Last week, for the first time in years, I dusted off the Super Bowl XX video and put it in the VCR. Nostalgia had little to do with it. Like a coach, I wanted to study the things that had made the Bears successful; like any fan, I wanted a glimpse of the glory days to get me through the present darkness; and, like a cheap detective, I wanted to study a picture of the troubled family in better times, thinking that it would provide clues to the current problems. Because right now the Bears are a team–as Mike Ditka himself admits–in disarray. As one member of the Bears put it recently, where other teams used to come into Soldier Field fearing for their lives, they now come in nursing an armload of past offenses, thinking it’s pay-back time. It’s a story as old as the decline of Rome; the barbarians are at the door, chaos lurks on the other side of every game. Last Monday’s fiasco at Cleveland, played before a national TV audience, confirmed the worst.
The fans have changed their attitude toward the Bears, and the old “everybody knows you when you’re up, nobody knows you when you’re down” line doesn’t fully explain the change. Clearly, the team doesn’t excite as it did four, three, or two years ago, or even as it did last season. The departure of Jim McMahon is not the sole aggravating change here, but it is the most noticeable and the most telling. For many fans–myself included–it was the last straw, coming as it did on the heels of the Bears’ shabby treatment of Willie Gault, Wilbur Marshall, Otis Wilson, Al Harris, and Todd Bell (the last two doubly done over by the Bears). When McMahon left, he said a number of things about the Bears and Ditka, with varying degrees of fairness, but his harshest, most direct, and most pointed attack was on Ditka’s belief that it’s good coaching, and not good football players, that wins games. McMahon said it would be a relief to be away from that sort of crap. The fans believe that version of events, and for good reasons. Look at the 1989 Bears compared to the 1985 championship team, and in every position where a starter has been replaced, the new man has a diminished personality, less character, and usually less ability. Mike Tomczak for McMahon, Neal Anderson for Walter Payton, Brad Muster for Matt Suhey, Ron Morris for Gault, Ron Rivera and Jim Morrissey (the latter now injured) for Marshall and Wilson. James Thornton for Emery Moorehead at tight end is the only position where the Bears have improved themselves in four seasons, and even that can be debated. Is it the Bears’ persistently poor drafting position–dictated by their success–that is responsible, or is Mike Ditka cleaning house?
Ditka has taken more than his fair share of the blame for the Bears’ newly arrived hard times; that’s only fair, as he never received his share of the blame for the Bears’ play-off losses. Three times the Bears lost in the play-offs to teams of inferior ability–equal talent at best, as in last year. Each time, Ditka was outcoached. The irony is that there may be something to Ditka’s contention that it’s coaching and not players that win football games. His blindness is that he fails to see that good coaching could find a way to exploit a few great players against another team’s superior overall talent (e.g., Bill Walsh’s use of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice). Yet Ditka has taken the most flak recently not for his coaching but for his personality. Unfair as this is, it is not without cause. Ditka has plastered himself all over the television, making himself ubiquitous. He has done ads (and these are just the ones that come quickly to mind) for a fast-food chain, an antifreeze, an airline, a bank (no, make that a savings and loan), Japanese cars, car-rust protection, soup, and–last but not least–a very bad sitcom now in syndication. This in itself shouldn’t affect his coaching, but when he cites Midway Airlines for the same qualities of loyalty and teamwork that he supposedly champions himself–especially in light of his treatment of Wilson, released after suffering a severe injury last season–that tarnishes both the product and the coach.
