Anyone who doubts that sport reflects the society at large hasn’t examined the Bears of late. The Bears embody almost everything that’s good–and that’s disappointing–about the 90s so far, especially compared with the 80s. There’s an air of political correctness about the Bears this season, with Dave Wannstedt as head coach. The Bears played the Minnesota Vikings a week ago last Monday and the Green Bay Packers last Sunday–two long-term black-and-blue division rivals–but in both cases the hype and the competition were sporting and gentlemanly. There were only the routine vendettas played out in the media–a little to-do between the Bears Richard Dent and the Vikes’ Mike Tice and, of course, the one between Jim McMahon, now with the Vikes, and Bears owner Mike McCaskey; then nothing whatsoever out of the ordinary with the Packers. And in both cases the Bears took a licking like men and left the field with their chins up or their heads held high, having laid it all on the line or left it all on the field or whatever honorable phrase one chooses.
Wannstedt, like most of his coaching brethren, is prone to cliches, but he never begins a statement “In life…,” and this alone is such a refreshing change it’s hard for a fan not to be elated. The members of the Bears no longer leave the field wondering who will be called inept or gutless after the game or who will be singled out for abuse in the media on Tuesday, after the films have been screened. And that’s an improvement for both the Bears and their fans. It’s important to remember that nobody who recommends political correctness is trying to make our lives boring; they’re trying to make our lives better, better than anyone has any right to expect. And the Bears’ lives, it seems, are better today than they were a year ago. Mike Ditka is gone, and with him has gone the laissez-faire economy (with his relentless hucksterism) and the social Darwinism (his survival-of-the-fittest motivational techniques) that made him such an emblem of his era.
Yet I think any fan of the Bears would be hard-pressed to say some vitality didn’t go out of the Bears at the same time. Led by the kindly, never-say-anything-bad-about-anybody Wannstedt, the Bears are a nice team that inspires little ardor. More important, they aren’t very good. But on the other hand, so far this year they’re better than almost anybody expected.
The Bears are playing as a team now–as a real team, not as a team run by Ditka. After winning Super Bowl XX, Ditka methodically went about the process of proving that it’s not players but coaches who win championships, and of course he proved just the opposite. By the end he was celebrating team concepts, all right; he was celebrating his team as a bunch of underachievers and himself as the Ubercoach who made them worth watching. With Wannstedt, there’s no question that it’s players, not coaches, who win. He comes from the Dallas Cowboys, who went from a 1-15 season to the NFL championship in record time by adding players like Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin to a nucleus that included Troy Aikman. Wannstedt was the defensive coordinator on that team, and while he saw that it’s great players who get a coach to the Super Bowl he also saw that team defense is what gives those great players the confidence to succeed on offense. Last year’s Cowboys were known for their no-name defense, the contribution of Wannstedt to the mix. He knows the importance of team schemes; he knows those schemes should be altered to suit great talents.
The problem is the Bears have no great talents. So while Wannstedt’s first year coaching the Bears is now on its way to being a disappointment, it’s also about as encouraging as one could have imagined. The offense is a mess because it is almost devoid of Super Bowl-caliber players, but the defense has been splendid. Everyone knows that fans of the Bears treasure defense above all else, so there’s hope yet for Wannstedt.
There is no hope for Jim Harbaugh, either on or off the field. To be fair–and we’re nothing if not fair these days–he has gotten no support. The Bears’ offensive line was long neglected by Ditka, who drove his five horses from the Super Bowl–Jimbo Covert, Tom Thayer, Jay Hilgenberg, Mark Bortz, and Keith Van Horne–until they gave out, almost en masse. Wannstedt has been forced to give up on a wasted first-round draft choice (Stan Thomas) and patch up the line as best he can. It has not been pretty. Harbaugh was sacked nine times against the Vikings two weeks ago and seven times against the Packers last Sunday. That has taken some of the pleasure out of booing him.
Because, really, it isn’t fair. We all feel that Harbaugh is a no-talent bum who has gone about as far as he can go on the friendship of McCaskey, but it’s not fair to reach that conclusion based on his play this season. He has had no time to pass and no one to hand off to who could find anywhere to run. He has no skill at reading defenses, and as a rule he is too quick to pull down the ball and take off running. But with the team he’s playing for it wouldn’t matter if he could read defenses, and with the defensive linemen pouring in it’s to his credit that he takes off running as soon as he can. Let’s put it this way: anyone who wasn’t booing Harbaugh a year or two ago has no right to boo him now. Those people are just going to have to wait for him to move on, which– considering how goddamned durable he is and how palsy-walsy he is with McCaskey–could yet be a long time coming.
