Bear With Me
Taking notice of quiet success
By Adam Hoff
When I moved to Chicago four months ago, my mind was awash with the possibilities of living in a real sports town. Having grown up in Portland (only one major sports team) and spent seven years in LA (please), there was no doubt that these was uncharted waters.
My three year plan was to watch the Cubs finally reach the World Series, the White Sox compete for the always-up-for-grabs-until-the-Twins-start-dominating AL Central title, and the Bulls get back on track with a young base of talent. The Bears? Well, they never really factored into the equation. Maybe itís because there has never been a pro football team in my city, but Iíve always viewed the NFL as pure entertainment and valuable strictly for fantasy football. Needless to say, Iíve never been terribly invested.
However, as the calendar flips to December and the weather gets colder (not the best of times for someone spoiled by the SoCal sun), Iíve found myself pulling for the Bears. Rooting for them. Monitoring their roster moves. Investing.
How did this happen? Better yet Ö why? It starts and ends with heart. This is a team and an organization that has heart. Despite catching nothing but bad breaks for the past decade, the Chicago Bears constantly hang in there. Two years ago they came out of nowhere to go 12-4 behind a Mike Brown-led defense. After a rough 2003 campaign, they started 2004 with high hopes, winning at Green Bay and putting the Vikings on the ropes in Minnesota. Then, quarterback Rex Grossman went down with a torn ACL and things started unraveling. Jonathan Quinn couldnít complete a pass to save his life, defenses started keying on emerging star Thomas Jones, and the Bearsí opportunistic D was kept on the field for entire quarters at a time. The next thing you knew, they were 1-5 and headed towards 1-15. Seriously, anything more than three wins this year was looking like a pipe dream at that point.
However, just when things were at their worst, the Bears started to rally. Iíd love to be able to say that the city rallied behind them, but thatís not the case. In fact, this is the last place you want to be when you are losing. The Cubs were taken to the mat by the fans and the media this fall and then the Bears were trampled by people getting off the bandwagon. The media here is the worst. No, any rallying in this town is done by the team itself.
But rally they did. The next thing you knew the Bears had won three straight gritty games and were hosting the Colts in a game with playoff implications for both teams. Unfortunately, Indianapolis throttled Chicago 41-10 as Payton Manning continues to shatter records left and right. Hey, when one of the greatest offenses in history rolls in and beats you by 31, what can you do? The Bears followed that up with a stinker at Dallas on Thanksgiving to drop to 4-7.
Setting aside those two games though, and you can see real progress being made in Chicago, as evidenced by the huge 24-14 upset win over the Vikings yesterday. The defense is young and aggressive. The offensive is coming around. Lovie Smith is making a difference as the coach, The ownership is doing its part with a recent stadium remodel and 100% support for the team on the field. From top-to-bottom, the Bears are doing things the right way Ö they just donít have the talent to be a legit contender yet. But if the infrastructure remains in place and the core values are adhered to, those players will turn up. And when they do, this will once again be one of the premier franchises in pro sports. I expect them to evolve in a similar fashion to another Midwestern power from the late 80ís Ö the Detroit Pistons. Without the life-changing brawls, of course.
Donít believe me yet? Here are five reasons why the Bears are on the way up.
COACHING. Believe it or not, coaching matters in pro sports. The San Antonio Spurs are always good because they have stability in head coach Greg Popovich. The Patriots are the best team in the NFL because they are the best-coached team. Wonder why the Steelers never stay down for long? The Titans? The Broncos? Itís because they have coaches and systems in place that provide a consistent plan of action. The best way to stay bad is to constantly shuffle coaches. For now, it appears that the Bears have implemented a head coach and a staff that can get the job done and be here for a while. Lovie Smith was a great coordinator and he appears to be a great head coach as well. He brings the best out in his players (see: Grossman and Jones doing their best Trent Green/Priest Holmes impersonations during the first three games of the season), instills discipline, gets guys to play hard for him, and he doesnít let his team quit when things get tough. Thatís a great coach.
HISTORY. This is one of the most storied franchises in sports. They play in Soldier Field, for crying out loud. If the fans and media will have some patience, the ownership group will get this team back on track. Recent decisions have been very good and the move to remodel the stadium was a stroke of genius. As long as the Bears are in those classic Navy and Orange uniforms and playing in Solder Field, they will have tradition on their side.
DEFENSE. Honestly, this defense is very good. Never mind what the Colts did to them Ė that happens to everyone. But look at their three previous games and you will see some strong efforts. And to do all this with Mike Brown lost for the season and Brian Urlacher out for six weeks is impressive. Alex Brown is a beast at defensive end, Lance Briggs is a playmaker at linebacker, and the secondary has evolved faster than expected. When the leaders are back to full strength next year and the young kids have another season of experience under their belt, they could be one of the best Dís in the league.
SKILL POSITION PLAYERS. At the end of last season, the Bears had zero quality fantasy options. Thatís a bad sign for your skill players. This year? They were suddenly featuring some potent weapons. Grossman was looking like a serviceable QB option before the knee injury, David Terrell was emerging as his favorite target, and Jones was the #1 rated player through three games. Thereís no reason to think that those guys wonít be good again when they are all healthy and using the system again next year. The Bears no doubt need a big time wide receiving threat (Mike Williams anyone?), but theyíve quickly added talent to the roster where it counts.
INTANGIBLES. You canít teach a team to make big plays and develop a feel for the game. Youíve either got it or you donít. And the Bears have it. Despite being a 5-7 team with little hope of seeing the playoffs (even in the horrible NFC), they are truly one of the best teams in the league at creating their own breaks and taking advantage of the tiniest slivers of opportunity. They run back punts for TDís, they pick off passes, recover fumbles, force pass interference penalties. Despite the fact that Craig Krenzle had been running the show at QB (the guy that Ohio State tried to win in spite of), the Bears rattled off three straight wins, one of them with their defense and special teams scoring 14 points on two touchdowns and a safety. I donít care who you are playing, you have to be doing something right to bounce back from a 1-5 start and win three straight games. And now that Chad Hutchinson offers them someone that can actually throw a 15-yard out, the Bears could be in line for a few more upsets before this season is in the books.
The bottom line is that pro sports teams offer so little these days in terms of character. Teams will sell their players out to clear cap space, their coaches out to deflect blame, and their stadiums out for a few pieces of advertising coin. Anytime you can spot a group of people who seem to be marshalling up the resolve to do things right, well, youíve got to get behind something like that. Which is why Iím ignoring the incendiary columns that populate the Sun-Times and the Tribune. Itís why Iím brushing aside the Complaining Cubs, the cheapskate White Sox, the striking Blackhawks, and the moronic Bulls. Iíve decided on my Chicago team of choice and itís the Bears. Now lets just hope all their hard work pays off for them. And for me.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by sitemail at adamo112.