Along about midway through the season--on November 7, against the Los Angeles Raiders, to be exact--the Bears fell into a routine. They would fall behind early, make adjustments on defense to stem the tide, kick a couple of field goals to get back in the game, and then try to steal a victory in the final quarter. They couldn't really say they deserved to win any game like that, but they should have won the game against the Raiders. In that game they just didn't get the field goals.
The Bears ended a long touchdown drought (going back two games) by scoring in the second half against the Raiders, then marched for another lightning score with time running out to pull within two points at 16-14. They recovered an onside kick and got into range for Kevin Butler to boot a chip-shot field goal for victory. Butler had already missed one from short range in the fourth quarter, and the odds of his missing two with the game on the line were infinitesimal. He did, however, and the Bears dropped to 3-5, the low point of their season.
It's easily forgotten now that the Bears are 6-5, but their season tipped in the balance after that loss--their third straight--to the Raiders. They had found a way to do things proficiently yet lost anyway, and they could have begun a free fall against the generally tough teams of the AFC West Division, the standard nonconference opponents of the Bears' NFC Central Division this season. At that point 3-13 did not look out of the question; and a lesser coach, angered beyond all reason, might have muttered, "We may not win another game this year," or words to that effect.
In hindsight, however, perhaps it's best the Bears lost that game. They played a very similar game against the San Diego Chargers the following week and this time won it when the Chargers missed a last-second, game-tying field goal. They followed the same pattern the week after that against the Kansas City Chiefs. They fell behind by two touchdowns in the first half, then came back to win as the defense stymied the Chiefs (playing without newly acquired quarterback Joe Montana, out with an injury). Somehow, even after the excruciating loss to the Raiders, the Bears managed not only to continue to play proficiently but to play with a little more heart and courage down the stretch. When the Bears had been in a position to steal victories earlier in the season the defense had broken down; beginning with the Raiders game that stopped.
The first impulse--and the correct one--is to credit the coach with keeping the team together and finding ways to win. Only a true leader could have sent the players out the week after the loss to the Raiders and ordered them to play the same sort of game in the same sort of fashion. Yet the Raiders game, it's now clear, was where the Bears bottomed out. Now, a mere four weeks later and a mere 11 games into his career, Dave Wannstedt has made Chicago fans forget Mike Ditka by instilling a new brand of dutiful, gentlemanly football.
Truth be told, it's not exactly exciting. Watching the Bears win, these days, is like watching someone chalk the lines of a football field. It's a slow, steady process from here to there, with room for neither mistakes nor greatness. Yet in the post-Jordan era we seem to have entered a period of professional proficiency, and now that the Bears are winning they represent that attitude as well as anybody in town--except for Frank Thomas.
It's commonly said that a well-coached team commits few penalties, and that certainly goes for the Bears. The reason the two--coaching and penalties--are related, however, is elusive and deserves some explanation. Football is a rough-and-tumble game, and a certain amount of aggression is to be encouraged. The key is harnessing that aggression to the discipline required of a team sport--not an easy task with football players who have got where they are by routinely crunching their opponents, from peewee league through high school and college. Some coaches come in and exert no discipline at all; their teams feed on aggression and emotion and play exciting--if oftentimes sloppy--football. The Atlanta Falcons' Jerry Glanville and the Bears' own Abe Gibron 20 years ago come to mind. Yet that approach pays diminishing dividends if it pays any dividends at all (Gibron was 11-30-1 over three penalty-filled seasons). Wannstedt, however, has done just the opposite with the Bears; he's made them play disciplined football according to a scheme. That he has achieved this in his first year as a head coach is remarkable.
The Bears refuse to beat themselves, and in a league as full of so-called parity (read, more often than not, mediocrity), it's an attitude that wins football games with relatively little talent. Good thing, too, because the Bears have relatively little talent, and that is both Wannstedt's blessing and--we'll explain later--his curse. The Bears have done the best job in the league this season of covering up their detriments and making the most of their strengths.
Beginning, of course, with the quarterback. Jim Harbaugh remains a remedial reader of defenses and a risk every time he throws the ball; but beginning with the game against the Chiefs, in which he ran for a team-high 61 yards, it's become apparent that Wannstedt chose him as starting quarterback not because Harbaugh was being paid the most money but because he was best suited to making something of the Bears' meager abilities. Have a largely new offensive line? Better get a quarterback who can run. Have no real deep threat as a receiver? Stick with the experienced quarterback who can't pass over the inexperienced quarterback who can. The offensive line routinely allows six or eight sacks a game? Forget the brittle veteran released by another team and stick with the leather-head Michigan man who can take the punishment and not even know what hit him.