So we got out our copy of Super Bowl XX the other night and put it on–again, no sound. Where we used to play Bruce Springsteen in the background, now we play some new industrial funk by a Wax Trax group called Meat Beat Manifesto or rap by Public Enemy or N.W.A. Even in that near cacophony, the 1985 Bears dominate the scene. What a team they were (for peak value, the team of the decade). They were the team that brought us back to football and instilled in us the criteria of what makes the sport worth watching. Football is a brutal game; one of the things we forget when two mediocre clubs face one another is that it’s a sport in which one team should establish its dominance, physically, against the other team. That player’s recent remarks about how other teams now come in with chips on their shoulders is really just glorified nostalgia, because in Super Bowl XX the New England Patriots came out scrapping. There were some early pushing bouts after the whistle had blown, and then, play after play, the Bears lined up to once again show who was boss of the field that day; the Patriots didn’t just surrender to the Bears, they were beaten into submission. What a defense the Bears had. Look at their front seven: Dan Hampton, William Perry, Steve McMichael, and Richard Dent up front, backed by Marshall, Mike Singletary, and Wilson. In all of football history, not even the Steelers of the last decade can match that group man for man. (Of course, the Steelers had defensive backs like Mel Blount, so overall they still get the edge.) There wasn’t a team in football that the Bears couldn’t beat up that year, and the amazing thing is that there wasn’t a team in football the Bears didn’t beat up over the next three years. The shame is–and it’s made fresh by watching the game again–that the Bears should have won one or maybe two more Super Bowls and that they never even got to another.
That’s Mike Ditka’s fault, I believe, because the other thing Super Bowl XX shows is that the Bears had a potent offense. Their offensive line was at the peak of its ability, Payton was still a force, and Gault was amazing and–it should now be pointed out–essential. Wendell Davis and Ron Morris may have terrific hands, and they may know how to run a pattern, and they will probably put up better stats for most of their careers than Gault amassed that championship year: Gault caught only 33 passes, for only one touchdown (!) during the regular season. Yet he does so many things that Davis and Morris will never do; he changes the other team’s defense with his mere presence on the field. McMahon, meanwhile, was a marvel, and he knew how to use all the weapons in his arsenal. Overruling the plays of the cautious Ditka, he drove the Bears to lay it on thick, understanding that in football, momentum and initiative are precious and must never be relinquished. When the Bears lost McMahon–whether or not it’s true that he could no longer do what he had done on the football field–they lost the last great individual they had who could counterbalance Ditka.
Look at the Bears of last Monday night, with the defense rocked back on its heels by turnovers and the cautious play calling of the offense–when there was any play calling. The Bears again showed their trademark, lack of any noticeable game plan, the failure of one play to match up strategically with the one before. There were moments when they followed a couple of passes with a run up the middle–exploiting the active defensive rush by the Browns, which tended toward the outside–and these were broken for some big gains. Yet beyond that tactic–and a very elementary point it is–the Bears didn’t have a clue about what they were doing on offense, about what they had to achieve to beat the Browns’ defense. They came out and passed the ball with a bullheaded persistence throughout the first half, even when it became apparent that Tomczak was off his game. There is no truth to football wisdom such as “the run establishes the pass” except in how a team makes that wisdom work for it on any given day; it seems obvious that–with an admittedly talented but somewhat rattled quarterback (feeling the pressure from the coach, his teammates, and the fans, as well as the other team)–a game plan based on establishing the run and then going to the air is only common sense. Ditka and his play caller, coach Greg Landry, seem to have forgotten that what made the Bears great–and what allowed them to defeat the Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals to open the season–was the old, theoretically antiquated seven-minute drive, based on short, sturdy runs and the occasional pass.
There will be debate, no doubt, about what the source of the Bears’ trouble really is: the injuries on defense, the number of young players, the lack of an experienced quarterback, poor planning on the part of the coaching staff. Whether it’s good players or good coaching that wins ball games, the point, in one way, is moot, because the players the Bears have now are what they’re stuck with until the college draft next spring. So the team, at this point, needs a certain amount of good coaching. It’s not getting it. What can a fan, or a player, say about a team that, after a timeout has been called and after the quarterback has returned to the huddle, is still shuttling players in and out of that huddle? About a coaching staff that, after the team has run up the other team’s middle to get to third down and goal to go from the one-yard line, calls for a wide run and then a pass on fourth down, losing the football? About a coach that tells a 4-2, first-place football team, “I don’t know if we’ll win another game all year,” after it has suffered a particularly difficult loss?
Mike Ditka has never been much of a strategist; his primary strength as a coach has always been that he was a good motivator. After the way he’s treated his players, from Gault through Marshall to McMahon–and in view of his increasingly petulant and unpredictable behavior–one has to wonder whether he can motivate his veteran players at all. But the worst thing one can say about Ditka is that he squandered the team of the decade.