In 1963 the Bears had the best defense in football and were the world champions. In 1964 they had the worst defense in the West and finished sixth. What happened? Was it, as some say, a psychological letdown following the deaths of Willie Galimore, the Bears' excellent broken-field runner, and Split End John Farrington in an auto accident? No one knows for sure. The Bears' owner, doughty old George Halas, claims to know but won't tell. "It's no mystery," he says. "There were reasons and as long as I know what they are I will be able to do something about it. When the team reported to camp I had four major objectives: first, to bring up the defense; second, to improve the pass-rush; third, to improve the line blocking; and, fourth, to diversify the passing attack. I feel that we have accomplished every objective."
Halas failed to mention the running offense, not a strong one, whose weakness permits opposing teams to concentrate on the Bears' passing game. The anemic 3.3-yard rushing average of 1964 was a fraction off Chicago's 3.4-yard average in the championship year. Now, however, the Bears have Kansas' Gale Sayers, the outstanding breakaway runner in college football last year, and thus the hope of some game-busting dashes. Holdover Backs Ronnie Bull, Jon Arnett and Joe Marconi have been looking like Ohio State collegians, worth about three yards and a cloud of dust. The Bears will be improved by Sayers' presence, but still need a big, explosive fullback to make the running game first-rate.
By diversification of the passing attack Halas means more deep passing. Last year the Bears were a superb short-passing team, leading the NFL in completions (282) and yardage gained (2,841). This was quite an achievement considering the way defenses hounded the Bears' top receivers, Flanker Johnny Morris and that mean mountain of muscle, Tight End Mike Ditka. Ditka came out of a scrimmage with the All-Stars with an injured foot, but he will be in top shape on opening day. Morris, a small man, caught a record 93 passes for 1,200 yards despite being double-and triple-teamed. Ditka had a big year, too, with 75 receptions for 897 yards.
Halas believes that rookie Split Ends Jim Jones of Wisconsin and Dick Gordan of Michigan State, along with Sayers, can be popped loose for medium and long passes to prevent the defenses from stacking on Morris and Ditka. Morris has been the team's only deep receiver.
There is a battle for the No. 1 quarterback position between Billy Wade, the starter for three years, and Rudy Bukich, who came on strong last season after he suppressed his impulse to throw long (he is not a good deep passer) and punched in the short passes with accuracy. The two are likely to split the job for awhile, but the taller, more versatile Wade should emerge on top. Ultimately the Bears may see enough in Larry Rakestraw, a second-year man from Georgia, to make him the top quarterback.
Whether Halas' trades have actually improved line blocking remains to be seen. Guard Palmer Pyle, obtained from Minnesota, moves in beside his brother, Center Mike Pyle, who is the best of a so-so lot. Riley Mattson, traded from Washington, takes over at left tackle from Herman Lee.
The Bears' defense needs lively new blood, but there will be few transfusions. Instead, the Bears are counting on conditioning. "That's the best-conditioned squad I've seen in the NFL," says one pro scout. "It's the only one without any big bellies." Halas will also simplify his defensive maneuvers. There is likely to be less red-dogging. Linebackers Larry Morris, Joe Fortunato and Bill George, who have logged a total of 32 pro seasons, are beginning to look a little shopworn. But now comes rookie Dick Butkus, the Bears' No. 1 draft choice, one of the great prizes of the year, to add youth and fire to the linebacking. There is some mild apprehension that Butkus might be a step too slow to play center linebacker, his college position, and not experienced enough to wade right in at one of the outside posts, but a little seasoning should make him an outstanding defender. Ron Smith, who also lacks experience but has the quick hands and feet essential in the secondary, replaces Dave Whitsell at corner back. Overall the secondary is one of the strongest in the league, with veterans Roosevelt Taylor and Richie Petitbon at safety and Bennie McRae at the other corner. The defensive line boasts superior ends—Doug Atkins and Ed O'Bradovich—but the tackles are only ordinary. Atkins, a rough young man, may be feeling a little meaner than usual. He was fined $900 for reporting late to camp.
The Bears, then, are something of a mystery team. Weaknesses in the lines and the running game will take time to correct. If the Bears break even they will be doing extremely well.