A team in mere disarray would be an improvement at this point. The Bears’ defense is inept, rendering their offense useless even on its good days, and the coaching staff is clueless. The season is in tatters.

At one point the Bears were 6-2 and making plans not merely for the playoffs but to take a week off with a bye after the regular season. But four straight wins were followed by three straight losses, and after a scabby win against the New York Giants a week ago Sunday the Bears bottomed out–one can only hope–with a 27-7 loss to the Detroit Lions on Monday night.

The Bears are 7-6, behind the Philadelphia Eagles and tied with four other teams in the race for the three wild-card playoff spots in the National Football Conference. Yet they would lose a tiebreaker to at least two of those four teams and, most distressing of all, they haven’t beaten a team of note all season. They caught the Minnesota Vikings by surprise twice (three times going back to last season’s playoffs in January), and the Vikes otherwise are 7-4 this season, but those are the Bears’ most impressive wins of the year. Their other five wins have come at the hands of expansion teams and league doormats.

Monday we again made an attempt to immerse ourselves in the game, watching the line play first and foremost and following the ball as an afterthought. When the Bears were on defense, play after play was the same. The Bears’ pass rush went nowhere against the Lions’ offensive line. Detroit quarterback Scott Mitchell had all the time he needed to pass downfield. And the Bears were so intent on their pass rush that when Mitchell handed off to Barry Sanders, the Lions’ dangerous lone running back, he knifed through huge holes in the line. That, of course, was when the Lions felt like playing old-fashioned strategic football, helmet on helmet. More often than not they simply contented themselves with what the Bears’ so-called soft-coverage pass defense would give them.

The Bears have been playing the same way against the pass all season long, with the cornerbacks deep off the line of scrimmage, allowing the other teams’ wide receivers ample room to maneuver in order to stop the long bomb at all costs. But this has left the Bears open to short turnaround passes under the coverage and slightly deeper square-out patterns gaining 10 or 15 yards a pop. That’s what the Green Bay Packers used to defeat the Bears in the second game of the schedule; it’s a large part of what kept the Saint Louis Rams in the game in the fourth week; and it’s what allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers, Packers, and Lions (twice) to rack up huge yardage in outscoring the Bears in the last few games.

It has been an offensive year for the NFC Central (hold the guffaws, please), which traditionally has been known as the National Football League’s black-and-blue division. For various reasons–most having to do with rules changes and the normal cyclical shifts as offenses adapt to defensive schemes–the offense has had its way in football this season. That’s been as true for the Lions and Bears as for any other teams. In something of a surprise, especially as they were playing on the fast indoor track at the Pontiac Silverdome, each team went three downs and a punt in its first possession Monday. Then the Bears went three and out on their second possession. Error-prone rookie kicker Todd Sauerbrun, blamed for a couple of the Bears’ narrow losses, pinned the Lions on their nine yard line. At that point the Lions put together the following drive: Pass wide right to Herman Moore, pass wide right to Moore, pass wide right to Moore, pass wide left to Brett Perriman for variety’s sake, and then pass wide right to Moore, who shook off Kevin Miniefield and watched three Bears run into each other as he scampered down the sideline for a score–91 yards in five pass plays, four of them to Moore for 78 of those yards.

The Bears were busy going three and out on their first four possessions while the Lions were warming up Sanders, a muscular halfback who moves like a drop of mercury. As the Bears tried to put some kind of pass rush together Sanders darted through the line in the other direction for large chunks of yardage. With the Lions driving to the Bears’ doorstep and Sanders established as a threat, Detroit scored on a play-action pass to Johnnie Morton, the forgotten man–especially where the Bears were concerned–in the Lions’ three-wide-receiver lineup.

The Bears, clearly desperate, went to a trick play on the ensuing kickoff. They ran a reverse to Michael Timpson, and he was left all alone running down the right sideline until the Detroit kicker tackled him at the Lions’ 40. From there, however, it was once again three plays and out, and it became painfully obvious that while the Lions had spent the long layoff since their last game, on Thanksgiving, studying the gaping holes in the Bears’ defense, the Bears’ coaching staff had taken the week off. Where any team with aspirations to victory ought to have a handful of plays it knows are going to work under given circumstances, the Bears had none.

The game stagnated for most of the second quarter. The Lions halted a couple of their own promising drives with stupid penalties, and the Bears did the same. It was a case of the movable object meeting the all-too-resistible force. Then the Lions’ defense caught a case of the penalties, giving the Bears a first down on an offside call and another first down and a big gain on pass interference. The Bears had the ball at the Lions’ 36, but a sack pushed them back to the 43, a second sack to midfield. On third down and 24 yards to go, coach Dave Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Ron Turner took a page from the old Abe Gibron playbook by calling a screen pass. Robert Green got the ball down to the 37, but that was it. Kicker Kevin Butler tried a long field goal but came up short, giving the Lions the ball at the 44 yard line with just over three minutes to play. Four times the Bears had moved the ball into Detroit territory–usually through no fault of the offense–and four times they’d come up with nothing.

The Lions then went three straight times to Moore–once he simply ran five yards or so down the field, stopped, and stood waiting for the ball as if it were an overdue bus–to move deep into Bears territory. Mitchell threw wide right to Perriman incomplete, wide left to Moore incomplete, and then under to Sanders circling out of the backfield, and he scored almost untouched down the middle. It was 21-0 at halftime, and as Hub Arkush said on the WGN radio coverage, it wasn’t even that close. The Lions had outgained the Bears 241 yards to 65. Moore alone had caught nine passes for well over 100 yards and a touchdown.

The Bears put together one good drive in the third quarter, with Green scoring on a dashing broken-field run up the middle, but otherwise the second half was no better. In fact, Green was injured on the kickoff after his touchdown and left the game. The Lions grew cautious if not downright conservative and settled for a couple of field goals when they probably would have been more ambitious in a closer contest. It was 27-7 when the Lions simply turned the ball over on downs on the Bears’ five yard line in the last minute. So the final score wasn’t as close as it looked either.

Afterward, Wannstedt gave his usual “our guys are playing hard” spiel. Even the players saw through it. “Right now we’re mediocre,” Erik Kramer admitted on the Channel Seven news. The defensive line simply does not have the ability to complete; and since Pro Bowl cornerback Donnell Woolford went down with an injury the pass defense has been there for the picking. That has put more pressure on the offense, which Monday night finally succumbed to it and played tentatively for the first time this season.

If there’s been a quality to Wannstedt’s Bears it’s the ability to bounce back quickly from seemingly crushing defeats. But an equal, more disturbing quality has been the team’s propensity to squander the good, to draw back from improvement. That is the form the Bears are showing now. With the Bulls back in town and Mike McCaskey still threatening to move, it’s not just a question of whether the Bears will turn their fortunes around, but whether it matters if they do.