night to watch the Bulls defend first place against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Bears were all but forgotten. Odd, isn’t it, that it’s the Bears, now, who fill the tune between the baseball and basketball seasons, that they’re no longer an obsession but simply a way to while away the time? And what they fill that time with, for the most part these days, is not fine, exciting football but memories of what once was. We’ll settle for that.