A year ago last September, I was standing at a urinal in Wrigley Field when a fellow took the spot next to me and started talking about Jim Harbaugh. Not everyone likes to talk while standing at a urinal, and even when a conversation is struck up it doesn’t often concern Jim Harbaugh–although, admittedly, it’s a lot more likely now than it was then–but that was all right because, between gentlemen, all men’s room conversations are pretty much the same, and because this fellow didn’t look like the sort who usually tries to establish a conversation in the men’s room. He was short–that is, about a half-foot shorter than I am, or about five-foot-six–wearing a cable-knit cardigan (it was a cold day), and with shortish, shall I say maize-colored hair only slightly more unkempt than his beard. That doesn’t say much, because his beard was so well manicured that it could have passed for a hedge in Glencoe if it had surrounded a yard and not his face. We were standing there, and he turned the chin of his beard up to face me (to show he wasn’t looking at anything else, I imagine), and he said, “What do you think about the Bears’ quarterbacks?”

The Bears, at the time, had four quarterbacks, and I said something to the effect that I thought they had too many. He nodded his head. I thought I was in for a harangue on Doug Flutie, but this fellow was not quite so predictable. “What do you think of this kid Harbaugh?” he said. I told him I thought it was silly to pick a quarterback in the first round of the draft when one already had three quarterbacks–no matter what the traditional thinking might be about picking the best player available. I wasn’t eloquent on the subject–remember, I was standing at a urinal–but I said I thought it was silly.

He nodded his head, and in the deep but well-trimmed aperture of the beard around his mouth I believe I saw his lips purse. “Well, let me tell you,” he said, “I’m from Michigan, and I think the kid’s a winner.” He looked straight ahead and went on as if making a point in a phone-system commercial, telling me about how he’d watched Jim Harbaugh score a touchdown with a broken wrist, how he’d seen him rally the old Maize and Blue to many a game-winning score, and how the kid was, in short, a “gamer.”

“Well I’m from Illinois,” I said, and I’m skeptical.”

At which point he shook himself off, buttoned himself up, and marched away as if I’d asked him to compare penis size. He glanced over his shoulder as he left, however, and said, “Illinois–you guys are cheaters.” To which I said nothing. We Illini alumni long ago learned to let the Michigans have the last word: it’s the price we pay for being able to piss longer than they do.

Jim Harbaugh has the handsome, rugged features and the naive, almost rah-rah demeanor of a BMOC. His chin could probably dig furrows in the Soldier Field turf if it were called upon to do so–a service we hope isn’t required during the next month. He doesn’t quite look as if he comes from Michigan–his hair should be maize-colored and straight, instead of brown and slightly curly–but in any case he’ll pass, these days, for a second-year quarterback, although at times he’ll still resemble a rookie. And even as he steps in for the Bears’ wounded first- and second-string quarterbacks to rally the team to its fifth straight Central Division title, I maintain that he was a bad draft choice a year ago last summer.

Not that he doesn’t have potential. He appears to be a big, durable guy–qualities necessary in NFL quarterbacks these days, but sadly lacking in our offensive field leaders–and he’s showing, more and more often, that he has a strong and accurate arm. Yet even so, he was a bad choice. Here’s why.

The Bears are a team on the decline. They are still a strong team, they may even be the best team in the league this year, but they are an aging, veteran group of players ever so slightly past their peak. The rate of their decline we can argue about, but that the incline now tips toward the end of their careers we cannot ignore. With a team like this, with only a few years of championship contention to come, the last thing a coach wants to have to go through is the process of breaking in a new NFL quarterback. The process takes too long and is too demanding. Even the eventual Hall of Fame quarterback suffers through an unpleasant apprenticeship. He’ll mix great games with poor games, he’ll cost the team victories with late mistakes, he’ll throw four or five interceptions in a single afternoon, and, just when everyone thought he was finally there, he’ll seem to forget–for one day–everything he’s learned. Young quarterbacks, like young pitchers, will, as the phrase goes, break your heart. The Bears are at a stage where–like a hopelessly romantic old man chasing after young women–they can’t afford that. An older, journeyman quarterback would have been more suitable.

