The fun, like the loudmouthed quarterback, is gone, out for the season. The Fridge is overloaded, weighed down by a gutful of groceries, his future as a running back temporarily on ice. Danimal ain't talking, Buddy Ryan's in Philadelphia, and the offense is sputtering along 119 points behind last year's pace despite one of the easiest schedules in the league. A remake of the Super Bowl Shuffle, anyone? Forget it. There isn't a stage in Chicago big enough to hold 10 of these egos—and their agents—all at one time.
Nope, that refreshing cast of characters and misfits, the 1985 Chicago Bears, is part of football history now, and the 1986 act has grown old before its time. You want backbiting? Infighting? Plain ol' ornery bitchiness? Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the world champion Chicago Bears, they of the most heartily disparaged 11-2 record in memory. "I don't think they're as mentally tough as they were," says Detroit Lions wide receiver Leonard Thompson. "They've had chances to put people away and they haven't. They're not in the same sync. Some guys are still thinking about endorsements."
Last year's Bears did not merely beat quality opponents; they demolished them. Washington: 45-10. Dallas: 44-0. New England: 46-10, the most lopsided Super Bowl game in that extravaganza's long history of routs. This season, despite facing only four teams that have better than .500 records, the Bears haven't overwhelmed anything but the airwaves, barely managing to squeak past such NFC powerhouses as Philadelphia (13-10 in OT), Atlanta (13-10) and Green Bay (12-10) before clinching their third straight NFC Central Division title on Sunday with yet another scintillating, come-from-behind 13-10 overtime victory against the 4-9 Steelers.
"I can't tell you what it is, but some ingredient is missing," says Lions fullback James Jones. "The Bears still have the talent.... Maybe they think they can turn it on in the playoffs."
The most obvious ingredient missing is points. In Sunday's game the Bears gained a total of 406 yards, averaged 5.3 yards per play, kept possession of the ball for 39:03, but turned it over three times, kicked just two of five field goal attempts and generally behaved like a team looking for a way to lose.
The Bears moved the ball inside the Steeler 25-yard line four times, yet put points on the board only once—the other three drives ending in a Walter Payton fumble, an interception thrown by Mike Tomczak and a muffed field goal try by Kevin Butler, from 28 yards out, that could have won the game with :55 left. It was as much a testimony to the sorry state of their offense as to the swirling winds of Soldier Field that when the Bears won the coin toss in overtime, they chose to kick the ball. "Our defense was playing better than our offense," coach Mike Ditka said succinctly.
The strategy worked. Chicago's defense held, and after a 35-yard Steeler punt, the Bears took over at their own 49. A 27-yard completion from Tomczak to Keith Ortego put the ball on the Pittsburgh 24, and three plays later, Butler, who had missed seven of his last nine attempts, redeemed himself with a 42-yard game winner.
Seven weeks ago, when the Bears stood 6-0 and had won 24 of their last 25, they seemed ready to waltz back into the Super Bowl in Pasadena. "The Bears have something going for them that I haven't seen since the Packers in the '60s," said one veteran NFC general manager. "It's almost like people concede a loss to them. They hope to get out of the game healthy."
"They manhandle teams," said Minnesota Vikings coach Jerry Burns. "The Bears are as dominating a team as I've seen in the last five, eight years."
Shortly after Burns made that statement, his Vikes laid the Bears' dreams of an undefeated season to rest in Week 7 by thumping them 23-7. Two weeks later the aura of Bear invincibility was again shattered when they suffered a 20-17 Monday night loss to the Rams. Now, with Bears quarterback Jim McMahon out for the season, facing surgery for a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, and a passing attack that looks as if it has been planned and carried out by John Poindexter—the Bears have 8 TDs, 20 interceptions, and a 50.7% completion average through the air this season—almost no one outside Chicago thinks that the Bears have the mettle to repeat as Super Bowl champs.