Earlier this football season, I survived something of a crisis. For about the 25th time in my life--but for the first time in several years--I decided I just didn't enjoy the sport. I spent the first three weeks of the season in Europe, which effectively removed me from the season-long, spread-based office football pool, and when I returned I threw myself briskly back into baseball. By the time I got to football, studying it as yet another cultural artifact, it seemed once again a mean and brutish sport, violent and territorial. Which it is. But this time--without the point spreads to concentrate on--football seemed especially senseless. When the Bears game had ended, and the next game came on, I couldn't for the life of me figure out why anyone was watching, and sometimes I couldn't even figure out why anyone was watching the Bears. This may seem a rational state of mind to many people, but it is a very dark night for anyone attempting to write about sports.
What saved me--to my betterment or detriment, who knows-- was a book by Paul Zimmerman called The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football. The book has carried a very weighty reputation in football circles for about 20 years now, first in its original state, then in its revised edition, published in 1984, when the "new" was added to the title. It is, by the way, a very bad title--not least because it's ambiguous whether it's a new man or a new guide we're talking about--and it turned me off to reading the book until I found a used paperback copy for four dollars. The title gives off several connotations, almost all of them bad. It threatens on the surface to be a cerebral and ultimately lily-livered analysis of the game. If it does delve into strategy, with a title like that, it will probably be all diagrams and tactics, forgetting that it's people playing the game, beating on one another and making one another feel pain.
In fact, the book does explain various tactics, defenses, and offensive plays in detail, but its main strength is that Zimmerman (a former high school, college, and semipro player himself) is always alert to the players' and coaches' idiosyncrasies and foibles, to human nature as it's displayed on the gridiron--a trite phrase that doesn't do justice to the people and their conflicts portrayed in the book. The book is peppered with anecdotes that entertain on all levels, that illustrate the points Zimmerman makes in a way that always reminds the reader that it's people playing the game. For an example, this wonderfully philosophical quote from the recently retired coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh: "The key to professional growth is a natural inquisitiveness. When you lose that you're not going to grow at all." A better title for this book might be "The Best Football Book Ever Written," although this, no doubt, would alienate at least as many people as the current title does.
Zimmerman writes for Sports Illustrated, where his precise, persistent analysis of football has earned him the title Dr. Z. If I were to break the doctor's charts, theories, and stories down to a single concept, it would be to stress the point he makes early in the book, in discussing offensive linemen--that when watching a football game, on television or in person, the place to focus one's attention is not on the quarterbacks or running backs, the men in motion or the wide receivers, but on the line of scrimmage, "the pit," as the players call it, where the real battle for domination between the two teams takes place on every play of the game. This point is so simple, so elementary, that I'd compare it to telling a young baseball fan watching a televised game to watch not the batter as he swings but the pitcher and where he's trying to throw the ball. This simple piece of advice changes the game, as it's perceived, completely. It lays bare the strategy within the game, the coaching and the tactics on both sides of the field. It was, for me, an epiphany.
Suddenly, I found every game entertaining; the sport made sense as a battle of tactics between two coaches and as a battle for domination between two groups of men, the offensive and defensive lines. I could go over to visit my friend the Boomer--an attorney, a Georgetown Law School graduate, a University of Illinois sportswriter, and a high school center and nose guard who devolves along just this course every weekend--and we could discuss the splits in the formation of an offensive line, the strengths and weaknesses of the queer defense of the Los Angeles Rams, which sometimes shifts to two down linemen and five linebackers, the advantages of trap blocking over straight-ahead bursts against a team, like the Minnesota Vikings, that relies on quickness and pursuit. If this sounds tiresome, it probably is, but it brought me back to the game, and it heightened the simple pleasures of watching a Notre Dame-Penn State contest--football as it's meant to be played, between two sound squads, and with that wonderful, quick, massive, precise Fighting Irish offensive line blowing a very good Penn State defense off the ball with every snap.
This simple change in focus also gave me back the Bears. After last Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a caller phoned in to the postgame football talk show on Channel Two, where John "Bulldog" Drummond is the host, and the man said he loved the Bears because he loved the players but he found himself rooting against them because he hated Mike Ditka so much. A lot of us have felt that way, myself included. I even tried rooting against the Bears, during my dark period, and for a couple of weeks it was a kick. In the end, however, it was too painful--especially the game at Green Bay, when Mike Singletary congratulated the Packers' quarterback Don Majkowski for a tremendous effort that apparently ended with a penalty, only to watch the penalty reversed, minutes later, by a replay official, giving the Packers a win. So I took my new way of watching a game and applied it to the Bears, to the defensive front line and the offensive line, and not only couldn't I root against the Bears, but I could root for them with passion.
