There's something oddly appealing about these Bears of the 90s. Like George Bush, they want to be described as kinder and gentler--more street smart and savvy--but what they really are is more neurotic and fallible. Even so, that only makes them more recognizably human.
Where the 1985 Bears were take-no-prisoners marauders, demanding a certain worshipful respect from their fans, the 1991 Bears arouse not respect but empathy. The 1989 collapse left psychological scars on this team and this coach, Mike Ditka, so that even when things go well--as they did in the middle of the season--it seems that the Bears are merely putting one day and one game behind the one before it, the way a recovering alcoholic gets through life. Then, just when everything seems comfortable, along comes a two-game losing streak--the second of the season--and the abyss opens below, chaos is threatened, and order seems a distant dream. The Bears are as compelling now as they ever were; it's just that their drama now is the drama of the dysfunctional family downstairs, fighting dissolution (or of IBM, or the Soviet Union, doing the same). "C'mon, Bears," we plead, "get it together." If they can't, how can we hope to?
So, like the stock dive, fears about the economy, and dread of the impending holiday season, the Bears intruded on Thanksgiving this year. They played the Detroit Lions, in the best Turkey Day football game in seasons. Usually, the Lions and the Dallas Cowboys--the National Football League's traditional Thanksgiving hosts--play meaningless, soporific games on the holiday, against two teams with the ill fortune to be plucked for the occasion. These contests are the football equivalent of Muzak: They're meant to be talked over, intended as background noise as we catch up with old friends and visiting family members, while sampling the Beaujolais nouveau. This year, however, the Bears and the resurgent Lions were playing for first place in the National Football Conference's Central Division. The Bears had blundered away their previous game, only four days before, against the Miami Dolphins, and the Lions could tie for first at 9-4 with a win. The first-string broadcasting team of John Madden and Pat Summerall was on hand to emphasize the importance of the outcome. And I was alone in front of the television, concentrating on the game, putting off all holiday festivities until later in the day.
To understand the Bears' state of mind, we have to go back to their loss to the Dolphins. That game followed the Bears' two most impressive victories of the season--in Minnesota, against the Vikings, and in Indianapolis, against the Colts--games in which the defense remained dependable and the offense found new confidence. Brad Muster had returned to the backfield and increased the Bears' offensive threats proportionally: Suddenly, there was balance between the run and the pass, and their predictable offensive schemes had become unfathomable to the opposing defense.
Against the Dolphins, the Bears marched calmly to a first-quarter touchdown, with Muster doing the honors on a three-yard run. Miami quarterback Dan Marino rallied his team to a field goal in the second quarter, but the Bears responded in kind before the half, with Muster providing the key play on a 24-yard run, one of his vintage efforts in which he takes the ball parallel to the line, cuts back into the hole, slips a couple of tackles around his hips, and then takes off at his deceptive speed, with the defenders falling away all around him. It's etched in our minds in part because it was Muster's last moment of glory: he left the game immediately afterward with a hamstring injury, and the Bears' offense has not been the same since.
The Bears guarded the lead with resolve through the third quarter. Quarterback Jim Harbaugh led them to a field goal on a ball-control possession. Marino, however, got the Dolphins back within a touchdown by driving them to a field goal to open the fourth quarter: 13-6. Harbaugh marched the Bears right back, making an exceptional play midway through the drive. He dropped back, looked downfield--"Throw it," I said, "throw it"--got happy feet, rolled right--"Throw it!"--stopped at the sideline, and threw across the field to a wide-open James Thornton, who rumbled into field-goal range. When the field-goal attempt came, however, Harbaugh juggled the snap as if it were a hot Thanksgiving Day roll, and kicker Kevin Butler, stutter-stepping into the ball, pulled it left.
Yet the Dolphins came out in disarray. Marino threw three passes that were nowhere near his receivers: they were reading different coverage than he was, and therefore running different routes than he expected. The Dolphins were 5-6 going into the game, with slim hopes for the playoffs, but Marino was irate on the sidelines after that series. The Dolphins' offensive ineptitude, however, left plenty of time on the clock. When the Miami defense stopped the Bears right away, the stage was set for Jerry Fontenot to sail the long snap over punter Maury Buford's head. The Dolphins were all over Buford like ugly on an ape, and they blocked a hurried punt and recovered the ball on the Bears' four-yard line. They got the tying touchdown, a last-minute Chicago drive came up about ten yards short of Butler's field-goal range, and the Dolphins won the coin toss to get the ball first in overtime. This time, Marino and his receivers were in sync, and they drove to the winning field goal.
