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Chicago sports fans don't mind a loser; that much we already know. What we can't tolerate is a boring team, one that whether seriously awful or merely mediocre has no personality. One quarter of the way through the National Football League season, it seems the Bears are just such a team. We're not ready to write Dave Wannstedt off as a coach; he appears to be an upright, churchgoing man, and he still knows his football. It's not as if he had to have a lobotomy to leave the Dallas Cowboys organization and come work for Mike McCaskey (although, come to think of it, that would explain a lot of what has gone on).

Yet his emphasis on professionalism and correctness --so refreshing in the wake of Mike Ditka--has borne a fruit not bitter but bland. The new Bears, from quarterback Erik Kramer, who looks like a boys' school choirmaster, to Curtis Conway, who affects a bandanna under his helmet but has none of the Deion Sanders-like attitude associated with that headdress, are the most boring bunch of Chicago football players in memory--quite possibly of all time.

The Jack Pardee/Neill Armstrong-era Bears were pretty faceless, but at least they had Walter Payton. Before that, between just Abe Gibron and his advertising sidekick Melody there was enough personality for an entire football squad (and, bad as those Bears were, they needed every iota of that goofy charm). Even Jim Dooley, Wannstedt's predecessor in temperament, had Dick Butkus. And, of course, between George Halas and the rough-and-tumble types of olden times, from Doug Atkins to Bronko Nagurski, the Bears never lacked a certain Windy City moxie, not from the moment they moved here from Decatur. Yep, today's Bears are the tamest in history. From the 1985 championship team, only guard Mark Bortz and kicker Kevin Butler--the original Butt-head--remain. The few characters that have moved in--defensive tackle Chris Zorich, for instance--have had their good spirits watered down by poor performances.

Zorich is all the Bears' difficulties in miniature--pun purely intended. New NFL rules have threatened to make him almost instantly obsolete, and the Bears at large have been no better at adapting to the new regulations. Baseball juices the ball and tinkers with the strike zone from time to time to influence scoring, but otherwise keeps the rules consistent from year to year and generation to generation. It wouldn't do football any good to put a rabbit in its ball, so what the NFL does instead is monkey with the rules, favoring the offense here, the defense there, but generally trying to drive up scoring because it feels--rightly or wrongly --that high-scoring games are what put fans in the seats. This year, the biggest change, from the standpoint of Zorich and the Bears, is the decision to let offensive linemen line up farther behind the line of scrimmage. It's typical of the NFL to come up with an idea that sounds pretty innocent and then have everyone adopt it without really thinking out the ultimate effects.

Now, Zorich has been a favorite of ours going back to his days at Notre Dame, and it's not unusual to come across people who remember his play in high school at Chicago Vocational (Butkus's alma mater, 'nuff said). Here was a little guy from a broken home with a strong and loving mother who was picked on in school and, as a result, made himself into a hell of a football player. The Bears' media guide lists him at 6 feet 1 inch--that's almost certainly in his longest cleats, the ones reserved for quagmires--and 284 pounds, but he's always been cat quick. I remember one play in college when Zorich burst past the center at the snap and got to the running back at the same instant he was receiving the handoff. Upon graduation he expressed an interest in playing for the Bears--said it was his dream, in fact--and Ditka took him in the second round of the 1991 draft, even though most scouts agreed he was too short to make it in the NFL. Lo and behold, Zorich turned himself into a decent starting tackle, and even something of a star last season.

His game, however, is almost entirely based on quickness and technique, and those advantages have been minimized by the new rules. Allowing offensive guards and tackles to line up farther away from the defensive line has made it easier for them to get their greater mass moving forward on running plays, and has also made it easier for them to set up and await the onrushing defenders on pass plays. It benefits big, strong guys at the expense of small, skillful guys, and it favors simple slant blocking over intricate line play. This doesn't mean football is now a game for no-talents, but it has made it a game--at least in the interior of the line--where size, strength, and sheer bulk are more likely to prevail than before. Zorich has suffered, but so has Alonzo Spellman, the big, swift defensive end, who has found that his favored wide pass rush around the corner is futile now that the tackle lines up farther back and can simply force Spellman out too wide to get to the quarterback. So Wannstedt has pondered moving Spellman inside to tackle, where he has more than Zorich's size but little of his technique.

