Bears Have Familiar Roar
Thursday, October 19, 2006
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Ask these Chicago Bears about those Chicago Bears, and what you will get is plenty of blank stares and shoulder shrugs. In an NFL locker room full of 20-somethings, 1985 may as well be the Jurassic Period. "I was 4," cornerback Nathan Vasher said with a quizzical look.
To many of these Bears, those Bears exist only by reputation, in record books and, especially, in video games. "I was in kindergarten," defensive end Alex Brown said. "I played with them on Tecmo Bowl. I'd win with them every now and then. But [Walter] Payton, he was a lot better in real life than on the game because if the defense stacks everybody up at the line, in the game you can't get away but in real life he seemed to get away a lot. He was darn good, man. He was so good. You didn't have much offense when you played with them on Tecmo Bowl. But that defense, they didn't score much against you."
Ask those Bears about these Bears, and they say to wait and see.
"Before you talk about dominant teams, you have to get at least past the midpoint of the season," Bears Hall of Famer Mike Singletary said this week. "By that time, you've usually played against some of the good teams and some of the bad teams in the league, and you can start to get an idea. We'll have a feel for who they are after the midpoint."
The 1985 and 2006 versions of the Chicago Bears have some time to get better acquainted, however. It's quite possible that they'll be asked about each other quite often in the next three months or so.
This year's edition had its aura of invincibility punctured in Arizona on Monday night, when it took one of the most remarkable comebacks in football history for the Bears to remain undefeated by beating the Cardinals, 24-23.
But even if it was short on dominance, it still was a sixth victory in six games for the Bears, who have bounced back from a disappointing loss in the second round of last season's NFC playoffs to be the league's best team so far. The defense that was fearsome last season has picked up where it left off. The offense, at least before its pitiable showing Monday, had been revved up by switching its focus from the running of tailback Thomas Jones to the passing of quarterback Rex Grossman. The Bears won their first five games by an average of 24 points, and anything short of a Super Bowl celebration at the end of this season will be a letdown.
"We don't start the season wanting to win the division," Brown said last week at Halas Hall, the team's headquarters. "There's a bigger picture. . . . There's a progression to be made to win the ultimate prize, but that's what we want. There's really only one team that's actually happy each and every year, and that's the Super Bowl champ. . . . You play to win the Super Bowl, not win 14 games and lose in the first round or whatever or win 11 games and lose in the first round. We don't play for that."
From the moment the Bears lost to the Carolina Panthers in a conference semifinal in January after going 11-5, winning the NFC North and securing a first-round playoff bye, Coach Lovie Smith's message to his players for this season has been clear.
"We got a taste of success last season, the feeling of bringing the Bears back where people were starting to talk about the Chicago Bears again," Smith said last week. "Our playoff game was electric . . . but we didn't finish. And this year, my early meetings, that's what I talked about: 'The key word is finish. We need to finish the job this year. We're a good football team. We have 22 starters coming back. This year, we need to finish.' "
Smith said that when the initial sting of the playoff loss subsided, he was able to appreciate the team's progress after going 5-11 in 2004, his first season as an NFL head coach. Last season's Bears had the league's stingiest defense, surrendering only 12.6 points per game. But after Grossman broke his ankle in the preseason, the Bears had no viable Plan B at quarterback and ended up with rookie Kyle Orton as the starter. They managed to reel off eight straight wins even with an almost nonexistent passing game, and Smith's switch back to a healthy Grossman in the final weeks of the regular season failed to pay off in the playoffs.
"Winning a world championship, that's hard," Smith said. "You shouldn't be able to go from down there to up here right away. You take steps. So after I had a chance to sit back for a while, looking at the big picture overall for the season, I said: 'We made progress. We took a step. Next year, we need to take another step.' "