A lost summer of baseball in Chicago has raised the stakes on the Bears’ season, although it’s not like our sports-minded citizenry needed another Carlos Zambrano meltdown or the disaster that is Adam Dunn to get all tingly over Jay Cutler and his associates.
Oprah has come and gone, as have M.J., two Mayors Daley and the Sears Tower. The Bears endure. They are Chicago’s true passion, fueled by indelible memories of 1985 and its ringmaster, the mustachioed restaurateur whose high profile around town serves as a grumpy reminder of how things ought to be.
Has it really been 26 years since XX, when the Bears ruled the world? Will it ever happen again?
A neutral observer would like to be more encouraging to those legions of true believers whose emotional well-being swings with the Bears’ fortunes each Sunday. But he can’t. The record keeps coming up 8-8 with every parsing of the schedule.
There has never been an 8-8 team in the Super Bowl, but the hard-liners in the Soldier Field crowd believe that’s the logical destination for a squad that fell one game short last year. They don’t want to hear that the 2010 Bears were a flawed team that took advantage of uncommonly good health, a favorable schedule and uncommonly good luck in the form of several overmatched opposing quarterbacks.
As Bill Parcells, the N.F.L. sage, put it, you are what your record says you are, and last year’s Bears were 11-5. It’s possible they could field a better team and not do as well against a stronger division and a tougher overall schedule, but unlikely.
The “fielding a stronger team” piece presumes they’ve addressed the flaws they managed either to conceal or overcome last year — most notably a porous offensive line that had pass rushers flying at Cutler like left-lane leadfoots on the Dan Ryan.
The new line features a rookie at right tackle, a seventh-round draft choice at left tackle and a converted guard at center. Scary.
But first, Lance Briggs. What is he thinking?
Briggs wants more money — who among us doesn’t? But there’s this matter of a six-year contract that has three years remaining. Briggs signed it as an unrestricted free agent in 2008, and he hit the jackpot: $36 million. But the deal was structured so that roughly $22 million paid out over the first three years. Briggs looks at what he still has coming, considers his status as a six-time Pro Bowl performer and decides it’s tantamount to taking a pay cut, playing for $3.65 million in 2011.
Linebackers rely on instincts, not logic.
Sympathy is hard to find in a region where unemployment hovers near 10 percent. Even for a Bear, and a high-performing one. For their part, the Bears are more likely to unveil a shrine to Brett Favre on the Soldier Field concourse than redo a deal they considered perfectly fair to both sides at the time it was struck.
Briggs insists his discontent won’t become the proverbial “distraction,” but it did when he went public. He has also indicated he will seek a trade if the Bears don’t satisfy him, and that would be about as wise a move as drafting Curtis Enis.
Briggs is a very good player, no question. He thrives in a defense that was practically designed for him. He works alongside a future Hall of Famer whose presence as a disrupter makes things easier for him. And he landed in a city that loves him enough to forget his wee-hours misadventure with a Lamborghini in 2007 or his tawdry paternity entanglements one year later, including one with a naïve coed.
If he were to leave, Briggs would find the grass on the other side of the fence to be in worse shape than Soldier Field’s.
The Bears do have some salary-cap flexibility. If they were to take an eraser to any of their existing contracts, Matt Forte’s is the place to start. He’s not Marshall Faulk as a multipurpose threat, much to Mike Martz’s chagrin, but he has been a consistent, durable performer over his first three years, averaging 270 carries, 1,079 rushing yards, 57 receptions and nearly 9 touchdowns.
Year 4, though, is the danger zone for N.F.L. running backs — the pounding they take begins to wear on them. Forte is scheduled to earn $550,000 in the final year of his rookie contract. A bump for services rendered would be appropriate.
The Bears, see, need all the help they can get in a division they rolled through last season. Green Bay won it all with half its team on injured reserve, and even though there’s a seven-year moratorium on repeat N.F.L. champions, the Packers like their chances with Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback-in-full, fronting a stronger, deeper roster.
Detroit has been quietly repairing a monumentally bad defense and could be a breakthrough team if quarterback Matthew Stafford can stay upright. Donovan McNabb would love to prove there’s something left in the tank after a humiliating year in Washington, but unsettled Minnesota isn’t the best place to try.
The Bears? Their lone home-run hitter, Devin Hester, plays best on special teams. They just keep coming up 8-8. But they’re the Bears, so you know it will be high drama. And you know we’ll all be watching.