The Bears are once again proof of the continual pop-culture significance of sports. Many players remain from the 1985 world-championship team, but the Bears' overall personality is completely different. The mid-80s were an urgent, ruthless, marauding time, and the Bears reflected that. With their quick outside linebackers, Otis Wilson and Wilber Marshall, tackling opponents the way junk-bond firms devoured other companies, their defensive coach coming up with secret plans almost as complicated as those of the CIA's Bill Casey, their head coach raging on as the prototypical Type A personality, and Walter Payton and Mike Singletary lending an air of class to the whole operation, the Bears ran at the cocky, speeded-up pace of the cocaine boom. They and their punky QB and their Baby Huey of a defensive lineman--the ultimate symbol of U.S. overconsumption, ridiculously overweight but somehow able to perform-- officially crossed over to become pop-culture icons with "The Super Bowl Shuffle," adopting rap music in the days when the genre was first proving its staying power.
Today's Bears are more reserved, sobered by time. The coach has survived a drunken-driving conviction, a heart attack, and his own ill-tempered destruction of the team a year ago. The offense is reserved in its goals-- primary among them not to make any mistakes. Not only is the defense not as aggressive as it once was, it's downright reactionary, hoping only to keep the opposing offense from doing what it wants to do. The relentless self-promotion of advertising has been reined in, and the integrity of the uniform has been reinstated, with the entire team back to wearing black shoes. The Bears are now the picture of moderation, not kinder or gentler, necessarily, but with diminished expectations. The barking has died into silent professionalism. Somehow, they are once again entertaining.
Like any good football team, the Bears are anchored by their offensive and defensive lines, both of which remain almost unchanged from the Super Bowl. When the Bears began the season, I thought the ages of these critical players would begin to show in the form of injuries, and that the Bears--while improved--would probably finish at about 8-8. Six weeks into the season, however, both lines have withstood the punishment, and the Bears are 5-1.
The offensive line--Jimbo Covert, Mark Bortz, Jay Hilgenberg, Tom Thayer, and Keith Van Horne, from left to right--has benefited from the Bears' new, more conservative style of play. It's said an emphasis on the run is better for the offensive line because it puts the linemen on the attack, moving forward, instead of retreating to protect a passing quarterback. In recent years the line has splintered under the pressure of the National Football League's new emphasis on the pass, which the Bears at first tried to keep up with. A quick look at the games of last weekend shows the trend toward the pass remains strong: it's becoming a game of quarterbacks, wide receivers, and all-purpose running backs. The Bears, however, are running counter to this, adopting the ball-control passes to the running backs, but putting the primary emphasis on the run, and the line has thrived on it. Guards Bortz and Thayer are having an excellent season; in a wonderful touch for the football aficionado, they contribute most of what little razzle-dazzle is in the Bears' offense. Hilgenberg is reviving from a subpar year last season. Covert hasn't quite regained his all-pro form, lost in a series of injuries in back-to-back seasons, but he remains solid with opposite tackle Van Horne. As long as these five remain healthy, the Bears can play with anyone.
One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the fondness fans of the Bears show for defense, and the front four still attracts most of the attention and garners most of the glory. The one change since the Super Bowl season is that Trace Armstrong has moved in at left end, opposite Richard Dent, with Dan Hampton now sharing time at tackle with Steve McMichael and William Perry. Hampton has assumed the mantle as the Bears' spokesman and most visible member. When one remembers that Jim McMahon and the Refrigerator divided these duties in 1985, Hampton's new and richly deserved celebrity may say more about the changes the Bears have undergone than anything happening on the field.
Hampton was the one chosen to answer the McDonald's ads featuring the Green Bay Packers' tackle Tony Mandarich, and it was a delight. Hampton's wonderful stress on quarter-pounders "with cheeeze"--even while dictated, no doubt, by some ad executive--was more cutting than "The Super Bowl Shuffle" because it was more embittered and angry.
On the field, Hampton's latest knee injuries have left him with diminished capabilities; he rushes the passer erect and toddling forward, like a man who's spotted the other team an advantage by allowing that he'll play the game in spiked heels. Yet the team's precipitous decline a year ago after he was injured, and its revival this season, make it difficult to deny that his mere presence somehow inspires the Bears. Perry is resurgent, regaining media attention and notoriety both for his defensive play and for his return to offense two weeks ago against the Packers. Armstrong has good games and bad, like any promising young defensive lineman, while Dent remains, as ever, unpredictable. Yet Dent was instrumental in the Bears' two wins over the Packers and remains essential to any thoughts of (dare we suggest it?) surviving in the play-offs.