When things go bad for someone struggling to keep a grip on his or her life, they go bad all at once in a hurry. Four days later, in Detroit, the Bears showed an utter lack of confidence. Their game plan--what there was of it--seemed hastily thrown together. Harbaugh was a mess: he fumbled three times, losing two of them, and threw four interceptions, including at least one that had been weeks in coming. Early in the season, while trying to establish his timing on long passes, he discovered that there were two advantages to an underthrown ball: in coming back for it, either the receiver gets run over by the defender, resulting in a pass-interference penalty, or he makes the catch. Of course, there's one disadvantage to an underthrown ball: a cornerback who is right on his man, and who knows Harbaugh has a proclivity for underthrowing bombs, might look for the ball when the receiver does and, blocking the receiver out, simply let it fall into his lap for an interception. That's what happened against the Lions, and it will happen again before the season is over.
The Lions, on the other hand, were well prepared, at least to start. Detroit has gone to the run-and-shoot offense in recent years; it's the vogue offensive scheme of the moment, in which a team typically deploys four wide receivers and a single back and lives off short, sharp passes and the threat of a long bomb or a breakaway surprise run. With Barry Sanders, the top running talent in the league, the Lions have made the run-and-shoot work, because with both Sanders and four wide receivers on the field, there is simply too much for the defense to worry about.
After the Lions lost starting quarterback Rodney Peete, however, the Bears stymied them in their first meeting in Soldier Field by concentrating on Sanders and forcing backup quarterback Erik Kramer to beat them. They put seven players in the center of the field, with the outside linebackers lining up behind the defensive ends to make it more difficult to block them. Kramer couldn't respond.
Yet in Detroit the Lions threw the Bears a curve. Instead of deploying four wide receivers, they used two tight ends, putting seven blockers on the line against the Bears' seven linemen and linebackers. The pure "damn the torpedoes" bullheadedness of that--of a finesse team deciding it was going to beat the Bears at their own Neanderthal game--was something any Central Division football fan had to savor.
This scheme only worked once--late in the first quarter--but that's all the Lions would need to beat the Bears. They drove to midfield, then advanced to the Bears' 30 on a 15-yard pass. Then, on first down, the Lions went to their double tight ends and ran Sanders for eight yards. They ran him again from the same formation for a first down plus. Then, out of the same running formation on first and goal from the nine, they threw into the end zone for a tight end, but missed. They then hurried their tight ends out of the game and four wide receivers into the game, and Kramer completed a touchdown pass to Robert Clark. After that series, the Bears bore down and halted the run, while the Lions played with more caution and didn't challenge Chicago with the pass. Yet that one touchdown turned out to be the only one of the game, and it decided the outcome for the Lions.
The Bears, meanwhile, were struggling just to keep from coming apart. When, in the second quarter, Detroit faked a punt and went for a big gain into the Bears' territory, Ditka began working his gum with renewed force: the tendon was throbbing in his forehead like the pulse of the Lord Humongous in The Road Warrior. Fortunately, the Bears got the ball back a few plays later on an interception, but when Richard Dent then began arguing with an official about a controversial out-of-bounds call (that actually went in the Bears' favor), Ditka turned to Dent and let him have it. Dent let Ditka have it right back. When Mike Singletary came over to break it up, Ditka turned and let him have it. Dent responded by shredding the Lions' offensive line--he was the main reason Detroit didn't score another touchdown--but the Bears as a whole were, to quote a phrase, a team in disarray. They had their big chance in the third quarter, when they decided to go for a touchdown on fourth and goal from the Detroit one-yard line. Fourth and goal from the one, and the Bears called a pass--a pass! Harbaugh rolled right--to the shallow side of the field--on a strange pass/run option. His main receiver, Ron Mattes, fell down, so he started to run for it, but the Lions were on him, so he flipped the ball to Neal Anderson, who was standing out of bounds, and who failed to catch it anyway. Ditka was fit to be tied. The Bears never really challenged again.
Afterward, Ditka lambasted Anderson for playing hurt and hurting the team (he has lost the burst of speed that once freed him around the corner on end runs) and Harbaugh for missing "people, my God, as wide open as they will ever be in the history of the sport." He didn't say the Bears might not win another game all year, but the collapse of 1989 came immediately to mind. Was this the tongue-lashing the team needed, or will the players lose faith in someone they (wrongly) believed had turned a corner in his life? On the one hand, it's like a silent-movie serial--find out next week! On the other hand, it's hard to walk away from a Bears' game insisting that it's only a movie.