Watching the Bears this season was like watching some amazing, intricate machine trying to get itself to work right. There were moments when everything fit together, when the Bears rolled rapidly over the opposition. These moments, however, were few and far between after the season’s first game, so that watching the Bears was more often than. not frustrating rather than satisfying. Our popular culture is full of such frustrating mechanisms–great machines that always seem to be malfunctioning or misfiring, like the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars. To watch the Bears two years ago was to realize everything football could be–brutal yet graceful precision, power and finesse. No team had manifested the forms of the game so well since the decay of the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty. But over the last two years, watching the coaches tinker with the ever-misfiring mechanism, and watching Ditka tinker with the tinkerers, has been like watching Star Wars sequels in which the Millennium Falcon is transformed from a humorous, all-powerful special effect into a cheap plot device. Watching a team play below its potential can be fascinating at the same time it’s frustrating, but it isn’t like watching great football, and great football is what we’ve become accustomed to.
I like the Millennium Falcon simile, and I think from a fan’s point of view it is relatively accurate, but from a player’s standpoint it is unsatisfying; it gives Mike Ditka too much power, too much say-so. Not really a machine, the Bears are more a team in the way musicians are a band, and watching the Bears the last two years has been like watching a great group of musicians who are simply not getting on top of the music. When they play well, there is nothing better, but that makes their persistent underachieving all the more frustrating, so that frustration–and not the precision of well-played football–is what becomes the source of their drama.
Many people’s initial response to the Bears’ 21-17 loss to the Washington Redskins last Sunday was dismissal. “Bear overexposure” is the redundant pun of the moment (not that it has much competition), and I, too, admit to welcoming a few months without the daily intrigues of the Bears’ soap opera–a feeling that seems to be shared by most of the Bears, including Mike Ditka. The idea of paying only the scantest attention to the NFL draft and the Bears’ mini-camp and the Bears’ training camp and the Bears’ exhibition games, and then finally beginning to look in on them along about September, is not only pleasant but almost exciting. None of us needs another year in which we start worrying about Jim McMahon’s shoulder in June and stop worrying about his hamstring in January, with William Perry’s weight, Otis, Wilson’s petulance, and Mike Ditka’s jock itch to occupy us in idle moments in between.
But before we put the Bears away in mothballs, I’d like to point out that a team of large personalities–like the Bears in football, like the New York Mets in baseball, like the 70s Steelers or the same decade’s Oakland A’s–is to be preferred over teams like the Minnesota Twins. Not because they’re any better, but because a team of personalities lets us see the mechanics of a group of men trying to work together–the mysterious mechanics every team must go through if it is to be any good, but which are usually performed unseen in the locker room or on the practice field. It’s a rare thing for a group of men to play together as a team for any length of time–it was a rare and wonderful thing when the White Sox won in 1983 and the Cubs in 1984–and it is rarer still when such a team plays together long enough to win it all, as the Bears did in 1985. That’s what we should learn from 1987’s baseball season and the champion Minnesota Twins, and from the football season and the frustrating Chicago Bears. The Bears’ recent failures do not prove that the 1985 season was a fantasy–as Ray Sons of the Sun-Times would have us believe–but that the 1985 season was fantastic. Putting seasons like that together, one after another, is what makes truly great teams; the Bears are not yet of their number.
The Bears’ 1987 postmortem will not be as telling as last year’s. Last year, the Bears were outplayed and outcoached and deserved to lose. What’s more, the Skins’ excellent game plan of a year ago–the expert mixture of sideline passes and runs off tackle–went on to haunt the Bears this season, as various opponents used similar plans. The Bears showed no such weakness in structure Sunday; the Skins’ game plan was slightly more open, slightly more effective than the Bears’, but it certainly did not bring the Bears to their knees, as it had the year before. Sunday seemed a confrontation between two teams of similar strength and comparable desire; the team that got the breaks and made the fewest mistakes won. The reasons for the Bears’ loss, beyond these, are almost incidental.
