CHICAGO -- It was in the early 1970s, a few days after another typical Bears loss in which the offense failed to register a pulse. Coach Abe Gibron walked into practice to find his defense, including Dick Butkus, lined up taking snaps on offense. "We were on the field so much, more than 60 plays a game," ex-Bears linebacker Doug Buffone recalled. "We told Abe since we had to be on the field so much he might as well let us line up and play offense; we couldn't do much worse. Butkus played center, I played tight end, our safety, Gary Lyle, played quarterback. Our corners were wide receivers. It was a pretty good offense, we thought."

That's the Chicago Bears, a team on which the quarterback and the safety have all too often been interchangeable. Why all the fuss now over Mike Tomczak? The Bears never have a quarterback. Well, almost never. It's a perverse tradition. Since 1952 the Bears have had three quarterbacks -- Jim McMahon after the '85 Super Bowl, Billy Wade after the '63 championship and Ed Brown in '56 -- make the Pro Bowl. The Washington Redskins, in the last seven years, have had three quarterbacks make the Pro Bowl. In the entire decade of the '80s, Bears quarterbacks produced five 300-yard passing games. Warren Moon did that in little more than a month this season.

Between 1970 and 1980 the Bears had no 300-yard passing games. None. In 1984, when the starting quarterback -- Rusty Lisch -- was injured, the Bears went to their backup: Walter Payton. He completed one of four, one touchdown, one interception. Butkus, in his nine-year career, played one season when the quarterback threw more touchdowns than interceptions. For one stretch of 13 years Bears quarterbacks threw more interceptions than touchdowns. The question shouldn't be why Chicago fans are booing, but what took them so long?

Between 1964 and 1966 the Bears roster included: Doug Atkins (Hall of Fame), Dick Butkus (Hall of Fame), Mike Ditka (Hall of Fame), Gayle Sayers (Hall of Fame), Joe Fortunato, Richie Petitbon, Mike Pyle and Rosie Taylor. Those three teams failed to make the playoffs. Butkus and Sayers never made the playoffs. Care to hazard a guess as to why?

"There's no reason we shouldn't have won it all again in 1964 and 1965," said Ed O'Bradovich, a defensive end from 1962 to '72. "There are several teams that have needed a quarterback, but for some reason the Bears more than anybody else are a quarterback-problem team. In 1963 all the offense had to score was 10 a game. We had unbelievable talent. Did we {the defense} ever ask ourselves, 'Why aren't we winning?'? We thought about it all the time. We made fun of the offense. I can remember times we'd come off the field while the offense was going onto the field and we would yell at them, something like, 'Just hold them. Just give us a chance to rest and we'll come get you. You guys stink.' Of course you can't do that today."

What with sideline cameras, coaches as camp counselors, and delicate egos to be protected, it wouldn't work. Not even on the Bears. But the old Monsters, the linebackers and tackles and ends who need new knees and hips, sit around watching these modern day Bears and think one thing: "De'ja` vu!" O'Bradovich shouted. "Oh my, it's the same story all over again. But they've got to pull together now, support Tomczak, be more dedicated."

Two years ago, in the midst of a McMahon-Tomczak controversy, Ditka had to decide who to start in the NFC championship game against the 49ers. A TV reporter, whose live audience joined the news conference after Ditka announced McMahon, asked the coach to repeat the starter's name. When a few people began to snarl, Ditka held up a hand to admonish the hecklers and said, "Sure, no problem. Sid Luckman."

Wishful thinking. Luckman had a stranglehold on the position from 1940 until 1948. Then the odyssey began. George Blanda for a year, Zeke Bratkowski for a year, Brown sat on the throne for six years. But they gave way to Wade, Rudy Bukich, Jack Concannon and Bobby Douglass, whose claim to fame is rushing for nearly as many yards as he passed for. The mid- and late '70s and early '80s were nightmarish. Gary Huff, Vince Evans, Bob Avellini, Lisch, Mike Phipps. Greg Landry came over from the USFL when George Allen recommended him. McMahon ended all that, but started the injury trend.

Since 1984, Ditka has had to prepare for the playoffs not knowing who would be his starting quarterback. That year, Steve Fuller beat the Redskins, but lost the NFC title game in San Francisco. In '85, the year the Bears won it all, McMahon's rear end was in the news. Besides mooning a helicopter during practice, he had to have acupuncture before the Super Bowl. In '86 Ditka went with Doug Flutie, who couldn't beat the Redskins in Chicago. In '87, McMahon was hurting but played and the Redskins beat the Bears again. In '88, Tomczak beat the Eagles but Ditka went with McMahon against the 49ers and he started to show he was just about finished.

"It can wear on you," Ditka said last week of not knowing who will take snaps from center every year at this time. Ditka often played with no quarterback to speak of and now often coaches under that circumstance. He admits that in past offseasons he thought about what the Bears of the '80s would have been if the team had a legitimate No. 1 quarterback healthy and ready for the playoffs. "We had about the same number of chances as the 49ers," Ditka said, meaning number of playoff appearances, "but we didn't get it done."

In these playoffs the Bears rely on a quarterback who, as one Hall of Fame quarterback said last week, "has been in the league six years and still doesn't know where the free safety is."

The Bears looked good with Harbaugh, who has shown flashes but is hurt. So the Bears will have to make do. Tomczak is 2-0 as a playoff starter. The Bears travel to Giants Stadium Sunday and hold their breath.