Almost halfway through the National Football League season, it's safe to say the Bears aren't very good but they aren't very bad, either. They're a little more mediocre than they have been over the last couple of seasons but at least they're respectable. Their players are, anyway; their coach leaves something to be desired in the respectability department.
Mike Ditka is the single most fascinating person on the Chicago sports scene, but he could easily become the most pathetic. What a composite of tics and contradictions! Can he really be as bull-goose loony as he appears to be from time to time? (And those times are becoming more and more regular--about once a week this season.) Can someone with so little control over himself really control a football team? There were times during last Sunday's game at Green Bay when I answered those two questions no and yes. There had to be some sort of motivational dynamic at work, with Ditka--like Hamlet--feigning craziness to serve his own unfathomable purposes. But at other times he's clearly seemed to be a man playing out his own deep personal conflicts in the local mass media--never a pretty sight.
The last two seasons were among Ditka's best as a coach. He took teams that obviously weren't very good and he got them into the playoffs and drove them as far as they could go. He was stern when he had to be, but he had learned lessons from 1989 (the year when, with a third of the season to go, he said they might not win another game and they didn't, finishing 6-10) and he was almost humane, especially when measured against his own standards. Let's face it, anyone with any flair at all for either football or motivation could have won with the 1985 Bears. Anyone with any true skill in those areas would have won it all the next two years as well. In the last two years, however, Ditka became about as good a coach as he was capable of being. This year he wanted something more.
He vowed that the infamous, temperamental, unpredictable Iron Mike would return. And return he did, with a vengeance. (As every fan of the Bears knows by now, sportswriters are fond of calling Ditka "Sybil" for his multiple personalities--that is, when they're not fawning over Ditka's comedy routine at one of his media conferences.) Did his demanding training camp regimen result in a team that was incapable of finishing a game? Good question, but one had better not ask it; that's soap opera stuff. He had his team ready for the opener against the Detroit Lions but they damn near blew it. They were unable to finish against the New Orleans Saints and the New York Giants. They beat a bad Atlanta team, then blew a 20-0 lead in the fourth quarter in Minnesota after Ditka's most visible blowup of the year; he erupted when Jim Harbaugh threw an interception that was returned for the touchdown that started the Vikings' rally. One had to admit, Ditka saved his tantrums for when they really mattered.
Somehow he had the Bears ready to play again after a week off, although they were buoyed by a team of Tampa Bay Buccaneers who are not very good. Ditto last Sunday, after an explosion aimed at members of the media during the week. In the second half of that game, Ditka lambasted offensive coordinator Greg Landry on the sidelines over an ill-fated quarterback sneak Landry had called on third down and short yardage deep in the Bears' territory. Is there something to winning through intimidation?
More likely, there's something to the return of Mark Bortz, Shaun Gayle, and Anthony Morgan. There may be more visible personalities among the Bears' players and coaches, but few Bears are as strategically important. Gayle and Morgan both made big plays against Tampa Bay; Gayle brought some savvy back to the defensive secondary and made a late interception, and Morgan caught a touchdown pass. The play was vintage Morgan and vintage Harbaugh: Harbaugh underthrew a mid-range toss (all his touchdown passes are underthrown), and because Morgan had held up for the ball the approaching Tampa Bay safety cleaned not Morgan's clock but the clock of the Tampa Bay cornerback. Morgan, left standing alone, ran to the goal line while Harbaugh exulted as if he had drawn the play up that way, using sticks and bottle caps, in the huddle.
Yet it was Bortz who made the biggest difference and received the smallest amount of credit. He brought precision and depth back to the Chicago offensive line. (The Minnesota collapse occurred partly because the Bears had gone to their second backup tackle, Louis Age, late in the game, after an injury to starter Troy Auzenne and yet more penalty-prone play by Stan Thomas; Age was obviously out of his league, and when Bortz returned he was out of this league--cut.) Both Bortz and Gayle are former Pro Bowl players, and Morgan is the only thing the Bears have resembling a speedster. Was there any doubt they were more effective with them than without them?