Wannstedt hasn't been blind to Harbaugh's shortcomings but he has found a way to minimize them: it's the secret of his success with every roster spot on the team, from quarterback on down. Harbaugh still finds ways to have even the relatively cautious shuttle pass intercepted (that happened against the Chiefs), and against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day he called a time-out immediately after a break in play between the third and fourth quarters (what, did he think they were lined up pointing at the wrong goal and wanted to check and make sure?), but he no longer throws interceptions returned for touchdowns because the Bears, quite simply, have removed the sideline square-out--a demanding pass requiring an arm stronger than Harbaugh's--from the playbook. They have inserted, instead, the quarterback draw. The delayed run, on third down and long yardage, has moved from the previous coach's habitual surprise to the new coach's credo. That credo is, let the other team beat itself and it will oblige about half the time. The rest of the time you're on your own.
On defense, where Wannstedt excels, the Bears have relied on the strength of their line to cover the deficiencies of their linebackers. Where the Bears' old 46 defense put at least one and more often than not two linebackers on the line of scrimmage (those linebackers were the uniquely talented Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson), the Bears now stack the outside linebackers behind the defensive ends, where their job is to plug holes and where the opponents' offensive linemen have a more difficult time playing through the traffic to reach them for blocks. Against the Lions, the Bears' linemen controlled the game and kept the linebackers out of harm's way--even allowing them to blitz now and then after the Lions' star running back, Barry Sanders, left with a knee injury.
The Bears' defense has blitzed less this season than at any time since I've been a Chicagoan, but that, too, reflects the new ways: don't commit one way or the other; make the opponent do the work. How far can a team go on such a cautious course? Well, that's what was encouraging about the victory over the Lions. Having played three straight solid defensive games and now up against a young and flighty quarterback in Rodney Peete, the Bears went ahead and put some unexpected pressure on him. The result was that more often than not he made the wrong decision at any given moment.
That's what makes us optimistic about the Bears' future--though it's not without pitfalls. Richard Dent and Steve McMichael, mainstays of that defensive line and stars of the win over Detroit, are coming to the end of the line. Can the Bears survive their losses?
Well, judging from what Wannstedt has done so far, even with Dent and McMichael playing critical roles, the Bears now have far fewer aging spots than they had at the beginning of the season. The offensive line has been successfully refurbished; after those awful, sack-happy games against the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers earlier in the season, the line began to show intricate team blocking in the Kansas City game, chewing up the Chiefs' overaggressive defensive line with traps and delays. The aging Neal Anderson has returned to life with the addition of Tim Worley to share the load at halfback. Curtis Conway and Terry Obee have given the team deep threats (both caught bombs for critical touchdowns in the Bears' latest winning streak, with Obee's stretched-out-horizontal grab on a post pattern the lone touchdown of the Lions game). And on defense, Wannstedt has produced a decent linebacker rotation to go with an improved secondary based on Donnell Woolford's man-to-man coverage. Woolford allows the Bears to deploy extra men where they're needed--which is what covering up one's weak spots is all about.
Wannstedt has already proved he's great at using what he has. A playoff spot beckons if the Bears can beat the Pack at home this Sunday--and a playoff spot in a rebuilding year would be achievement enough. If not, hey, it's already been a season of progress. The long-term test will begin this summer, with the college draft. Will Wannstedt be able to find Super Bowl-quality players picking in the middle of the draft, or will the Bears be sentenced to year after year of being good enough without ever being great? After all, if Wannstedt can win with the talent he has this season, he'll never have a year so bad that the Bears can claim the top pick.
The only other drawback to this season--a purely aesthetic one--is that the Bears play boring football. Their cautious, no-mistakes style makes one yearn every once in a while for a Doug Plank late hit or a Walter Payton broken-play, 60-yard-horizontal, 3-yard-vertical run. But that's just it: those small pleasures--the last bastion of losers--are denied this year's Bears, denied them by their coach. They play the game well--not with sloppy proficiency, like the Blackhawks with their dump-and-chase style, but simply well. Fans of the Bears are going to have to learn to take pleasure in that, while the rest of Wannstedt's coaching style shakes itself out.
And of course, there's no use belaboring that it's easier to accept boring football when a team is winning than when it's losing.