In the fourth quarter of the Bears' NFC semifinal against Philadelphia, I wrote in my notebook, "Which will prevail, the Eagles' intensity or the Bears' composure?" Composure was the signature of this year's Bears, enabling them to pull off come-from-behind overtime victories over the San Francisco 49ers and the Cleveland Browns. But in the end it brought them nothing more than a little dignity in defeat.
And very little dignity it was. Plain and simple, the Bears got whipped.
The temptation is to call this an instructive loss, a rite of passage, like the thumping the Bears took in the NFC championship game against the Niners at the end of the 1984 season. That loss steeled the team's determination for the following year's championship campaign, and it planted in coach Mike Ditka's mind the germ of the idea that would become William "Refrigerator" Perry in the backfield. But times have changed, and so has the National Football League. A team could once count on keeping its young talent together for several seasons and letting its players develop; not so today. Yes, the Bears have linebacker Brian Urlacher and running back Anthony Thomas, respectively the defensive and offensive rookies of the year during the past two seasons, tied up for years to come; but they'll have to scramble to retain other critical elements, such as Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz, one of the few Bears to show any backbone against the Eagles.
The NFL's parity is a fixed game. It's based on rigged schedules--with the best teams of one season assigned to knock each other off the next, while bad teams that show moderate improvement, like the Bears, can go from 5-11 to 13-3 by beating up on patzers--and on an overabundance of free agents shifting teams between seasons. The NFL's salary cap, like the NBA's, ensures a shuffling of middle-range talent from year to year. Suck-up sportswriters trying to appeal to owners are always insisting that baseball needs a cap, but give me the continuity of baseball's arbitration and more restrictive free-agent system over the owner-enforced musical chairs of the NFL and the NBA anytime. The 1984 Bears knew they would come back a better, stronger, more experienced, and more determined team in 1985. This season's Bears don't have that certainty, and uncertainty can undermine anyone's composure.
What's amazing in hindsight is how the Bears managed to hang so long with the Eagles, even as they were being beaten up. From the opening kickoff the Eagles--who had played the week before, beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a first-round playoff game, and who had reached the playoffs the previous season--took the action to the Bears. Offensive tackle Jon Runyan and defensive end Hugh Douglas were the ringleaders. The Bears stayed in the game by taking advantage of Eagles mistakes, such as persistent unnecessary-roughness penalties for late hits. Immediately after a second-quarter roughing-the-passer call bumped the Bears forward 15 yards into Philadelphia territory, fleet-footed backup receiver Ahmad Merritt ran an end around 47 yards for a touchdown, finishing with an elegant dive into the end zone over a downfield block by tight end Fred Baxter. The Eagles had moved the ball twice for field goals--the second one largely the product of a long pass produced by scrambling quarterback Donovan McNabb--but Merritt's touchdown gave the Bears a 7-6 lead.
It should be noted that the roughing penalty was a ticky-tack makeup call. Douglas had driven the Bears' starting quarterback, Jim Miller, into the turf following an interception, sending him to the locker room with what turned out to be a separated shoulder. When he nevertheless rejoined his teammates on the sideline, the fans' reaction turned the momentum of the game. Punter Brad Maynard had pinned the Eagles at their five-yard line moments before Miller showed up, and even over the TV one could feel the fans at the south end of Soldier Field leaning on the Eagles' offense. The crowd got even louder when Urlacher ran McNabb down in the open field to force a punt, and two plays later Merritt scored. The rabid fans played as big a role in that TD as Baxter did with his block.
It was a day for fan mania, and not just at Soldier Field. A few hours before, Michael Jordan returned to town with his Washington Wizards, and despite a muted introduction by PA announcer Ray Clay, the sustained standing ovation from the packed house at the United Center left even the unflappable Jordan overwrought. But that welcome was the high point of his day. Jordan never really got going, and though he played a solid team game and led the Wizards through the rough patches with 16 points and 12 rebounds, his nine turnovers almost completed an ignominious triple double. Fortunately for him, the Bulls were much worse--much, much worse. They missed their first 13 shots and went on to make just 7 of 42 from the field in scoring 27 points in the first half. The Wizards had only 35 themselves, but pulled it together enough to take a 55-38 lead into the final quarter. The Bulls finally hit a few three-pointers at the end and lost 77-69. The fans had produced the most memorable moment of the game.
