The Bears’ Central Division dynasty has ended. Their hopes of dominating the National Football League, or even just the National Football Conference, for several years, for a football generation, never came to pass. Instead, the Bears settled for control over their little fiefdom, taxing their neighboring teams but failing to extend their regional boundaries, and now even that small-scale dynasty is history.
History is solid if sometimes ambiguous. It can be handled and examined. One can look back on it and draw conclusions, unlike the analysis of everyday events, which tends to be subjective, unreliable, emotional, as we get wrapped up in what is happening at the moment. Take the Bears game against the Vikings last Sunday in Minnesota, one of the high-profile night contests thrown to cable television’s ESPN by the NFL. We gathered at the palatial, cable-ready home of our friend the Boomer thinking that it was the Bears’ last stand, their last opportunity to reassert their dominance over their division rivals. History showed us how deluded we were.
There were moments last Sunday when the Bears actually appeared to be reapproaching respectability. In a game between what we believed were two well-matched football squads, destined to go to the team more emotionally ready for play, the Bears scored first. Richard Dent stripped Herschel Walker of the football in a lackadaisical manner toward the end of a play on the Vikings’ first possession. It was done with almost animal ease: Dent pursued Walker on an end run, swiped at him from behind, jarring the ball loose, and then let his momentum carry him out of the play, like a real-life bear that has just run down some small animal and delivered the single telling blow, so that it knows it can stop, turn around, and go back and pick up the spoils anytime it pleases. The ball bounced loose on the turf behind Dent as he coasted to a stop. William Perry scooped it up and advanced it some short yardage before having his feet cut out from under him. Dent turned around in time to see this and raise his arms. The offense, however, did not do much with the ball. On third down and short yardage, the Vikings’ Chris Doleman shot past our quickly aging tackle Jimbo Covert to stop Neal Anderson shy of the necessary yardage. Yet Kevin Butler came on to kick his record 24th straight field goal and the Bears were out in front 3-0, quieting the fans in Minnesota’s Metrodome, a castle once made sport of by the Bears’ coach Mike Ditka, but now too much feared to be laughed at.
The lead was short-lived, as we knew it would be but refused to admit to ourselves or those around us. It was the Bears’ once-mighty defense that took them out of the game. There is a pattern to the Bears’ losses over recent years. All, of course, are typified by offensive problems at some point or other. Yet it’s the defense that has collapsed when the Bears have collapsed. At first, a few years ago, the failures were rare; a team somehow managed to find and work on the weak link, whether it be Mike Richardson or Maurice Douglass or, in this season, rookie Donnell Woolford. This year, however, the once-rare flaws of the defense have become predictable and exploitable. Even a relatively inexperienced quarterback like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Vinny Testaverde can read whether the Bears are in zone coverage or man-to-man coverage as he comes to the line of scrimmage. Yet the Bears’ defensive decline can, in one of those extremely rare moments of history, be blamed on a single incident: the loss of Dan Hampton.
The Bears’ record has gotten a little worse each week without Hampton. They opened 4-0–the salad days of their season–but that fourth game brought with it the loss of Hampton to yet another knee injury. Since that time, the Bears have won twice and lost seven times. At first we couldn’t believe that the loss of a single player could have such an impact, and to be sure the Bears’ advanced age has had something to do with this utter collapse; they look a little older each week, especially the offensive line. Yet the loss of Hampton crippled the defense, causing a chain reaction, a domino effect. Where the Bears in the past had the talent to get over an injury or two, this year’s defense was a finely tuned unit with a balance that was teetering on the brink from the very beginning. Hampton’s loss effectively rid the Bears of a pass rush, as rookie defensive end Trace Armstrong was slow to develop; as Hampton’s replacement, Perry, is ineffective when it comes to huffing and puffing after the quarterback; and as Steve McMichael became merely human without Hampton to play with, deprived as he was of his trademark pass-rush stunts and with the other team occasionally putting a double team on him, when they had always had to spend the extra lineman on Hampton before. Without a pass rush, the opposing quarterback suddenly had time to work on the rookie cornerback Woolford. Running backs had time to circle the turbulence at the line of scrimmage and get in the clear, making Mike Singletary seem seasons older. Worrying about the pass, the defense suddenly became susceptible to the run. It’s been a lesson as instructive in its own football way as It’s a Wonderful Life: the loss of one man does make a difference in the absence of what he does to maintain the social balance.