That said, the Bears still aren't very good. They should thank the gods for their placement in the National Football Conference Central Division, where the resurgent Vikings quickly established themselves as the best of a bad bunch. The Vikings, however, couldn't beat the Washington Redskins last week at home, and the Bears--we've already noted--lost quite deservedly to the Giants earlier this season. If the Bears were in the East Division with the 'Skins and Giants--and the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys, the cream of the conference--they'd be lucky to have a record as good as the Giants' current 3-4. The Bears' four victories have all come against teams that now have losing records, and two of their three losses have come against teams that now have winning records (and the Giants would probably have a winning record if they played in the Central Division). This is a very familiar pattern from seasons past; the Bears reflect their coach most aptly in that they bully the weak and make excuses against the strong.
The main question--and the only relevant one to fans of the Bears--is whether Ditka's shenanigans are affecting the team for good or ill. Here is a person beyond all self-control: capable of shilling for products by espousing their team attitude toward production and loyalty, while pooh-poohing the loss of center Jay Hilgenberg; capable of reaming players and coaches for on-field mistakes, yet demanding total respect; a media darling who bitches out reporters; finally, a very public supporter of right-wing politicians like President Bush and Rich Williamson.
Can such a creature be for real? What kind of people respond positively to such behavior?
Clearly, as the Bears keep winning--even if it is against measly competition--something is working. Perhaps it's something as simple as the Bears deciding to forgo outright mutiny, and therefore that the best way to get from one day to the next is to do one's job as well as possible and win. Perhaps the team is united in silent opposition to Ditka, with immense dissension to come all at once at some point later in the season. Perhaps, behind closed doors, Ditka explains to the players that he is simply deflecting media attention from them, so that they can better concentrate on football, and that this week--by golly--he's going to pants Mike McCaskey at a Cancer Society fund-raiser and tear up a picture of Carol Moseley Braun on The Mike Ditka Show with the comment, "Fight the real enemy."
It can't just be that he has intimidated everyone into performing their best to avoid his wrath, can it?
Last Sunday, the Bears revived some of the razzle-dazzle Ditka brought with him from his assistant-coaching years with the Cowboys. Mark Green faked being a 12th man in the game for an early punt formation at midfield; he dashed toward the sideline, paused, and as the ball was hiked, cut downfield. Punter Chris Gardocki hit him wide open with a pass. Brad Muster scored a few plays later on a quick-opening run right over Bortz. It was a typical Bears-Packers game in that there were several flags thrown for late hits and other forms of unnecessary roughness, but the Bears--and the Packers--quickly converted each of these penalties into scores, and the Bears showed their composure by committing fewer of them than the Packers did. After the Bears scored again to take a 17-3 lead Mo Douglass committed one of those fouls, jump-starting the Pack to a quick touchdown on a pair of passes from Brett Favre to Sterling Sharpe. Yet with the help of another Pack roughness penalty, the Bears got a field goal back before the half, leaving them up 20-10 at intermission.
The Packers had their chances early in the second half but they squandered good field position with penalties and ineptitude. The Bears finally got a field goal, and Darren Lewis finished the scoring with a great end run. He turned upfield off tackle and went 30 yards for the score. Final, Bears 30-10.
The middle of the Bears' schedule is heavy with divisional opponents. I'll take them Monday night against the Vikes, with only a loss at Tampa Bay before they're 8-4. Really, they'll have to work hard not to get there, although anyone who remembers last year's game with the Miami Dolphins knows it's possible. They finish ruggedly, however, playing road games in Texas against the Oilers and the Cowboys and in Detroit. By that time Ditka's motivational tactics should have run their course, and quality--both in talent and in manners--should tell. It'll be interesting to observe, but perhaps unpleasant to see. What can you say about a leader whose heavy-handed tactics give even his great victories a hollow ring, except that, maybe, it's time for a change.