Unfortunately for the Bears, that was largely true at Soldier Field as well. McNabb stymied the crowd by guiding the Eagles on an impressive drive just before halftime. Apparently stopped at the Bears' 36-yard line, the Eagles went for it on fourth and one, and McNabb converted a lovely little toss to his tight end. It was the old misdirection bootleg play that Joe Montana used to run back in the Niners' Bill Walsh days. Then McNabb scrambled while fullback Cecil Martin drifted into the end zone all alone--one could imagine Martin whistling like a cartoon character, his eyes rolling to the sky, as he sauntered down the sideline--and McNabb hit him to put the Eagles back in the lead, 13-7, at intermission.
Halftime brought official word that Miller would not play again. And in the Bears' first possession of the third quarter, both Marty Booker and Dez White were knocked out of the game by savage hits. But even after punting, the Bears found a way to reclaim the lead. Cornerback R.W. McQuarters got his hand on a pass and the ball bounced around in the air between players like a party balloon until Jerry Azumah grabbed it and ran into the end zone for a touchdown that put the Bears up 14-13.
Yet the punishment continued. Brian Mitchell ran the kickoff back 30 yards, into Chicago territory, finishing with a head-on-head collision that sent Mike Brown to the sideline with a concussion. The Bears defense stiffened, keeping the Eagles out of field-goal range, but a Philadelphia punt pinned Chicago deep, and when Maynard--who had kicked the Bears out of many a jam during the season--produced a boot of only 15 yards, the Eagles took over at the Bears' 37-yard line. The Bears' immobile quarterbacks, Miller and his replacement Shane Matthews, were sitting ducks for the Eagles' rush, but the Bears could never get a good hit on McNabb, the sturdy and elusive former Mount Carmel star. Even when they sacked him on this drive, he got up and completed his next pass, marching Philadelphia to the ten-yard line. There the Eagles tried a trick formation. Running back Duce Staley lined up as a wide receiver and nobody took him. McNabb, calling for the hike before the Bears noticed, hit Staley with a scoring pass to give the Eagles back the lead at 20-14. TV commentator Daryl Johnston pointed out that Brown, the Bears' man on the ball all season, would no doubt have sniffed out the ploy, but he was on the bench clearing the cobwebs with smelling salts.
The Bears weren't done. Make one thing clear: they never did quit or lack for courage. Brown returned to the game even with his concussion, as did Booker with his separated shoulder. The Bears rested their hopes, as they had so often this season, on their massive offensive line wearing down the defense. This the line seemed ready to do, pushing the Eagles back on their next possession. Thomas wasn't finishing his runs--not the way Staley was for the Eagles--and the drive stalled, but Paul Edinger kicked a field goal. With the Bears just three points back early in the fourth quarter, this is when I noted to myself that the battle between composure and intensity remained in doubt.
It soon wasn't. McNabb marched the Eagles again, and David Akers lined up his third field goal of the game. Here was another sign that this wasn't the Bears' day: it was January but the weather was moderate, and the lake gusts that typically give the hometown kicker such an advantage at Soldier Field weren't blowing. Akers's kick split the uprights from 40 yards out to put the Eagles ahead 23-17.
Then disaster struck. Autry Denson returned the kickoff 19 yards and fumbled. The defense rose to the occasion, even sacking McNabb, but he returned the Eagles to field-goal range with a third-down pass to Staley, and Akers's 46-yard kick put the Eagles up 26-17. It was now a two-possession game with six and a half minutes to go.
Matthews had rallied the Bears against the Niners with two late touchdowns, but he was nowhere near as sharp on this afternoon. The Bears went three and out, and on their next series Matthews threw an interception that McNabb's quarterback draw converted into a touchdown. Matthews drove the Bears against the Eagles' prevent defense, but he threw another pick and the Eagles ran out the clock, punter Sean Landeta taking a safety on the final play. The loss was much worse than the 33-19 final score.
Much worse because it left them so little to build on. An NFL team can take great strides during the year and find the sand shifting beneath its feet during the off-season. This season might turn out to be a stepping-stone to the Super Bowl, but it's more likely that next fall will find the Bears mired in a salary-cap muddle, as they slog through a home schedule played downstate at the University of Illinois because Soldier Field is being overhauled.
I think of this season as a mirage, an illusion, a tangible dream. I'd like to preserve the image of Brown running in those overtime interceptions for game-winning touchdowns on consecutive Sundays. Instead, I find myself waking to the memory of him sitting on the sideline in a daze while the Eagles throw to a receiver who isn't covered.