The Bears could have used the Harbaugh choice to caulk up cracks that were even then apparent in the defensive secondary and on the offensive line. Who knows but that Jim McMahon and Mike Tomczak might both still be healthy if the Bears had been better able to accept injuries to their offensive tackles this year? That, we were told, was the decision Mike Ditka wanted to make, to draft for position and not for the best athlete, but he was overruled by Mike McCaskey in the wake of the power struggle that caused the departure of Jerry Vainisi. (Funny how these things leak out afterward, like the details of the decision-making process in a presidential administration.) The last thing Ditka wanted to do at this point, I believe, with Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton, and–up until a couple of weeks ago–Richard Dent having their best season since 1985, was to be forced to take time out and play nursemaid to another young quarterback. It’s a mistake the Bears seem doomed to make again and again. They’ve already tried to ease one quarterback into the NFL without the usual trial by fire–Tomczak–and we would have thought they had learned their lesson two years ago when Flutie was unable to deal with the Washington Redskins in the pressure-packed first game of the playoffs. Here, however, we are again.

Harbaugh’s first start, a week ago last Monday against the Los Angeles Rams, was a predictable embarrassment. We knew it was going to be a long Monday night from the first play from scrimmage. With a kid quarterback starting his first game, the coaches prepare the first play with the utmost care. In all the playbook, in light of all the films of the opponent, they look for the one play guaranteed to work, the one pass the kid can complete to start the game with a little rush of confidence. The Bears’ coaches considered that play a slightly demanding but still fairly simple slant-in pass to the wide receiver. He cuts in from the wide-out position on a diagonal toward the center of the field, and the quarterback leads him in his path. It’s impossible to defend, a play of pure timing between the quarterback and wide receiver, but Harbaugh left the pass far behind the receiver. After that, it was a long night, made worse by the coaches’ intransigence in having Harbaugh throw, repeatedly, upfield and in having him pass out of the shotgun formation on third down and short yardage. Eventually, the defense broke down under the stress, and the game turned into a rout.

Last Sunday’s game was–at the outset–important only for Harbaugh. One game ahead of the charging Vikings, but having lost to them earlier in the season, the Bears were in a position where no matter what they did against the lowly Detroit Lions it appeared they would still face a critical game next Monday night in Minnesota, for the Vikings were playing the even lowlier Green Bay Packers. So Harbaugh got his second straight start. The coaches simplified the new game plan still further: Harbaugh opened the game with soft tosses over the middle to stationary receivers–tight ends and running backs. It was what they should have done against the Rams. The Bears’ first possession was not embarrassing, and toward the end of the first quarter Harbaugh led them on a drive from good field position, and while the Bears settled for a field goal they still had taken the lead.

The Lions came back with a drive of their own to tie the score, but then–as the half neared–Harbaugh made a rookie mistake, failing to get an extra play in before the two-minute warning as he labored over the snap count. It’s a fine point of the game–something a veteran quarterback does almost by instinct–and Harbaugh’s mistake probably didn’t cost the Bears anything, but who knows?

Meanwhile, in Green Bay, the season was shifting. The Packers led the Vikings 10-3 at the half. If the Pack held on and the Bears won, the Bears’ lead would again be two full games over the Vikes, making Monday’s game meaningless. Yet the Bears did not look all that inspired coming out after intermission. The Lions scored first, in fact, taking a 6-3 lead, but then Harbaugh led the Bears back on a nice drive. He jeopardized everything near the end zone when he apparently forgot the snap count: the line fired off the ball, leaving Harbaugh standing there, and the football fell to the ground. He covered it, however, took a good time-out to compose himself, and then scored on the next play on a quarterback draw called by Ditka. The Bears had the lead 10-6.

The Bears should have lost this game. The Lions outplayed them and outgained them all day long, but we all got an indication of who was going to win when the Lions’ Garry James dropped a sure touchdown pass, going down the sideline, later in the third quarter. It was thrown right into his hands, and he just plain muffed it. When the Lions eventually did rally for a touchdown, in the fourth quarter, after a long drive and a valiant but unsuccessful goal-line stand by the Bears defense, they failed to dot the i when Al Harris blocked the point after, setting up the final game-winning drive by the Bears.

Give Ditka credit. The Vikings were down 16-6 at this point, and a victory by the Bears would mean a divisional title and home-field advantage through the playoffs–no ifs, ands, or buts. Yet he stuck With Harbaugh, who hit his first tiny pass over the middle to tight end James Thornton, and then went on a beautiful streak where he threw only one incomplete pass. (He completed 18 of 26 on the day.) He moved them down just into field-goal range for Kevin Butler, but with a cold, heavy ball a kick of more than 40 yards was iffy at best, even with the wind at his back. The key play was a third down from the Lions’ 30-yard line. The Lions blitzed both safeties; Neal Anderson blocked the first one through, but had to let the other go. Harbaugh read the blitz, prepared to take the hit, and lofted a beautiful pass to Dennis McKinnon 15 yards downfield.

The old sonuvabitch.