Even before Mount Ditka erupted on Sunday night, after the Washington Redskins had dismantled his Chicago Bears 38-14 at RFK Stadium, the woes of his embattled team were evident. You could see them and hear them last week in the suburb of Lake Forest, Ill., a 30-minute drive north of Chicago, where the Bears train between games.
On the second floor of the Bears' practice complex, in defensive coordinator Vince Tobin's office, hang four large rectangular picture frames, one for each of his four seasons as Chicago's defensive boss. Inside each frame is a chart made up of a series of squares. The charts are a week-by-week statistical summary of the 10 categories Tobin considers significant, such as not allowing opponents more than 17 points or 275 yards of offense in a game. When the Bears meet Tobin's goal in a particular category, he colors in the corresponding square with an orange marker. If they don't meet the goal, he leaves the square white.
Not surprisingly, an awful lot of white squares can be found on this season's chart, and in one important category—holding opponents without a pass play of more than 25 yards—the row was white for the eight games leading up to Sunday's meeting with the Redskins. This is the big-play category, and the Bears are getting straight F's in it. So far this year, Chicago has given up 22 passes of more than 25 yards. In each of the three previous seasons under Tobin, the Bears hadn't allowed more than 24. "It hasn't been any one thing," says Tobin. "We just haven't made the plays."
O.K., we have accounted for Chicago's No. 1 weakness—giving up big plays. Its No. 2 flaw, as center Jay Hilgenberg puts it, is that "we're a member of the pack. We don't intimidate anybody anymore. People have no fear of us. You can see it."
Hilgenberg saw it in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who beat Chicago 32-31 on Nov. 19 to sweep a season series with the Bears for the first time since the Bucs entered the NFL in 1976. And the Bucs saw a definite change in the Bears. Says Tampa Bay linebacker Kevin Murphy, "They're still a really good team, but they're having a changing of the guard. People are putting the image of the big, bad Bears out of their minds."
Indeed, the Bears themselves must be wondering whether anything can be salvaged from the wreckage. True, even after the loss to Washington, they're 6-6 and only a game behind the first-place Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Central, and they play in Minnesota on Sunday night. It isn't over yet, is it? Not exactly, but the fat lady is warming up.
Before Sunday, the Bears had never in the franchise's 70-season history allowed an opponent more than 30 first downs in a game. Against the Skins they yielded 35. Mark Rypien, the starting quarterback for the mercurial Redskins, who also are 6-6, had the game of his life—30 completions in 47 attempts for 401 yards, with four touchdown passes and only one interception. Chicago defensive end Richard Dent, who's supposed to be a dominant player in big games like Sunday's, responded with zero tackles. If any one game can be said to signal the end of an era in football, this one signaled the end of the Bears as we have known them. These Bears may not be in hibernation—they may be extinct.
After the game, Mike Ditka, a coach who screams first and asks questions later, was livid. "This is absolutely the worst exhibition of football I've ever seen," he said. "We stink. We are an absolutely atrocious football team at this point. We have to play the rest of our games, but there's no question in my mind that we will be fortunate to win one game."
Then he added, "We had no pressure. We can't play man-to-man. Our pass coverage was terrible. We just can't play. There's nothing we can do this year about it. I think it's over."
The next day, on his morning radio show in Chicago, Ditka softened some, saying the pass coverage he had ripped the night before wasn't as bad as he had thought. But he said, "Maybe it's time for this organization to evaluate Mike Ditka. Maybe it's time for them to tell Mike Ditka to hit the road."