The most impressive improvement in the Bears this season has been in their secondary. The defensive backs--all young and speedy--pursue the ball like a pack of baying hounds. The Bears have a weak schedule this season, it's true, but make no mistake--the last two games, against the Packers and Los Angeles Rams, were severe tests for the secondary in which the Bears emerged victorious. As for the departure of Dave Duerson, forgotten by most people now, I think it might have been the most important change Mike Ditka made this year, from a coach's standpoint.
Ditka entered the season with a team not much more organized and confident than it was last year, when he himself called it "a team in disarray." Regaining the confidence of a football team--especially after a petulant performance like Ditka's last season--is no easy task. The decision to release Duerson was, I think, a turning point. If Duerson still had all-pro capabilities, first, fans would be hearing about it now, and second, the other players wouldn't have allowed his release. On the other hand, a coach's first responsibility to the team is to reward good players and remove bad ones, and Duerson had apparently become a liability. It's one thing to ignore a league-wide trend toward speed and passing to stress a running game on offense; it's another thing to ignore it by keeping slow-footed safeties in the game on defense. The Bears are a better team against the pass this year, and every player on the team has to recognize this. That inspires confidence in a coach willing to make difficult decisions based on accurate judgments.
Ditka's other main decision this year was at quarterback, where Jim Harbaugh is now the starter. It's been a beneficial change, because a young quarterback requires a more conservative game plan, and a more conservative game plan is just what the Bears required. Which brings us to last week's game against the Rams. Ditka has maintained that he has two starting quarterbacks, Harbaugh and Mike Tomczak, and that his decision to start Harbaugh was arbitrary. If that were the case, Harbaugh, who suffered a broken rib in the previous game against the Packers, would not have started against the Rams. Ditka would have gone with the healthier quarterback, just as he did last year from week to week. The decision to start him gave Harbaugh his first real sign that he was number one, but it also gave him something to protect. Harbaugh said he realized a poor start on his part could bring Tomczak into the game. So instead he had the best performance of his four-year career. He got away with a couple treacherous passes on the Bears' first drive--one to Ron Morris, one to Neal Anderson--and that seemed to give him confidence. The Bears' first score came on a Harbaugh pass where he had ample time; he watched both Dennis Gentry and Wendell Davis come open over the middle, but waited for something more--Anderson crossing at the back of the end zone--and put the ball right there for the score. Harbaugh then marched the team downfield again and scored on a makeshift quarterback draw from 12 yards out, taking a brutal hit at the goal line and not even bothering to shake it off.
The Rams are in a funk. They no longer have the down linemen to make their 3-4 defense work, and injuries have left their secondary in a shambles. So in a way, it was easy pickings for Harbaugh. Yet he couldn't have played any better in a no-pads practice session. He mixed his receivers well, hitting Anderson, Morris, and Gentry and making special use of tight end Cap Boso. And the game plan to exploit the Rams' weaknesses couldn't have been more astute, as shown by the Bears' perfect record in converting third downs in the first half. Linebackers are the essence of the Rams' defense, and the Bears had them turning in circles. In the Bears' third drive, they ran a play in which the guards pulled to the left on what looked like a sweep. The Rams' linebackers followed. Harbaugh rolled right on a naked bootleg, drawing the Rams' outside linebacker, while Brad Muster also moved right, into the wide-open flat. Harbaugh got him the ball and he went ten yards. A few plays later the man guarding Morris fell down, and the Bears went up 21-0. Then, the next time they got the ball, they opened aggressively with a long first-down pass to Boso and marched again for a score, this one coming on a trap (the guards again leading the way) with Muster running 13 yards.
Harbaugh throws a nice tight spiral, but he doesn't have a great arm. He doesn't have great speed, but he knows when to run. He is a cautious quarterback who aims not to make mistakes. He doesn't wear shades and he doesn't butt helmets. He's one of those goddamn "Michigan men," but we're going to have to overlook that. He appears to be just what the Bears need in this new decade of recession and uncertainty, of retrenchment and small gains. And as long as the offensive and defensive lines hold, he and the Bears will be all right.