Team chemistry in football is different than in any other sport, especially since two-way players went the way of the leather helmet. The Bears are usually a team of split personalities: the "Monsters of the Midway" on defense and the shrinking violets of Grant Park on offense. That's how Bears fans have come to prefer it--in a manner typical of Chicago they're set in their ways and comfortable with the team's deficiencies. And when coach Lovie Smith succeeded Dick Jauron his intent was to rebuild the defense first, then look to the offense. But there's no denying the connection between offense and defense, or that the Bears' one Super Bowl triumph, 21 seasons ago, followed the emergence of Jim McMahon as a quarterback skillful and cocksure enough to overrule the natural caution of coach Mike Ditka.
One reason they never won it all again is that McMahon was never healthy enough to run a Super Bowl-worthy offense. Last year's Bears ran true to form, with a dominating defense and an offense that was even more anemic than usual after hotshot but injury-prone quarterback Rex Grossman went down and was replaced by remedial rookie Kyle Orton. Playing conservatively to minimize his mistakes, Orton allowed the Bears to make the playoffs but they got no further, losing right away to the Carolina Panthers as Grossman returned as rusty as he was inexperienced.
This year's Bears hopes were pinned on Grossman, so fans and press box pundits alike flipped when he looked so inept in the first preseason games. Some suggested the team would be better off with backup Brian Griese, a less flashy but supposedly more dependable quarterback. Yet Grossman is a player of immense skills, with a rapid release, a zip to his passes, and moxie to burn, and Smith rightly decided that he was the one, if anyone was, to take the Bears to the next level. In the manner of all great players, that's what Grossman did as soon as the real games began.
The Bears opened impressively enough with three wins against rivals in the NFC's bruising North Division, at Green Bay and Minnesota and at home against Detroit. The defense controlled the games, but Grossman's contributions made the wins look easy. Then came the Bears' first true test, at Soldier Field in a nationally televised Sunday-night game against last season's NFC Super Bowl representatives, the Seattle Seahawks. Though the tactic hadn't worked for any of the Bears' previous opponents, the Seahawks opened with an emphasis on stopping the run, challenging Grossman to beat them with his arm. In the first quarter he marched the Bears downfield and threw a touchdown pass to Muhsin Muhammad. He then drove them to a field goal that put the Bears up 10-3. Against the Bears' tough defense--in league parlance it was now "playing downhill" with the lead--the Seahawks panicked. An interception turned into a second field goal and another interception into a touchdown by Thomas Jones, by now running against a defense back on its heels guarding against Grossman. The Bears were up 20-6 at intermission, scored on their opening possession of the second half (with the help of a bold Grossman toss into the end zone that drew a pass-interference penalty), and coasted to a 37-6 win.
Last Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills--coached by the departed Jauron--was even more impressive. Like earlier opponents, the Bills opened with eight men close to the line of scrimmage to discourage the run, and Grossman responded with a closely managed short-pass game. The Bears even threw on third down with a yard to go at midfield, as Grossman used the old naked-bootleg misdirection pass to tight end Desmond Clark that Ditka stole from Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers 20 years ago. Two long Robbie Gould field goals gave the Bears a 6-0 lead, as the Bills seemed all too recognizably a Jauron team, with ill-timed penalties and dropped passes making it easy on the defense. Having softened the Bills up with the pass, the Bears pounded them with Jones on a long drive, and just when the Bears seemed ready to settle for another field goal Grossman went for the TD and hit Bernard Berrian on a crisp slant to make it 13-0. Then the pass rush forced an interception by linebacker Lance Briggs, who returned the ball to the Bills' 32, and this time Cedric Benson did the pounding. His first NFL touchdown made it 20-0. The defense forced a punt, and Grossman went for the jugular with a bomb to Berrian on a stop-and-go fly pattern good for 62 yards. Grossman earned style points for the touchdown, winging a sidearm toss against a fierce pass rush to Rashied Davis between two defenders in the end zone. It was 27-0 at the half, and the game was over.
Late in the game the Bears led 40-0 and had outscored their opponents 156-29 on the season. When Benson fumbled in the waning moments, allowing the Bills to score a touchdown, Brian Urlacher on the sideline looked miffed to see the shutout spoiled. But by then it was clear that the pressure the Bears' offense was putting its opponents under was making the Bears' defense better yet. A stern defense becomes even more aggressive and ferocious when it's given an early lead and the other team is taking chances to catch up.
No wonder three women I drove by early Sunday morning on Western Avenue were all wearing Grossman jerseys. Only a few weeks ago, anything but an Urlacher jersey would've been considered declasse.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.