The Bear Truth
After Chicago was trounced 42-14 by the Vikings in front of an angry sellout crowd of 61,073 at Soldier Field on Sunday, Bear coach Dave Wannstedt couldn't hide his pain. As he emerged from the somber Chicago locker room, his face was ashen and his eyes were bloodshot. He had no explanation for the complete breakdown of the once-mighty Bear defense.
"I'm frustrated and embarrassed," said Wannstedt, who is considered one of the top defensive coaches in the NFL. "They ran the ball on us. They 'outphysicaled' us, which really disappoints me. We couldn't tackle anybody. We've got to regroup and somehow get back on track."
That may be easier said than done. For two straight weeks the Chicago defense has looked atrocious. In their 30-22 loss to the Eagles on Monday night of Week 2, the Bears were down 30-0 in the second half. On Sunday the Bears' ineptitude helped quarterback Warren Moon and the sputtering Viking offense finally get going. Minnesota came into the game averaging only 67 yards rushing and 174.5 passing, but against Chicago the Vikings ran for 212 yards and threw for 252. Outphysicaled? Five Chicago defensive linemen recorded only one tackle apiece. Unable to tackle? Four of the top six Bear tacklers were defensive backs.
There is no mistaking what the problem is, even though Wannstedt and most Bear players won't admit it. When the team lost defensive end Richard Dent and defensive tackle Steve McMichael—both potential Hall of Famers—it lost the heart and soul of its defense.
"We've always had leaders," says safety Shaun Gayle, a 10-year veteran who's the oldest member of the defense, at 32. "There has never been a pause in passing the baton. This is tough."
In the second year of a five-year contract, Wannstedt has been rebuilding the Bears slowly, trying to bring his team to its peak at the end of his term. And sooner or later he would have had to replace Dent, 33, and McMichael, 36. Dent was projected to be a third-down pass-rushing specialist this season, and as such he was offered a one-year, $2.3 million contract. Insulted that the Bears hadn't come up with a longer-term package, Dent settled for a 49er offer of a two-year, $3 million deal with incentives. The Bears cut McMichael in April, citing a salary-cap problem, and offered him a one-year deal worth $162,000. Then they took that offer off the table, and McMichael signed with Green Bay.
Now it has become evident that even at their advanced ages, Dent and McMichael were invaluable. Wannstedt's defense begins and ends with physical line play. Without that, it doesn't work. Wannstedt has tried to replace Dent with Alonzo Spellman, a third-year player from Ohio State who is a top-notch physical specimen at 6'4", 285 pounds, with just 6% body fat. But Spellman hasn't developed any pass-rushing moves. The word among the Bear players is that Spellman looks like Tarzan but plays like Jane. Meanwhile, McMichael has been replaced by Carl Simpson, a second-year player from Florida State who reported to training camp out of shape and has yet to come around.
"In Dave's system the defensive linemen tee off at the snap, then read as they move," says one NFL defensive coordinator. "That's difficult for inexperienced guys to do."
So the painful rebuilding figures to continue for a while. "As a coach, you can't say, You're our new McMichael or You're our new Dent," says Bear defensive coordinator Bob Slowik. "That has to be earned on the field, and it has to be somebody on the defensive line because that's where it all starts on our defense."