The defense, however, has only gotten better as the season has gone on–this with a ragtag collection of grizzled but proud veterans and youngsters who, all things considered, really don’t look very good, player for player. Name a defensive player who is having a great season for the Bears. Donnell Woolford and Chris Zorich are the only ones who have come close, and they’ve both been prone to stupid mistakes. Yet the Bears have played strong defense, and their three-game winning streak in the middle of the season so far was almost entirely the work of the defense (in a 6-0 victory over the anemic Atlanta Falcons, it was entirely the work of the defense).
To recap the season, the Bears began with a narrow loss to the New York Giants in a battle of coaches making their debuts–Dan Reeves with the Giants and Wannstedt with the Bears. Then the Bears lost to the Vikings in Minnesota–without so much as a peep about the Rollerdome. After a week off, Wannstedt got on the board with a big win over the sorry Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Then came the shaving of the Falcons and–in the biggest surprise of the Bears’ season so far–an upset of the then unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles.
The Eagles, to be sure, were fresh from the loss of their quarterback, Randall Cunningham, with a broken leg, and had to rely on Bubby Brister, who had one great season with the Pittsburgh Steelers and then played his way out of town. He had a miserable day, and the Bears pounced all over him.
After another week off, however, the Bears showed their true colors with the losses to the Vikes and the Pack. What was most discouraging was not that the Bears lost to those teams–they both have better players, after all–but how they lost. As mentioned before, the Bears-Vikings game got personal in only two areas: Dent-Tice (Tice suggested Dent had given up in the first meeting of the two teams) and McMahon-Harbaugh (McCaskey’s on-field proxy). The Bears won the Dent-Tice bout but lost the more important McMahon-Harbaugh matchup and therefore lost the game. McMahon wasn’t exactly impressive, but he led the Vikes to a touchdown in the first half and refused to make a serious mistake in the second. Harbaugh, meanwhile, was awful and threw an interception returned for a touchdown. That was the margin of victory in a 19-12 Minnesota triumph.
The Green Bay game was no better. The defense again played pretty well and the offense again played horribly. After an early field goal, the Pack got back on the board when quarterback Brett Favre caught Woolford playing a deep zone on Sterling Sharpe only 21 yards from the end zone. Sharpe did a little dipsy-do shoulder fake and turned to catch the ball for a touchdown. After that it was a very even game, except that the Bears only once managed to get into field-goal range and stay there long enough to convert. (The two biggest muffs of the day came on a bobbled snap by holder Chris Gardocki and a dropped halfback-option pass from Neal Anderson to Ryan Wetnight.) In the fourth quarter Maury Buford–in a return to the days of Bobby Joe Green, a punter is the Bears’ top offensive weapon–kicked the ball to the Green Bay 10-yard line, where the Pack took over with eight minutes to play. The Bears trailed 10-3, but if the defense held they could get the ball back in good field position and attempt to steal the game. Yet the Pack ran the ball all the way downfield–mostly behind tackle Tootie Robbins, who was grinding the Bears’ Trace Armstrong into 75 percent lean hamburger–and went ahead 17-3 with less than two minutes to play.
So it’s not fair to judge Wannstedt yet, and it may not be fair to judge him next year. He has inherited a mess from the previous incumbent and things may yet have to get worse before they get better. And of course we fans of the Bears want to be fair these days, want to make sure everybody gets a fair shake and no one gets booed undeservedly. The Bears are not going anywhere this year, and if they could get anything resembling a first-round draft choice for either Dent or Steve McMichael they’d be advised to. But hey, that’s treating human beings like commodities, and we’re not into that anymore. While we’re at it, cancel that regular order for Italian sausage, put away the schnapps, and hey, charcoal is bad for the ozone, isn’t it? From now on, at tailgate parties, it’ll be cocoa from a thermos, bran muffins, and trail mix. Bear down, Chicago Bears–but please don’t hurt anything or anybody.