The NFL has altered its game so that pure talent is favored over trained skills, but the Bears, unfortunately, have always valued the latter over the former. For one thing, those players are cheaper, and that has always been an attribute attractive to the Bears' management. Agents follow the scouts, and a guy with more technique than pure talent is more likely to be drafted later and more likely to be cut once he is drafted. The Bears have always liked those guys, the Steve McMichaels who were suddenly available because someone didn't recognize football is more than 40-yard dashes and leaping ability. For another thing, those players are frequently just better football players, at least by the old rules; they know the fundamentals and the inside elements of the game. For years, Ditka prided himself on coaching a team of "overachievers," thinking he could make up in teaching and motivation what they lacked in pure ability. Wannstedt is no doubt better than Ditka as both a teacher and a tactician. Yet Wannstedt, while having a very different temperament than Ditka, seems to hold the same basic belief, that good coaching will pay off in the end. And it will. Yet in the short term football has become a game that favors the Jerry Rices, Dan Marinos, and Junior Seaus over the Grabowskis.

The Bears simply don't have the players to compete. There's nary a Rice, Marino, or Seau on their roster. Wannstedt must have believed, judging from his roster moves during his two seasons, that he could rebuild the Bears' talent pool while keeping them respectable on pure coaching and execution. After living through the 1-15 rebuilding season at Dallas he wanted a less traumatic turnaround. Yet the way teams win in the NFL is with ability and talent, players who are better than those across the ball, and the Bears are suddenly faced with the possibility that they may have to crash the franchise and rebuild from scratch. That's a hell of a place to find oneself, a year and a half into the job, and Wannstedt is naturally loath to arrive at such a conclusion.

Of course, winning--or losing--changes everything. The Bears beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their opening game, and no one seemed to mind that the average fan literally couldn't tell the players without a scorecard. Yet the Bears lost the next two games in excruciating fashion, drubbed by both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings. The games were even worse than their scores indicated; the Bears didn't score in either until the fourth quarter, after they were all but over. Then came last Sunday's cautious, considered victory over the New York Jets, 19-7, in which the Bears played like an old man trying to walk home from the store after a couple of nasty spills on the ice. Quarterback Kramer, injured in the debacle with the Vikings, surrendered the starting assignment to Steve Walsh, and Walsh shepherded the Bears along. He threw no interceptions and the Bears committed no turnovers, and by not beating themselves they made it possible for the Jets to do just that.

The most boring and routine turbulence a football team can suffer from goes by the name of "quarterback controversy," and that's precisely what the Bears have this week. Walsh may or may not be a better quarterback than Kramer, but he certainly seems a better fit for the Bears' state of mind. Walsh came out of college a golden boy from Miami, the number one pick in the 1990 draft. But he could never unseat Troy Aikman as the Dallas Cowboys' starting quarterback, and he didn't fare much better at New Orleans with the Saints. Still, it is commonly said that it takes about five years to learn how to quarterback in the NFL, and that would put Walsh just about at the age of maturity. He has learned what the mistakes are and how to avoid them. He has learned how uncertain natural ability can be. And now he's ready to play a cautious, error-free, don't-beat-yourself brand of football.

Just what we need.

Winning, however, makes blandness almost appetizing. Not only did Walsh look good, but the Bears attempted two trick plays: a fake punt that led to a touchdown and a not-quite-legal fake field goal. As for Zorich and Spellman, they played instrumental roles in the victory. Zorich forced a fourth-quarter fumble that led to the Bears' insurance touchdown. Late in the game, New York quarterback Jack Trudeau rolled into the clear, waited for one of his receivers to come open, waited, waited, and all along Zorich had broken free. His game is quickness, not speed, but here he was in the open field trying to get to Trudeau before he threw the ball. Trudeau looked, pumped, raised his arm, and--swat--Zorich arrived. He recovered the fumble, too, just like a Butkus or a Richard Dent. Spellman moments later sealed the game. With a head's-up play he pulled up in the middle of a pass rush, stepped back, and intercepted a screen pass. He went scurrying across the field, laid a few dekes on the Jets' linemen to get in the clear, and took off for a 32-yard return. He even managed to shift hands with the ball and apply a straight-arm. For a brief moment, he looked almost like Otis Wilson or Wilber Marshall.

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