They Might Be Monsters | Sports | Chicago Reader

They Might Be Monsters 

The Bears buckled down, grew up, and turned deadly.

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Early this football season, safety Mike Brown looked at his Bears teammates and pronounced, "We're just terrible. It's like we suck." The Bears were 1-3 at the time and appeared well on their way to fulfilling the prediction of Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman that they'd be the worst team in the NFL.

That was two months and seven straight victories ago. The most amazing thing about the transformation is that it was accomplished with no dramatic turnover in personnel. Like Leopold Bloom mulling the distinction between "me. And me now," the Bears were the same yet decidedly not the same. Unlike Bloom, they were decidedly better. The defense came together the way fingers form a fist, and the offensive line followed along, surviving an off-field incident that made them seem legitimate heirs to the Bears' legendary "Monsters of the Midway" tradition.

The Bears might have benefited from the NFL's emphasis on parity and an unbalanced schedule in which the worst teams from one season--last year's Bears were 5-11--tend to play each other the next, meaning that some have to rise. But this year's Bears eventually had to play somebody legitimate, and when they beat the talented Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field two weeks ago--to even both teams' records at 7-3--they established themselves as Super Bowl contenders. It's an impression they backed up last Sunday by beating the 7-3 Buccaneers in Tampa Bay. The style of play the Bears have arrived at--based on shirtsleeved defense even in cold weather and a running offense that emphasizes intricate line play--is the sort Bears fans have always favored, and in the win over the Panthers the crowd was louder and more avid than ever. By the end of that game, defensive backs Charles "Peanut" Tillman, Nathan Vasher, and, yes, Mike Brown were all standing on the Bears' bench, woofing their pleasure at the fans.

The Bears' amazing transformation was accomplished not in the typical manner of a pro team but more like college squads do it, through good coaching and player development. Even the one important personnel maneuver had a college feel to it. Rookie quarterback Kyle Orton arrived like a highly recruited prospect, yet he was actually a fourth-round draft pick out of Purdue expected to sit and learn behind the only slightly more experienced Rex Grossman. When the injury-prone Grossman went down with a broken ankle in the preseason and backup Chad Hutchinson proved incompetent, Orton was pressed into service to "manage" the games--that is, not star so much as simply not lose and allow the Bears' defense to dominate. With the exception of a bad afternoon against the Cincinnati Bengals, Orton, of the scraggly Jeff Tweedy beard, has done just that, never more patently than last Sunday, when the defense gave him the ball on the goal line in the first quarter by recovering a fumble and he immediately tossed to tight end John Gilmore for a touchdown. That was the Bears' lone TD in a 13-10 victory. So Orton remains the starter even though Grossman is back.

But the key element of the transformed Bears was the defense. Coach Lovie Smith came in last year from Saint Louis, where he'd been a highly touted defensive coordinator, and he professed a new philosophy--an "attack" defense based on lean, quick, muscular players. The wheels spun at first, but the defensive line got better each game, with Alex Brown gaining consistency, Tommie Harris and the revived Adewale Ogunleye developing into impact players, and subs Michael Haynes and Tank Johnson shuttling in from down to down and series to series to keep everyone fresh. That lean, mean group produced 8 sacks against the Panthers, a team that had allowed only 12 all season. Meanwhile, key players Mike Brown and Tillman came back successfully from last year's injuries, as did middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.

The rest of the team looked newly svelte, but Urlacher seemed, if anything, bulked up from years past--yet with the same big-cat speed. The hamstring problems that had bothered him last year disappeared. His replacement, Hunter Hillenmeyer, moved outside opposite Lance Briggs to give the Bears a talented trio of linebackers. These were all players who'd been here in 2004 but who were better now than then, and benefiting from a year's experience in playing as a unit under defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. Vasher, the key addition on defense, intercepted six passes and supplied a 108-yard failed-field-goal touchdown return--the longest play in NFL history--to turn around the game in the Bears' 17-9 win over the Niners. It was their last victory over weak competition before facing the Panthers and Bucs.

The Niners game, won under brutal conditions at Soldier Field, the wind howling off the lake, really started to win fans over, and the process was completed a week later with the home win over the Panthers. Between those games, however, came the revelation that center Olin Kreutz and newly acquired right tackle Fred Miller had tangled during a day off. Miller missed two games with a broken jaw he claimed to have suffered falling out of bed, but it turned out Kreutz had coldcocked him in an angry standoff at an FBI shooting range and Miller had responded by throwing a five-pound weight at Kreutz, cutting him badly enough to require stitches but not enough to sideline him. Offensive linemen are commonly said to be the smartest players on a football team, so one would have expected them to concoct a better story. Yet when the truth was out it didn't seem to hurt the team--in fact, just the opposite. Smith used the media firestorm to unite the players, and the simple fact is that the incident gave these Bears a tough-guy rep they'd lacked. The defense, good as it is, has come up short of the '85 championship Bears in pure ornery character.

The Bears have a history of conflicted relationships between their tough defenses and generally anemic offenses, but this year's impressive defense and barely good enough offense don't just coexist but complement each other. In fact, the closing moments of the Panthers game found the offensive players--including Miller, a notable bandage on his jaw--exhorting the fans to cheer on the defense. The defense did the same for the offense. This was perhaps the most impressive change of all in the character of these Bears.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Streeter Lecka--Getty Images.

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