The Sports Section 

It's nothing to brag about--there was little, if anything, that concerned the Bears worth bragging about this season--but this column predicted last September that the Bears would win 11 games, and that's how many they won. Of course, I predicted the Bears would go 10-6 in the regular season and win one playoff game, while the Bears went 11-5 and then lost their first playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys. The point is raised, again, not for bragging rights but as a way of asking the question, "Just whom did the Bears impress this season?"

Once their year was over, the Bears congratulated themselves on how they had exceeded initial expectations, but for most of their fans--if not most of their players or coaches--the Bears' performance was actually less than what was expected. In fact, in light of the awful way the season came to a close--with the loss to the Cowboys following their miserable regular-season finale in San Francisco against the 49ers--to call the Bears a disappointment is an understatement. From here, it looks as if all the time spent paying attention to the Bears in 1991--to their health and mental well-being, their strategy and the interplay of personalities, and of course to the games themselves--was a waste of time.

As in any postmortem, it's amazing how easily the Bears' season breaks down for analysis once it's all over. Not counting the playoff loss, they finished 11-5, but that record was inflated by the failure of three division rivals to field competitive teams. The Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are all in a disarray that makes the 1989 Bears look like titans. The Bears got excited when they opened with a win over the Vikings, and the mid-season victory in Minnesota was considered proof of the Bears' resurgence, but it turns out that beating the Vikings twice was no great feat. Sweeping the home-and-home series with the woeful Pack and the even more woeful Bucs was even less cause for celebration. So there the Bears were handed six wins; take six wins from the Bears' record and they were 5-5. The early season doubters could very well argue that it's not that the Bears exceeded expectations but that the Vikings, Packers, and Bucs failed to meet expectations. With even barely decent parity in the division, the Bears would have been the .500 team so many supposed them to be in September.

They split with the Detroit Lions, who displaced them atop the Central Division and stole their one-week playoff bye when the Bears failed so miserably against the Niners, meaning that outside their own measly division the Bears were 4-4. Of those eight games, they defeated two playoff teams--the New Orleans Saints, who also lost their first playoff game, to the Atlanta Falcons, and the New York Jets, the league's worst playoff team--and lost to three playoff teams, as well as to the Miami Dolphins in the game that signaled their collapse (they lost four of their last six). If the upper half of the National Football League were divided into three sections--the Super Bowl favorites, the Super Bowl contenders, and the borderline playoff teams--the Bears would belong in the third group. All year we worried about where the Bears stood in the grand scheme of the NFL; it turns out that they were one of the good mediocre teams.

What did anyone gain from watching the Bears this season? Everyone was cheered by the courageous play of wide receiver Tom Waddle, from his eye-opening performance against the Jets right through to his battered nine-catch game in the playoffs. He scored the first and final touchdowns of the Bears' season. Yet afterward, he was held up more for shame than for greatness, as the epitome of the Bears and their new team character as a group of "overachievers." Brad Muster flowered like a butterfly as a suddenly beautiful player to watch, then went about establishing himself as the fullback version of Jim McMahon. (He went down with an injury during the Bears' first drive against the Cowboys, and the Bears were inept inside the Dallas ten-yard line the rest of the afternoon.)

Elsewhere, age and apathy abounded. The left side of the Bears' offensive line suffered injuries to Jim Covert during training camp and Mark Bortz shortly after mid-season; replacements John Wojciechowski and Jerry Fontenot were the unseen goats of the game against Dallas. (Just look at the Bears' record with and without Bortz to determine how valuable he is.)

The defensive line had flashes, but in the end was one of the team's great disappointments. Steve McMichael had his best season--on the field if not on television--and William Perry again proved himself essential to the Bears' defensive scheme. Trace Armstrong, however, appears to have peaked as a merely solid defensive end, while Richard Dent's inconsistent play became so conspicuous that even John Madden made common reference to it. Dent and head coach Mike Ditka grew apart to the point where, after the Dallas game, Ditka issued an edict that one of them had to change or one of them had to change scenery.

John Roper developed into the Bears' best pass rusher, but was injured in San Francisco--when the Bears failed to sack the Niners' quarterbacks--and missed the Dallas game, when the Bears again failed to achieve a sack. (Defensive coordinator Vince Tobin came up with a game plan against the Cowboys that set Dent free to improvise and pick up the slack left by Roper, but he responded with one of his ever-more-frequent off games.) Mike Singletary led the team in tackles and made the Pro Bowl, but clearly was a shade of his former self. Jim Morrissey remained a starter and an embarrassment to the number he wears.

The secondary had a fairly good season. This former weakness might be the Bears' strongest position right now, depending on how one feels about Muster, Neal Anderson, and Jim Harbaugh in the offensive backfield. Mark Carrier picked off fewer passes than in his rookie season, in large part because teams were no longer throwing into his area. The rest of the Bears' defensive backs proved themselves adept at coverage if not asked to guard their receivers for unreasonably long times (as against the Niners and the Cowboys).

As for special teams--punting, kicking, kickoffs, and all those other hermaphrodite football plays not really offense or defense but a combination of the two--the Bears were lousy. Special teams coach Steve Kazor should be fired, and that's all there is to it.

Ditka enjoyed his second straight season of relative maturity, then--like Steven Spielberg's Peter Pan--swore off growing up and vowed to return to his childish ways. That, I think, may have been the greatest loss of all in the end. Ditka has really grown on me the last couple of years. Up until the 12th-week loss to Miami, this was his best coaching season. He soured as the team did, however, to the point where he was his old hysterical-in-hysterics self after the San Francisco loss.

He was the one who said maybe the Bears had too many "overachievers" after the loss to the Cowboys. He blamed the players, not the coaches. Yet the Bears' persistent December swoon over the last six seasons leads to other conclusions. Where other NFL coaches make adjustments through the season, saving some of their best schemes for late in the year, the Bears are running the same plays in December that they ran in September. The difference is that they're suddenly not working because every coach in the league has seen the Bears run those plays via the game's elaborate film network. They're about as surprising as a Murder, She Wrote rerun.

Ditka also promises to reinstill discipline, but to what end I don't know. When the Cubs suffered through September after September in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, people kept suggesting they were tired. When the Blackhawks passed out last season in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, people suggested that maybe they had been worked too hard during the regular season. The Bears' December record since 1985 is too appalling to dwell on, so how come nobody has suggested that maybe these players are played out from two-a-day drills in August and an overly hectic practice schedule in October and November? It's a long football season, but, just the same, in Chicago it hasn't been long enough of late.

Ditka has attained a stature such that he will probably always field a pretty decent football team. There is a certain type of player--the Jim Harbaughs and Chris Zoriches of the world--who will always want to play for him and whom he will always bring out the best in. That's what Ditka envisioned when he oversaw the departure of McMahon and Willie Gault and Wilber Marshall, and his reward is that he will never preside over a mass early season retirement like that of Sam Wyche and the Cincinnati Bengals this season. Now, however, he's come full circle and insists that only better players will allow the Bears to return to the Super Bowl. The catch-22 is that, since Ditka will always field respectable teams, he will never again get the series of great draft picks that allowed him to build the 1985 champions. The Cowboys, who are already better than the Bears, have two choices in each of the first three rounds of the next college draft. The Bears are looking at a general forecast that will not see them return to the Super Bowl this century.

So pray for Buddy Ryan to be hired in Tampa Bay. It's the one thing that could make the next few seasons worth watching.

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