For the Bears' last home game of the season--a frigid, icy affair against the Detroit Lions--head coach Dave Wannstedt wore a watch cap tilted across his forehead under his headphones. With its jaunty slant, the cap made him look as if his nickname ought to be "Frenchy," and silly as it seemed there was something apropos in that. The Bears' season had the tone of French philosophy to it. There was logic that made no sense (the quarterback can't throw a square-out? tear the route out of the playbook), there was circular reasoning (four straight road wins followed by four season-ending losses), and--above all--there was the impression, at the close of the term, that one's life was no better for having studied it. It was absurd. Also, as in French philosophy, long-term prospects looked to remain constant but there was no guarantee that conditions in the short term wouldn't get a whole lot worse.
Wannstedt fared about as well as any rookie coach could, considering. His fresh and relatively liberal-minded approach to the game (liberal compared to Mike Ditka, that is) revitalized veterans like Steve McMichael and Richard Dent--for most of the season anyway. He presided over the maturation of Donnell Woolford and Dante Jones and the recovery of Tim Worley, salvaged from drug-tainted limbo in Pittsburgh. He kept Jim Harbaugh's mistakes to an absolute minimum, but to do so he had to cut Harbaugh's strengths to a minimum, to a point where Harbaugh began to resemble a judicious (if not exactly intelligent) Bobby Douglass. The offensive line was refurbished but not entirely improved; its intricate trap blocking in the middle of the season (most evident in the upset of the Kansas City Chiefs) produced something of a pipe dream. What was evident, in the postmortem, was the Bears' lack of quality at the so-called skill positions--no receivers worth throwing to, no running backs worth handing off to, no quarterback worth hiking to.
The Bears raised their record from 5-11 in Ditka's last season to 7-9 in Wannstedt's first; and given where the Bears were at the end of last season they had no right to expect they would improve. But the improvement, in the end, was not all that great--was, in fact, after the team's usual December reversal of fortunes, not evident at all. Wannstedt proved himself a skilled defensive tactician. But offensively what was to blame--the lack of talent, or the lack of strategy? And most important in the long run, was Wannstedt right to squeeze what he could out of this season? Or did the Washington Redskins take the more astute tack by tanking the season entirely when an early rash of injuries cost them any shot at the playoffs.
These questions, of course, are somewhat rhetorical. The Redskins didn't tank the season so much as they watched it go in the tank. What's more, Wannstedt proved himself a National Football League coach, where Richie Petitbon remains an uncertain quantity a full season into his head-coaching career. Even so, a Bears fan might well ask, how are we better off than we were a year ago? How do we get a decent quarterback without one of the top picks in the college draft? How do we replace McMichael and Dent, especially when we still have to finish rebuilding the offensive line? Where to from here?
The final four games offered more questions than answers, especially when Peter Tom Willis showed himself no hidden savior in his interception-prone start against the Denver Broncos. Harbaugh returned to put together a couple of good drives against the Lions, but that was it and in the end it wasn't enough to win, as the defense suffered a relapse of its late-game weariness. And the defense, the sole source of pride, suffered a breakdown in the finale against the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday. Here's something to think about: when the Bears were winning, one was hearing about Trace Armstrong every few plays; when they went down the drain in the final month Armstrong disappeared, and he even--horror of horrors--wore long sleeves under his jersey in the cold loss to the Lions, a violation of the Bears-weather dress code.
This isn't to suggest that Armstrong was to blame for the Bears' closing losing streak, just that Armstrong--like Harbaugh --had a tendency to look proficient in victory and mediocre in defeat. Most of the team, in fact, had that look. There were few places one could point to on the field and say, "There's a good player on a bad team, a player who's going to help turn things around." In the end, that's what was so discouraging about the Bears' season. Dave Wannstedt proved, as Ditka had long maintained, that good coaching can win football games. Yet the players proved anew that it's good players that separate good teams from bad teams; and in that either/or dichotomy the Bears remain on the same side of the fence they were a year ago.
The so-called debate about who was the number one college football team in the nation this season was not a debate in any commonly accepted sense of the word but a wrestling match between two bodies intent on pressing the full weight of their prejudices upon each other. The sportswriters, voting in the Associated Press poll, were determined to vote for what they perceived as the best team--records, almost, notwithstanding. The coaches, meanwhile, voting in the USA Today/Cable News Network poll (seized from United Press International), made it clear they were voting by the old rules, that the team with the most nearly perfect record would be named the national champion.
Unstated in the voting, but present on every ballot, were each voter's preconceptions about a college football playoff system; the writers, almost to a person, demanded it, while the coaches held the line against it. And acting as the self-involved blowhards they tend to be, the sportswriters used the very fact of a debate to argue their preference for a playoff.
These are the same hypocrites who accuse college athletics programs of being way stations for reluctant students. They criticize coaches and administrators for allowing athletes to coast through college--or, worse, to coast out without a degree--while demanding that a season that is already three or four games longer than it was only a generation ago be increased another three or four weeks. (As recently as 1968 Ohio State won the national championship with a 10-0 record; Florida State finished, last Saturday, with a 12-1 mark. Any feasible playoff system would have to begin with eight teams--at least--meaning three games and three weeks to narrow them to a single champion.) In their moralistic mode, sportswriters insist on academics, but reserve the right to shift into their competition mode to insist on a "rightful" national champion.
Forgotten is the concept that additional games--no doubt begun in the December lull after the big Thanksgiving Day rivalries--would not only increase the work load on student athletes but pit teams on a trimester system completing finals in November against schools with more traditional terms still studying for finals in December. In the battle for absolute fairness, how fair is that?
The debate over number one doesn't prove the need for a playoff system; it proves that the current system is vital and involving. In the current system, any team that has an "off" week can kiss its championship hopes good-bye (or almost), thus improving the quality of play and dedication from week to week. And it rewards smaller, less prestigious teams for keeping a high level of concentration from week to week. By tradition, the national championship hasn't gone to the best team necessarily (otherwise Florida State would have won it for the 1989 season, when they lost their first two games and then stomped everyone the rest of the way), but to the team with the best, the most perfect season.
Thus, not only are traditional powerhouses eligible for the national championship but also Cinderella teams--not only pretenders like Nebraska but also deserving smaller schools like West Virginia. Nebraska coach Tom Osborne has made a career out of bullying small colleges on the high plains in September and blowing bowl games on New Year's Day--and he gets his just deserts every year--while West Virginia's Don Nehlen has made a career out of taking the leavings from the highly recruited mining towns of the Ohio River valley and turning them into perennial surprises. So as long as we're insisting on full disclosure, we'll disclose that we wanted West Virginia to win the national title--not as an indication they were the best team in the nation (no one could argue that), but that they were the ones who maintained their composure and effort level from week to week, who never had a bad game, which, yes, should be enough to grant anyone the national championship.
Of course, West Virginia did finally have a bad game. So did almost everyone last Saturday, the winners as well as the losers. But in the end Notre Dame should have been the champion. With every team having lost at least once, the Irish beat the best of the other one-defeat teams, Florida State. That the coaches caved in to the writers' wishes represented, I think, their attempt to undermine playoff talk by minimizing controversy and debate.
So let the debate rage about which team would win at a neutral site (the Irish beat the Seminoles at South Bend); that's a healthy, meaningless argument, the sort sports is based on. But leave the debate about whether there should be a playoff system out of it.