The Bears are off to yet another 2-0 start. They are not entering a new golden age but are, rather, living out their golden years. The distinction is important to any valid appreciation of the 1991 Chicago Bears. This is not a great team; it isn’t even on the threshold of greatness. It is a team out on the back porch of greatness, rocking away, living out its years in a suitable manner: meaning that every now and then it’s time to get up and go out and do some work, but it’s done swiftly and efficiently and with an eye toward returning to a sitting posture as soon as possible. The 1991 Bears would fare no better against their 1985 counterparts than, say, the 1985 Dallas Cowboys did. There are enough similarities between the two sets of Bears, however, to make this year’s team worth watching, its small victories and humble ambitions somehow ennobled.
Mike Ditka would probably accept that; maybe not in those terms, but in the sentiment definitely. The Bears have reached that dire state of affairs Jim McMahon predicted for them on his departure: they have become the coach’s team, reflecting the coach’s state of mind and dedicated to his philosophy. Yet because Ditka has altered his philosophy, slightly, over the past few years, they remain interesting rather than boorish. McMahon, for those who need to be reminded, said he was tired of playing for a coach who believes it’s his system–not the quality of his players–that makes the team win. Well, the Bears have made room for too many new players–and continued to win with them–over the last few years for anyone to much argue against Ditka’s system; on the other hand, Ditka has made room for too many older players–players who were a shadow of their former selves but who remained essential to his vision of the Bears–for anyone to accuse him of mere gridiron ego-mongering.
In the wake of the abrupt departures of Buddy Ryan, Otis Wilson, Wilber Marshall, and McMahon, Ditka somehow discovered loyalty when it came to Dan Hampton, Jimbo Covert, William “the Refrigerator” Perry (never more than this season), Steve McMichael, and Mike Singletary. “Yeah,” the cynic might argue, “but those were/are all great players.” It’s true, they could still play, they still had things to offer the team, but think twice about Hampton last year or Perry this year before turning cynic against Ditka. He’s developed loyalty for his older stars at the same time he’s been able to work newer players into the lineup; of course, it remains important to both him and us that he keeps winning. The Bears, after all, aren’t the Cubs.
Last Sunday–as has been the case so often in the last few seasons–the Bears appeared destined to begin their final descent. Not only has Covert’s preseason injury forced them into starting rookie Stan Thomas at the important left-tackle position, but relatively short-term ailments to Mark Bortz forced them to press Jerry Fontenot into service at left guard. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bears’ opponents, have added defensive genius Floyd Peters to their coaching staff, spiriting him away from the Minnesota Vikings. Peters, one would imagine, would be someone who would prepare a counterattack against the Bears’ new weak spots. If he did, it never showed. Thomas played his second straight solid game against a difficult opponent, tying up the Bucs’ Keith McCants even better than he had tied up the Minnesota Vikings’ Chris Doleman the week before. The Bears tried to exploit the energy and the anticipation of the Bucs’ young defense by throwing an end around at them in their second offensive series, and with persistent trap blocking the rest of the way. The Bears kept trying to make the Bucs go one way so that they could go the other, and it worked enough to give them three touchdowns: the first on a Neal Anderson run shortly after the end around, the second on a pass to Anderson late in the first half, and the third on a rare long pass from Jim Harbaugh to Wendell Davis, who had to wait for the ball, then fought the defensive player for it before claiming it in the end zone for the game-sealing score. The Bears won, in the end, 21-20.
They continue to play a cautious game. Anyone bothered by that will not much enjoy the Bears’ golden years. The defense is not the fearsome group it once was, but it’s strong enough to remain the strategic core of the team. All the Bears’ plans are based, first and foremost, on stopping the other team and exploiting its mistakes. I, myself, have a tendency to criticize Harbaugh for being too eager to run. He still has this air about him of the big man on campus, all too ready to take the game in his own hands and run for glory and pay dirt. When one thinks, however, that a big, strapping (slightly stupid) boy like that is a lot less likely to give up the ball if he’s running with it rather than throwing it, it begins to make some sense. And the defense does continue to hold up its end of the bargain–against weaker opposition, anyway. (This Sunday, the Bears play the defending champions, the New York Giants.)
