We join the Chicago Bears at a particularly appropriate time this season. At first glance, it seemed obvious that their schedule broke down into three separate parts: an extended opening sequence, in which they played three of their four Central Division opponents, along with possibly difficult tests against three American Conference East powers; a difficult middle sequence, in which they played traditional rivals Dallas, San Francisco, and Washington, along with Super Bowl XX opponent New England; and a harsh closing sequence, in which they met each of their division opponents, with the Los Angeles Rams thrown in for good measure as a not-very-restful recess. The season as it has turned out, however, has been all introduction up to here. Neither the Dolphins nor the Colts have been up to their glories of years past this season, a potentially difficult game against the Buffalo Bills turned out to be an easy victory, and the contest with the Cowboys last Sunday lacked the usual intensity between these two teams; it was not so much a demonstration of pupil against teacher (the usual Ditka-Landry flash point) as it was, merely, a warm-up for Monday night's game against the San Francisco 49ers. That game is only the Bears' second important contest of the season, but it comes at a critical time, with the pace picking up, leading toward games in Washington three weeks later, Los Angeles three weeks after that, and Minneapolis only two weeks after that to close the campaign. So let's just say the game went into extra innings, we missed the long and oftentimes boring overture, and that it's now time to settle into our seats, open our opera glasses, and concentrate. The season has been going quite some time, but the actual drama begins on Monday.
The benefits of this late arrival are many, but the most obvious is that by concentrating on the real drama we avoid the soap opera that typically surrounds the Bears. For instance, already we've missed the usual training-camp questions about Jim McMahon's health, William Perry's sustenance-abuse problem, Willie Gault's departure, the right-to-privacy squabble of Richard Dent, the substance-abuse problem of Calvin Thomas and his subsequent departure, the usual coach-criticizing-one-area-of-the-team debate (this time concerning some new dramatis personae), the losses of Jimbo Covert, Otis Wilson, and the Fridge to injuries, and of course Mike Ditka's continued and heightened fights with the media. To borrow a line from a comic strip about to return to the newspapers after a 15-year absence, it hardly seems as if we've been away.
This is a critical year for Ditka. As far as the Bears themselves are concerned, some measured amount of coaching is required of him; because it is a fragile team with apparent weaknesses and obvious strengths, it will bear the coach's stamp more than any other Bears squad since at least 1985 and probably before that. As far as the league is concerned, he faces an arising divisional threat in Minnesota, and splinter squads led by Chicago turncoats in New Orleans and Philadelphia. It's been heartening to see him willingly delegate authority, surrendering offensive play-calling responsibilities to the former quarterback with the Lions, Greg Landry, and the offense has improved in large part because of this move. Whether Ditka was too ambitious last season in thinking he could handle all his duties, or whether he had simply grown too conservative as coach is now a subject for postmortem. He continues to lead and shape the Bears according to his own (and George Halas's) criteria of what makes a good football team. Yet Ditka continues to bash the media so regularly it almost seems as if he's running for a late spot on the Republican ticket. Football is not politics, of course, and sportswriters, granted, are probably not as innately intelligent as their counterparts on the op-ed page (although, in light of the coverage of this campaign, an argument can be made that they know their area of expertise at least as well, and probably a good deal better). Yet there is something creepy about anyone who unites his forces against a common opponent, especially when that opponent becomes the media.
The main benefit of Ditka's battles with the media has been that the Bears no longer air their dirty laundry communally. There seems to be an attitude on the team to settle down and take care of business. Notice, in the above list of Bear clashes, the domination of actual football news: the abundance of injuries over relatively inconsequential events such as Ditka calling Minnesota's football stadium the Rollerdome. It's good that the number of Bear faux pas is down, but it's bad--and not unexpected--that their injuries are up. They are an aging team. The old phrase, "Don't trust anyone over 30," doesn't apply to society anymore so much as it applies to life in the NFL. The Bears' offensive line is coming apart. Covert is out with an injury, and in his absence the others have allowed surprisingly easy access to McMahon. It's the main flaw of the offense. As mentioned, the offensive play calling is now much more varied and unpredictable; it is no longer run three times, pass over Willie Gault's head, and run three more times. This offers McMahon some hope, but the fact remains that the Vikings walked all over him in the Bears' lone loss this season, and that even in coasting over the Cowboys, McMahon took some good shots. It can only get worse unless Covert returns.
On defense, the able professional, Mike Singletary, continues to run back and forth along the line of scrimmage, checking the squad for cracks and flaws in the manner of a Dutch dike engineer. Injuries, again, have caused at least temporary problems. Wilson's absence has caused a thus-far manageable crisis at outside linebacker, and a similar situation afflicts the already iffy secondary, where Shaun Gayle is out for the season and Dave Duerson is ailing. The question, on defense as on offense, is how good are the Bears' second-stringers now that they are first stringers? The answer is critical to the Bears' success this season.
Because the Bears' character, as a team, is in a state of flux. Not only are they not the reborn Monsters of the Midway of three seasons ago, they are not the team that has been trying to retain that awesome title--and ultimately failing--the last two years. In this they appear to reflect the changing character of the game. For three seasons, first the Niners, then the Bears, and then the New York Giants took turns lording over the NFL, with each new champion more mighty and fearsome than the one before. Last year, the apparently rebuilding Washington Redskins won it all with a team that was merely sufficiently professional. On defense, they stopped their opponents from doing what they needed to do to win, while the offense got the ball into the end zone often enough to overwhelm the opponents' defense. It was a simple game, simply played. This year, again, no one team seems ready to dominate the league, and the Bears, for all their faults, appear to have as good a chance as anyone to win it all. Just as with the Redskins last year, they have awesomely talented individuals among gaping holes, and the question of how good they are is answered in how well they spackle. The Bears have thrown kids into important positions at wide receiver, safety, and linebacker, and thus far not only are they succeeding but they are threatening to produce new stars such as Ron Morris, David Tate, and Dante Jones. Unfortunately, the Bears have been tested but once this year, and they came up short. That's why Monday's game takes on pivotal importance; it is the fulcrum of the season.
It is the first game of the very difficult second half of the Bears' schedule. (If age displays itself as it did a year ago, the Bears will be more injury prone in the later stages of the season.) It is their second major test, and their first real chance to redeem themselves for the loss to the Vikings. It is, more importantly, an acid test for the defense. The Bears are one of only two NFL teams to have held their opponents under 100 points through seven games, and they have done so by a wide margin, allowing only 74. Yet the Niners' offense includes players almost designed to exploit the Bears' weaknesses--a scrambling, veteran quarterback, Joe Montana, and a burner at wide receiver in Jerry Rice. The extra day of preparation is almost certain to benefit the Niners' brainy Bill Walsh more than it benefits the Bears' brawny Mike Ditka. Likewise, the Bears' most important recent regular-season losses have come on Monday nights, from the Denver Broncos on back through the Los Angeles Rams to the one loss of 1985, suffered at the hands of the Miami Dolphins. With the Vikings collapsing under the weight of their quarterback problems, the Bears also find the game meaning less to them than it means to the Niners, who are locked in a three-way melee for first in the West with the Rams and the arising Saints, managed by Jim Finks. The Niners have also won 11 straight games on the road--an amazing feat in these days of NFL parity. It says here that the Niners will win, but this too is a reflection of changing times; with the Bears more tentative and iffy, we are less apt to throw our confidence behind them. Then again, we just sat down. Early on in a stage performance, we are led to expect many things that aren't going to happen; that's the nature of drama.