To quote Dr. Z on the defensive front four: "If the foundation cracks, the whole thing comes down, because the line is where it all starts." The Bears' defense has improved as the pass rush has improved, because it remains the case that no one runs against the Bears. (Critics of William Perry, take note, because he is the main reason for this fact.) When the Bears lost Richard Dent for a game, their defensive secondary was helpless. When rookie Trace Armstrong finally joined Dent last Sunday in providing a decent pass rush, the Bears' defense for a time looked invincible. In the meantime, the Bears have found another fine pass-rushing linebacker in John Roper to almost but not quite replace Otis Wilson (no one will ever replace Wilber Marshall), while returning more often (beginning with the Cleveland game, the game in which the defense turned the corner) to the Dave Duerson safety blitz. Watching these new young players fit in with the old guard--Singletary and Steve McMichael--is one of the subtle pleasures of watching the Bears these days.
Another subtle pleasure--but a risky one--is watching these veterans strive to retain their talents as long as possible. It's a difficult battle to watch, sometimes, because it's a battle every player will eventually lose. Last Sunday, the Bucs came out throwing short passes to receivers they knew Singletary would be covering. To see them working, quite successfully, on a player we have grown to respect above all others was painful. Yet Singletary struck back the only way he knew how, laying out a Tampa Bay receiver with a ferocious tackle early in the game. After that, the Bucs stayed away from Singletary. That's football at its best: territorial and violent, yes, but not gratuitously so, always with meaning and drama attached. Sometime in the next two years, Singletary will become a liability for the Bears. Not only will he no longer be able to successfully cover tight ends and running backs, but he'll no longer have the capability of committing such violence in his own defense. That will be a sad day. In the meantime, watching him defend his area with diminished capabilities, using all the skills he's amassed over the years, is one of the prime joys and dramas of the Chicago Bears.
The same is true of the offensive line, the one consistent source of the Bears' offensive strength over the last several years. The Bears did not choose an offensive lineman high in the college draft last spring, as they knew they had to, so it now appears that the offensive line will stick together until all these great players deteriorate at once--which, again, will be soon, within the next two years. Yet, again, this is the source of drama for the Bears, watching the line trying to do with skills what it once did with brawn. For the last few weeks, since I've changed my way of looking at the game, I've cried out at the television, telling the Bears to run the football the way they used to. Last week, when the Bears fell behind 10-0, commentator Dan Jiggetts filled the airtime by saying the Bucs were controlling the game offensively and defensively. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Bears' defense was dominating the line of scrimmage, and they did so for most of the game. Until the fourth quarter, the Bucs never scored on an extended drive but always exploited mistakes by the Bears' quarterback, Jim Harbaugh. And the offensive line was surging off the ball. When they weren't being called for stupid holding penalties, the Bears were picking up large chunks of yardage on the ground. (If there was an "unearned yards" statistic of ground lost by penalties, the Bears would have racked up the numbers in that category.)
As the game went on, however, it moved toward an almost inevitable conclusion, because cracks showed in both the Bears' offensive and defensive lines. Are the Bears' Jay Hilgenberg and Tom Thayer suddenly being caught for holding, or are they finding it necessary to hold because they can no longer block as they once did? The number of penalties argues forcibly for the latter. And as for the defense, quoting Walsh from Thinking Man's Football again: "A pass rush, late in the game, is the key to NFL football." Allow me to add emphasis: the Key. With Perry an excellent run defender but a poor pass rusher, they shifted Armstrong to tackle and played Roper as a down lineman at left end. Neither reached the quarterback during the final two Tampa Bay drives that crushed the Bears' comeback.
Finally, this brief divergence on quarterbacks, quoting Dr. Z himself here: "The worst kind of pressure situation is one in which a team has two quarterbacks of roughly the same age and close to the same ability fighting for the job. It seldom works." Young quarterbacks, like young pitchers, will break a coach's heart; they'll be great one week, erratic the next, and downright lousy after that. Jim Harbaugh lost that game Sunday for the Bears, getting able help from the defense in the end. Yet in one of the most dramatic Chicago football games in recent years, the greatest drama was played out on the line of scrimmage. There, the Bears showed--once and for all--that the Bears of old are long gone.