Dan Hampton, who at 31 has had eight knee operations, slumped on the bumper of his car late Sunday afternoon, trying to let some of the emotion from the Chicago Bears' come-from-behind 17-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals drain out of him. A fan reached out to shake his hand. "Don't squeeze," said Hampton, the Bears right defensive tackle.
Steve McMichael, the tackle who plays next to Hampton, is also 31. He has had five knee operations. After the game he was walking around the locker room, puffing a cigar, answering questions on the go. Someone asked him about the three-man rotation Chicago used, spelling either of the two tackles with 340-pound William Perry. "Yeah, but when it came down to the end, you saw who was in there—Dan and me," he said. "I guess they figure with 13 knee operations between us, we can use a little rest." But not too much.
McMichael was questioned about the way the Bengals pounded the perimeters of the Bears defense. "Have to see the films," he said. "I was too busy trying to keep those 300-pounders off our middle linebacker."
That linebacker, 30-year-old Mike Singletary, stood by his locker and tried to put the afternoon into perspective. "The most important thing today was character development," he said, "which has nothing to do with blowing people out. These games are what you need at the beginning of the season to develop a team."
"You mean you played badly enough to lose and still won?" he was asked.
"Exactly," said Singletary.
Chicago, with nine drafted rookies on its roster, is a team in transition. Eight other members of the 45-man active roster are in their second year. That's an awful lot of youth for a Super Bowl contender. Here and there you can find a young emerging star, but the heart of the defense, which has been the heart of the Bears for so many years, remains the three old-timers who man that middle triangle—Hampton, McMichael and Singletary. Remove one of them from the lineup for an extended period, and Chicago is in trouble.
The Bengals did most of their damage by working on the Bears' defensive ends or immediately outside them. Cincinnati pounded away for 179 yards on the ground against a Chicago defense that had held 10 teams to fewer than 100 yards rushing last year. The Bills ran for zero yards against the Bears in '88, the Redskins for 28, the 49ers, the NFC's No. 1 rushing team, for 78. But that was last year.
On Sunday, the Bears' left defensive end was Trace Armstrong, a first-round draft choice from Florida. The Bengals knocked him off the ball, and Ron Rivera, the linebacker behind Armstrong, repeatedly found himself facing a convoy of 280- and 290-pounders turning the corner. Indeed, Cincinnati got 112 of its 179 rushing yards on the right side.
Richard Dent, Chicago's sacker, lines up at right defensive end. He's coming off a broken left ankle that sidelined him for five games at the end of last year, and he's a month or so away from being 100%. He can put on a straight-ahead rush, but his ability to change direction has yet to return. Bears coach Mike Ditka says Dent, who normally plays at 268 pounds, is 10 pounds too heavy and "still has to work himself into shape." Dent insists his weight is close to normal, but on the field he looks like just another burly guy who makes the occasional play but lacks consistency.