Jim McMahon received most of the blame from the major media, and he accepted it, but the loss was not his fault. He looked rusty and he looked injured; after taking a few hits early, he threw the ball flat-footed, and three of his fluttering passes were intercepted. McMahon is certainly better than Doug Flutie, but he could not make the difference between losing and winning. He needed protection, and he got little. Not that Dexter Manley troubled him. Manley was merely a rumor all day long, just as we knew he would be if Jimbo Covert played. Aside from forcing McMahon to rush a pass in the fourth quarter, Manley was ineffective (he had no sacks and was not among the Skins’ leaders in tackles), and even on that fourth-quarter play he was overshadowed: Barry Wilburn intercepted the pass in the end zone. McMahon, however, was sacked five times on the day, and Charles Mann had three of those; he made the Bears’ right tackle, Keith Van Horne, look silly, especially late in the game: when the Skins rushed only three men against the Bears’ five-man offensive line, Mann still blew right past Van Horne.
Ditka’s game plan, meanwhile, was uninspired. Walter Payton had an excellent first half, and the Bears managed to control the ball for most of the game, yet Ditka was quick to lose faith in the run in the second half–perhaps rightfully so, or perhaps because he kept running the same plays into the heart of the Skins’ defensive line. The Bears did an excellent job of establishing Ron Morris as a receiver–a deep incompletion on their first play from scrimmage set up a number of open patterns for him later in the game–but they did not do the same for the far-more-dangerous Willie Gault. Gault ran a continuing series of fly and post patterns, and made one excellent catch when he just plain took the ball away from one of the Skins’ defenders. Yet the Bears never set up the deep patterns with a turn-in or a buttonhook, and they never tried to simply get the ball into his hands with a quick screen–perhaps because McMahon couldn’t get the required zip on the ball for these patterns, perhaps because the Bears were merely stupid.
The defense played well but certainly not flawlessly. Richard Dent forced an early fumble when he sacked the Redskins’ quarterback, Doug Williams, but that was the lone sack of the day. Al Harris, who replaced William Perry on the defensive line, was a slighter rumor than Dexter Manley; he blew an early fumble recovery (Steve McMichael saved his butt) and otherwise was not heard from. The Bears’ four-man rush was contained by the Skins’ offensive line, and they got little help on the blitz. The Redskins’ sole touchdown pass came against man-to-man coverage in a blitz. Finally–and in a game in which a punt return was the margin of victory–in the fourth quarter, when the Bears needed the ball back, the Skins ran it right through the defense, took more than six minutes off the clock, and put McMahon in the position that led to his last, desperate interception.
The Bears’ future, at this point, does not look bright. Their very invincibility of two years ago is what haunts them now. We all want to see them set free the blitz, but offenses have learned to deal with the blitzes of the Bears and the New York Giants. The Skins’ innovative use of the tight end is a fine example: he goes in motion, the defense’s reaction tells the quarterback what coverage the defense is in, at which point the tight end can either go out for a pass, drop back to block for the pass, or block for the run. Other teams are doing the same thing with the fullback, while wide receivers who can exploit the blitz’s man-to-man coverage (Jerry Rice, Anthony Carter) are enjoying salad days.
Ditka talks often of the Bears “system,” but what he fails to recognize is that what made the Bears great two years ago was that they had greater players than the opposition while still managing to play as a team. And the Bears system has flaws. These, we hope, can be adjusted. Most of the players, meanwhile, are on the far end of their all-too-short NFL careers. Already Mike Singletary–great player that he is–is not the player he was. And new, lighter, faster defensive ends like the Minnesota Vikings’ Chris Doleman look more like 1985’s Richard Dent than Richard Dent does. Meanwhile the NFC’s Central Division is getting tougher, the Vikings are proving themselves one of the best teams in the league, and the Packers have the talent to contend if they ever got a coach who has more ideas than facial tics. The holes in the Bears’ scheme are easy to spot: they need a cornerback and they need help on the offensive line. Yet they will soon require help on the defensive line (where Perry must slim down to below 320) and at linebacker.
The Bears have very few prime seasons left, if any at all. They could easily go either up or down from here, although the trend is definitely down. Shake-ups are rumored, and there are murmurings that Ditka has lost control of the team. Dan Hampton’s response to Sunday’s game was that “it’s embarrassing, it’s sickening, and that’s all I can say.” And on this apprehensive note, in a minor key, we leave the Bears for what we hope will be several months.