The Vikings marched straight downfield to go ahead in the first quarter. Minnesota quarterback Wade Wilson had ample time to hit Hassan Jones with a critical pass, and Walker finished up the drive by sliding off end for the touchdown. Dent was blocked on that play, shackled by a recent roughing-the-passer penalty, another important element in the Vikings’ drive. The Bears offense, as usual, was staggered by the failure of the defense and soon kicked again, but this time the defense held, with Armstrong and McMichael combining on the third-down sacking of Wilson. Vestee Jackson intercepted Wilson on the Vikings’ next possession, but the offense squandered the opportunity when Butler’s field-goal attempt was blocked, ending his streak. There was then that familiar, dreadful feeling of impending disaster, of the defense waiting for the next available moment to self-destruct. The pass rush was again missing on the Vikings’ next possession, but the secondary was doing its job handling the Minnesota receivers. Unfortunately, that left the center of the field utterly abandoned, and Wilson turned two large scrambles into a scoring drive, completing it with a long touchdown pass on an ineffective blitz by the Bears on third down and long yardage. As the Boomer put it, “The quarterback drops back, makes a sandwich, and throws downfield. You’ll be all right if you don’t give him the time to spread the peanut butter.” The Vikings added a field goal at the end of the half, with D.J. Dozier replacing Walker for a long, rambling, back-and-forth run on a third down. The Bears were down 17-3.
Typical of our delusion, of our being overly involved in events as they happened, was that we actually believed the Bears had a chance when they scored in their first possession of the second half. The defense held the cautious Vikings to start the half, then the Bears put in a wide-open offense, with four wide receivers, and Mike Tomczak–who had his one good, confidence-inspiring series of an otherwise miserable game here–hit Ron Morris with a pass, then watched Dennis Gentry run down inside the Vikings’ 10-yard line with an end around. Tomczak hit tight end Cap Boso for the score, and the Bears were back in the game.
Until Vestee Jackson, who had made the interception earlier, committed a massive pass-interference penalty, sparking the Vikings. Wilson then read the Bears in zone coverage (the Bears are extremely predictable in this–they play man until they get beat, then they play zone until they get beat, scaring them back into man) and hit Anthony Carter, who hopped over a pair of Bears to score. The Bears’ defense was, to quote a phrase of their head coach from earlier in the season, “in disarray” here. They were getting no pass rush again, but defensive coach Vince Tobin nevertheless sent in a defense that called for the Bears’ best pass rusher, Dent, to drop off the line of scrimmage into zone coverage. It made sense only as yet another element of the Bears’ collapse, the final defeat at the hands of the barbarians.
The Bears’ final display of pride, of what they had been, came appropriately enough with Matt Suhey carrying the ball. Suhey–the starting fullback on the Bears’ 1985 championship team–had lost his job to Brad Muster, but he was called back into service when Muster came down with the flu. The old Suhey, scraping along the turf like an old car dragging its muffler, put the cap on another scoring drive by the Bears with a few tenacious runs inside the Minnesota ten-yard line. By now, the game and the fate of the Bears were giving us a sense of history that heightened our appreciation for the symbolic elements of what will probably be the last touchdown run of Suhey’s career. When the Bears muffed the extra point with another missed block, no clearer symbol was necessary to tell us the Bears’ season was finally–as Mike Ditka had said a week earlier and then, incorrectly, recanted–over.
Tomczak went sour. It was typical of a team on the descent that his one heroic afternoon this year was wasted by the defense in the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while on all other occasions Tomczak sabotaged the defense with his own poor play under pressure. The Boomer got the clicker and began to stray, at first during commercials, then between plays, coming across an old Madonna video clip, “Like a Virgin,” on MTV. We held onto Madonna as if she were some sign of better days, of the glory of the 80s, of the Bears’ championship, of their tremendous teams led by the departed and the decayed, of Jim McMahon and Willie Gault, Otis Wilson and Wilber Marshall, Singletary and Hampton, Covert and Jay Hilgenberg. The 80s, they’re over. They’re history. Madonna will fare better than the Bears in the 90s.