The Bears' glorious Indian summer came to an abrupt end last Sunday with a 41-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The resurgent Bears hoped to clinch first place in the Central Division of the National Football Conference with a victory; instead, they finished the game humbled and hurt, with old wounds reopened. The game lacked the free-falling feeling of collapse common to the Bears' other notable defeats of recent years--the back-to-back playoff losses to the Washington Redskins, the 41-0 thrashing at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers in 1987, the magical replay defeat in Green Bay last season, and the miserable second-half failure against the Redskins almost exactly a year ago when the Bears could have regained a tie for first place in the division at 7-5, a loss triggering Mike Ditka's sadly accurate "we may not win another game this year" diatribe.
Nevertheless, we saw our worst doubts confirmed. The trip to Minnesota looked to be the last true test for the Bears before the playoffs. They failed it badly and not unexpectedly, leaving open to question all the apparent weaknesses that the Bears--and we the fans--had shaken off over the first half of the season.
The Bears may be 9-2, a shoo-in to win the division (their magic number remains at two with five games to play), but worries persist. The primary concern is their age: age across the offensive line and age in the defensive line. Problems manifested themselves at both areas Sunday. The offensive line was lackluster for the second straight week. When the linemen did trap--one of the Bears' favorite techniques, in which a guard or tackle pulls out, indicating a sweep and luring his defender across the line of scrimmage, only to have the runner shoot through the very same hole in the line--the Vikings were through the hole and to the runner before he had a chance. The weariness of the offensive line showed itself especially on one second-half play, when the Vikes' Joey Browner rushed Jim Harbaugh on a delayed blitz and ran right past Jimbo Covert. It would have taken a fine play, but Covert could have lunged and cut Browner's legs out from under him, protecting Harbaugh. It's the sort of block he makes all the time on defensive linemen on the Bears' square-out pass patterns. He didn't make the play this time, however, and Browner sacked Harbaugh head-on.
Likewise, the Bears' defensive line showed no spark. Dan Hampton had his worst game of the season, perhaps because of the tenderness of his knees on the artificial turf at the Metrodome. The Vikes ran right over his spot in the line--with only single-team blocking--more than a few times. And Hampton was again unable to earn his first sack of the season; this time, in fact, he didn't come close. It was painful to watch him chase the Vikings' quarterback Rich Gannon out of bounds with that spike-heeled gait of his. William Perry played well against the run, but aside from that, no member of the Bears' defensive line had any kind of day worth commenting on.
The Bears' mix of age and youth, experience and moxie, which has been so promising thus far, appeared on Sunday to be only a double liability. While the veterans on the offensive and defensive lines struggled, Jim Harbaugh confirmed fears that he is not a come-from-behind quarterback; that is, his inexperience and his tendency to get flustered became apparent when he was forced to pass upfield against a Minnesota defense that was amply prepared and eager to rush the quarterback. The Bears' young defensive secondary also had an awful day: Donnell Woolford returned from an injury, only to sustain a pair of stupid, costly penalties early on and, later, a sprained ankle.
Worst of all, the Bears were badly outsmarted by a Minnesota coaching staff that has frequently been accused of having its head up its ass. The Bears have played composed, worry-free football for most of the year, staying within themselves on offense and taking the play to the opposition on defense. Sunday, those roles were reversed, with the Vikings' defense punishing the Bears and their offense seemingly foreseeing the defense's every move. The Bears were unable to call in blitzing rookie linebacker Ron Cox to help the pass rush, because the Vikes were ready to answer with passes to Herschel Walker in the vacant flat. (He scored the Vikes' second touchdown on a 17-yard reception on just such a play.) On offense, the Bears began by forgoing their great strength, running between the tackles, in favor of the downfield pass and the end run. Minnesota's pursuit-happy defense--a pack of baying wolves, really--snuffed both these tactics, and the Bears' game plan fell completely apart when the Vikes exploited a few early errors to take a big early lead. To the Vikings' credit, they were playing a Bears-style defense, pinching the line toward the middle to discourage the Bears' running game and daring quarterback Harbaugh to throw. The Bears' intricate trap blocking and misdirection passes to the running backs in the flat--which had worked so well against other, lesser defenses--were abandoned until later in the day, when the game was already out of hand, leaving us to wonder: had the Bears left their game under the new practice bubble in the suburbs, or were they simply playing a decent football team for the first time in months?
The game was over so quickly that we turned off the CBS television commentators, Verne Lundquist and Dan Fouts, to see how it was going over with the Bears' WGN radio crew of Wayne Larrivee, Hub Arkush, and Gary Fencik. We tuned them in as the Vikes went out to a 27-0 lead in the second quarter, prompting Arkush to cite the National Football League record for the greatest regular-season comeback: 28 points by the 'Niners. The Bears soon fell beyond even that all-but-unreachable deficit, trailing 34-3 at the half.
Arkush called the half-time stats "the anatomy of a butt-kicking," and the commentary soon descended into Arkush advising Fencik on how to handle Ditka in the postgame interview and Larrivee talking about "Buffalo Springsteen" lyrics and then the three of them laughing over the mistake, which is, after all, how announcers are supposed to fill the time when the game offers no entertainment value whatsoever. Their comments soon took on a serious tone, however, when Fencik said the Bears "showed some quit" on the field, adding, "A good team shouldn't get beat this bad under any circumstances."
Under the prodding of Larrivee and Arkush, Fencik soon pulled back from that accusation, and the three agreed that it was simply that the Bears looked tired. Yet Ditka later all but admitted he and the team had resigned, saying, "Once the truck hit me, I didn't bother getting up." That night, as we switched back and forth between Ditka and Steve McMichael on channels Two and Five, we caught McMichael labeling the game a "fiasco" and offering this little bit of Texas gridiron wisdom: "You do the kickin' or you get a lickin'."
The question remains, however, what does the outcome mean about the Bears? Was it simply an off day, or is this how they'll play against quality opposition? The Bears' victory over the 1-0 Packers in the second week remains their only triumph against a winning team all season. The Bears play home-and-home games against the Detroit Lions, and they get to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home, so they'll eventually clinch first place; that's not in doubt. Their poor performance last Sunday, however, adds importance to their game next week at Washington and their regular-season finale later in December against the Kansas City Chiefs. Those games would have been pride-only affairs if the Bears had defeated Minnesota. Now, they're additional tests as the Bears try to prove they are not making the playoffs simply on the basis of a weak schedule.
At the beginning of the season, we thought the Bears were too old and too young, that they would suffer from injuries among the veterans and stupid mistakes by the rookies, and that they would stagger to a record somewhere around 8-8. Their glowing Indian summer was a delightful drubbing of our football acumen, and we basked in the thought of how wrong we could be, how ageless the great Bears of '85 were, and how fine a coach Mike Ditka became when he concentrated on the game and not on the television cameras. Last Sunday's game, even while played in the warmth of a domed stadium, with Ditka nevertheless wearing his sunglasses indoors, brought the harsh winter on in a surprising yet inevitable fashion. We knew it was coming, but we had refused to admit it, and the Bears had sustained our delusions. Now the days continue to shorten, and Bears weather is imminent, but this aging, tired team can't be looking forward to it.