Last Sunday, after a tight, well-played, almost boring 10-6 victory over the Vikings (the football equivalent of a pitchers’ duel), the Bears went out and confounded the Bucs’ Vinny Testaverde. Again, this task does not pose a particularly high degree of difficulty; Testaverde is the sort of person confounded by the presence of two forks in a restaurant table setting. Yet easy or not, the Bears went out and did it. When Testaverde and the Bucs threatened to score, the Bears threw a safety blitz at him, with Markus Paul charging up the middle and linebacker John Roper sweeping around the linemen to mop up the mess. While these two newcomers were making pivotal plays, old fogies Richard Dent, McMichael, and Perry simply went about their business. For the second straight week, McMichael made a game-saving play in the fourth quarter: where last week he tipped a pass, causing an interception, this week he sacked Tampa Bay backup quarterback Chris Chandler on the Bucs’ last offensive series, as he was trying to rally them downfield for what would have been a game-winning field goal. As for Perry and Dent, they are the two faces of the defense. Where Dent goes for the sacks and the fumbles, Perry simply ties up the line of scrimmage with his bulk. The mysterious question remains, why does it seem that Richard Dent’s butt gets larger every season, while the Fridge’s, wide as it is, only seems to get smaller? Mysterious answer: It’s because Perry’s pants keep slipping lower under his belly every season. One of these years, he’s not going to be able to get his pants over his crack and he’s going to get a new nickname: the Plumber.
If the Bears are going gracefully into old age, Jimmy Connors is going screaming and kicking all the way. I’m not yet old enough to find self-vindication in Connors’ still being able to perform on the tennis court; I don’t yet need to live out my sporting life utterly by proxy. It was, however, fun, if not exactly enjoyable, to see Connors making it back to the U.S. Open semifinals last week. There he was, same old Jimmy, playing up to the crowd, showing up officials, and spanking the ball two-handed into the farthest corner and heading for the net the way a high school halfback heads for daylight. It was kind of like watching an old-timers’ game where the old-timers actually play well. In the end, though, there was something slightly depressing about his persistent whining on borderline calls, his self-congratulatory interviews, and that same old lifting of his right toes, heel on the ground, as he began his serve. Here was a man who in 15 years hadn’t changed an iota, a man studied in the ways of what he had been who had never developed into something, I don’t know, more mature maybe.
Fun as it was to watch Connors make the semis–and, depressing as it was, it was fun–the best match of the tournament might have been between Michael Chang and Connors’s old nemesis, John McEnroe. McEnroe rarely took issue with a call, successfully fought himself for composure at the critical moments, and battled uphill against a nervy but nervous Chang. Chang had the better game for the fast surface, with his flashy ground strokes from the baseline, but somehow Mac kept himself in the match, toughing out a game here, breaking serve there. When Chang finally established himself as the better player in the fifth set, part of the tension in the play was my feeling that he would utterly go to pieces if McEnroe pulled one of his trademark tantrums out of nowhere. McEnroe never resorted to such tactics, however. Here was a man who has learned something about himself and his sport in the last ten years.
It was Fergie Jenkins Day at Wrigley Field last Sunday. I wish I could have been there, but Cubs’ fans being what they are–and, no matter how much they earn these days per capita, they remain sentimental fools–I’m sure Fergie was adequately saluted without me. If not, let’s take a few minutes, here, to remember. He was the Cubs’ pitching ace from 1967 until 1973, winning 20 games six seasons in a row and leading the National League in victories in 1971 with 24, this while posting most, if not all, of his 13 career 1-0 defeats while with the gifted but snake-bitten Cubs of that era (placing him third all-time in the ignominious category, behind Walter Johnson and Jim Bunning). He was the picture of rhythm on the mound–all kick and a sling of the arm–and he used to lock up in pitchers’ duels with Bob Gibson that would last 90 minutes. Neither one could stand to let a moment go by between pitches. He won 284 games in his career–in spite of the 13 1-0 losses and who knows how many 2-1 defeats; it seems like hundreds with the Cubs alone–but of all the statistics that earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame, my favorite is that, of the ten pitchers to strike out 3,000 batters in their careers, only Fergie walked fewer than 1,000. That was Fergie Jenkins, on the mound with the wind blowing out at Wrigley Field, throwing hard fastballs on the inside corner and hard sliders on the outside corner and nothing whatsoever in between.