Mere proficiency has never been so greatly appreciated.
The Bears seem to have returned to respectability--if not the fearsome stature of their prime--and it's surprised almost everyone, even their most die-hard fans. Only a few months ago the Bears emerged from the humiliation of the Dave Wannstedt era, and though it seemed they could sink no further, down they went. The search for a new coach to replace Wannstedt was so badly muffed by Michael McCaskey that it turned out to be his last act as team president. He chose former Bears assistant coach Dave McGinnis, someone schooled in the team's fierce history, to return the Bears to prominence, but lowballed him with an embarrassing contract offer. Announcing the hiring before getting final word from McGinnis, McCaskey was stunned to discover that McGinnis was actually turning him down to remain an assistant with the Arizona Cardinals. McCaskey quickly backpedaled and got confirmation from his second choice, Dick Jauron, but the public-relations gaffe made even Bears owner Virginia McCaskey, Mike's mother and the last direct tie to "Papa Bear" George Halas, question his competence. He was bumped upstairs and replaced as president by Ted Phillips. Phillips had previously been known as a bean counter and the team's tightfisted negotiator of contracts, but he was considered a step up from McCaskey. Even so, Jauron was now in charge as McCaskey's last and perhaps worst legacy. Meeting the media, Jauron came off as soft-spoken to the point of timidity, the weaker heir placed in charge of the country after the more courageous brother fell on his sword in battle, the dark-horse candidate suddenly made the leader of the free world--the Calvin Coolidge of football coaches.
Six games into the National Football League season, Jauron still seems a man out of place. Standing on the sideline with his shirt tucked in and his crisp, white Bears cap on his head, he seems the quietest of several soccer dads watching their daughters play a school match. (The sport humorist Norman Chad recently referred to him as "the coach most likely to use a palm pilot.") Yet the great thing about sports is there's no arguing with results, and winning changes everything. Chicago fans embarked on the new NFL season with the near certainty that the Bears would make it a clean sweep of failure for the city's major pro franchises--as the Blackhawks, the Bulls, the Cubs, and the White Sox had already ended seasons in 1999 with losing records. Yet when the Bears bumped off the Minnesota Vikings two games ago they moved ahead of the National Football Conference's defending Central Division champions at 3-2 . It's anything but certain the Bears will end the season with a winning record. They went on to be upset last Sunday by the Philadelphia Eagles. What's more, they're a young team that probably will hit a wall soon, as the rigors of the longer pro season weigh on these recent collegians. But even if things come to such an end, the Bears are better off than they were. In the current Chicago sport scene any sign of progress is welcome.
The major event in the reconsideration of Jauron was the stunning victory at Soldier Field over the New Orleans Saints and Da Coach, Mike Ditka. In the manner of college football rivalries, a pro coach can sometimes save a season--and his job--by beating the arch rival, and any team Ditka coaches against the Bears is automatically the arch rival. Though removed to the Crescent City, Ditka still holds sway over Chicago as the epitome of the old school Bears. Diminished, it seems, by the mere stereotype of a football coach, Jauron shrinks further next to an outsize figure like Ditka. Yet though the Bears were badly outplayed for most of the game, they rallied to win by scoring on their last two possessions, the final touchdown coming with eight seconds to play. Ditka tore off his headphones and hurled them to the ground in a vintage performance. Suddenly there seemed to be a purpose to Jauron's methodical approach, a slyness beneath that calm and even dumb demeanor. Next to the cartoonish Ditka he was Cecil Turtle, one of the few characters ever to get the best of Bugs Bunny.
The main advantage Jauron has over Wannstedt is that Jauron seems to know talent. Wannstedt was constantly picking guys who looked like football players over guys who played like football players. For instance, look at the way he'd cut tight end Keith Jennings only to discover the tight ends he kept couldn't catch the ball. A few weeks later Jennings would be back on the team, making Wannstedt look good and bad at the same time. Shane Matthews is another guy Wannstedt cut more than once. Yet Jauron made him the team's stopgap starting quarterback while top draft pick Cade McNown learns the ropes, and Matthews made the most of it before pulling up lame in the upset of the Vikes. Matthews is a slim, slight player who looks no more like a quarterback than Jauron looks like a coach, but the conservative yet unpredictable game plans Jauron and offensive coordinator Gary Crowton came up with for him made the most of his strengths. Matthews recalled Steve Walsh, the quarterback who stole the job from the seemingly more capable Erik Kramer several years ago.
Jauron isn't just a better judge of talent; he also seems to have an uncanny and thoroughly unconventional knack for motivating players. His decision to throw McNown in for a couple of series in each of the Bears' first few games was roundly criticized, even by the team's radio color analysts, Hub Arkush and Tom Thayer. Yet Jauron proved able to give McNown playing time without shaking Matthews's confidence (think of how the departed Kramer would have responded if Jauron had done the same with him), and that paid undeniable dividends when Matthews went down and McNown was forced prematurely into the starting role.
Jauron's soft-spoken ways also seem to have motivated the team's flakier and moodier players. Curtis Conway was an enigma wrapped in an arm tackle for most of the Wannstedt era. If his play hasn't been that much more consistent under Jauron, at least he's had the mental toughness to play through his bad stretches. Against the Vikings he dropped a pass in the end zone early on and generally looked like someone who had money down on Minnesota to cover the two-touchdown point spread. Yet just as he'd played well in the closing moments of the Saints game, he again led the Bears to victory with an excellent run in which he caught the ball at the 20, cut back to lose the defender, then deked and drove his way to the goal line, going over the players he couldn't go around. Jauron has gotten similar if not quite as dramatic results out of running back Curtis Enis, a free spirit who's one of the few current Bears who probably could have made room for himself as a character on the personality-heavy Bears teams of the 80s. Enis established himself in training camp as someone who liked to drive around playing his music at levels not even R. Kelly would attempt, and Jauron playfully chided him in the media without criticizing him. When Enis struck a nude-centerfold pose after scoring in the team's second game of the season--a loss, and a loss Enis contributed to with a fumble--Jauron took issue only with the appearance that Enis had contrived the pose beforehand and it wasn't spontaneous. In other words, this seemingly bland man is willing to let his players be characters without egging them on to be characters, as Ditka so often did. This has proved instrumental in giving a young team the confidence to survive its inevitable mistakes.
This confidence shows most on defense, where Jauron has instilled his bend-but-don't-break philosophy. Everyone knows that Bears fans like a fearsome defensive team. Even when the Bears were awful, as in the Abe Gibron days of the 70s, they were tolerable so long as they played ferocious defense. Wannstedt most alienated Bears fans by playing a softer defense, and he was infamous for calling on his cornerbacks to play well off the opposing wide receivers even when the other team was first-and-goal. Before coming to the Bears, Jauron was a defensive coordinator for Jacksonville, where he developed a reputation for giving up a lot of yardage but relatively few points. Against Minnesota, the no-name Bears defense five times allowed the Vikings inside the 20 but kept them from a touchdown. It was a convincing display against one of the league's more potent offenses.
Of course it was also living dangerously, and the Bears came back to reality Sunday against the Eagles. The young team made more than its fair share of mistakes, committing nine penalties, and McNown was unsteady throughout while throwing one scrambling bomb for a touchdown. The 20-16 loss left the Bears even at 3-3, which is a better position than almost anyone had expected going into the season. And Jauron has the victory over Ditka in his back pocket. The Bears could go winless the rest of the year and it would be a successful rookie season for Jauron. If he ever loses to a Wannstedt-coached team, however, it will be a different story.