CHICAGO, SEPT. 13 -- One recent afternoon several reporters went to New York Giants Coach Bill Parcells with some alarming news: Lawerence Taylor, the man who may finish his career as the greatest linebacker ever, had said he will retire in just two seasons.
Parcells, clearly irritated, snapped, "Is that pertinent now? Do you know who we're playing Monday night?"
Indeed, Monday Night Football's game (WJLA-TV-7, WJZ-TV-13) at 9 at Soldier Field is bigger than Taylor's retirement plans, Jim McMahon's still-injured right shoulder, Gatorade showers, Coach Mike Ditka's newly released video, "The Grabowski Shuffle," and even William Perry's suddenly shrinking waistline.
The Giants, defending Super Bowl champions, open defense of their crown against the Bears, the champions once removed. It's being billed as Super Bowl XXI 1/2, and it has caused overgrown men to act like 8-year-olds on Christmas Eve.
At an old-fashioned public rally in the middle of downtown Chicago last week, Chicago defensive lineman Dan Hampton grabbed a microphone and said, "We've waited four months for this, ever since it was announced last spring. We've got only one thing on our mind: the guys who took the Super Bowl last year which should have been ours."
Chicago tight end Emery Moorehead said Giants-Bears will be "bigger than the Thrilla in Manilla."
That analogy goes pretty deep, because the two defenses are a couple of heavyweights that are healthy and should have a distinct advantage over the offenses this early in the season.
The Giants will begin to find out just what every Super Bowl champion of the decade, including the Bears, already knows: that it's exceptionally difficult to repeat.
New York will find it has more to overcome than offseason partying and writers' cramp. Cornerback Perry Williams is on injured reserve and tackle Karl Nelson is out for the season, trying to combat Hodgkin's disease.
But the Giants have every reason to be optimistic about a run at a second title. The wide receivers are better, fullback George Adams is back after missing last season with an injury, and lineman Leonard Marshall has been quoted as saying he has "never seen Phil Simms take command the way he has" in this preseason.
The Giants are in no way the same team shut out by the Bears in the playoffs on a blustery day in January 1986.
But, neither are the Bears. Even The Fridge is sporting a different look. His weight down from 340 during training camp to 315, Perry is back on Ditka's goal line offense. Ditka even tried him out at "long snapper" last week.
But on a more serious note, the Bears are showing serious chinks in the armor. Offensive linemen Jim Covert and Jay Hilgenberg have shoulder injuries expected to require surgery sooner or later. New for Chicago are the punt returner, punter and kickoff man, the starting fullback, starting cornerback, starting safety and starting wide receiver Ron Morris, who may be the most reliable wide receiver in a Bears uniform in 20 years.
Mike Tomczak, the third-year one-time free agent from Ohio State, will start in place of McMahon, who is out for at least six more weeks.
But lest anyone get too carried away with thinking the Bears are on a major downslide, remember that Chicago is seeking to become the first team in NFL history to lead the league in rushing five straight years.
And the quarterback situation is much better than it was last year when the Bears appeared lost without McMahon. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Bears go after the Giants' secondary -- supposedly the only vulnerable part of the New York defense -- by going deep to Willie Gault and Morris.
Still, New York's George Martin said, "They're the ones who have to prove something."
Chicago linebacker Mike Singletary agreed, sort of. "If you've got something, you might as well put it to the test right away and find out," he said.
Ditka has done about all he can to take some of the tension away from Halas Hall, the Bears' practice site in Lake Forest, Ill. He said "the odds should not be against the Giants" to repeat, and added, "I haven't slept since I read the schedule back in the spring. You don't go up against the champs on the opening Monday night and not feel a little fear."