Fortunately, Schmidt will have time to plug up the holes in the Lion offense and defense. Bill Ford, owner of the club, has given him a five-year contract. "It might take five years to get us back in contention," Ford says. He is probably right.
It might take George Halas longer than five years to make the Chicago Bears the Monsters of the Midway again. Seldom has a team crumbled so thoroughly so fast as the Bears have since they won the NFL title in 1963. Now the Monsters are midgets and the Bears are in a state of disarray. They are trying rookies at tight end and defensive end. Fullback Andy Livingston is recovering from a leg injury that kept him out during 1966 and has not yet attained playing speed or weight. Ron Bull, who has hurt his leg and will not be back in action until early in the season, Ralph Kurek and the incomparable Gale Sayers are the other running backs. Sayers suffered an ankle injury during the off season and has been slow attaining top form. Johnny Morris, the flanker who caught 93 passes for a league record in 1964, is coming off a leg injury which sidelined him last season, and he must be considered doubtful.
The defensive platoon does not shape up any better. At right corner back, Curtis Gentry, with a few minutes' NFL experience, is the leading contender, and at left corner back, two rookies are the candidates. Finally, the place-kickers cannot reach the end zone on kickoffs, despite coaching from old pro Ben Agajanian.
Last year the Bears won five games. They controlled the ball for fewer offensive plays than any other club in the league and gained fewer yards passing. Since then they have lost, one way or another, Mike Ditka, Doug Atkins, Jon Arnett, Bob Kilcullen, Joe Marconi, Herman Lee and Dave Whitsell, all first-string players. Halas is trying out rookies to replace almost all of these.
There are a few bright spots. The defensive line is strong in the middle, with Tackles Dick Evey and Frank Cornish, a 285-pound giant. Dick Butkus is an All-Pro middle linebacker, Ed O'Bradovich has decided to return after all at defensive end, and the tandem of Richie Petitbon and Roosevelt Taylor at safety is quick and experienced. But the corner backs and corner linebackers leave something to be desired. No amount of strength up the middle can compensate for these deficiencies.
Halas, however, is not desperate. After watching films of the Washington Redskins walloping his team 37-14, he could see a silver lining. "We have concluded that with some tightening up at spots, we can become one of the nicest defensive units in the league this year," Halas said optimistically. "One encouraging factor was that we were able to improve considerably on our third-down defense, an area in which we had trouble last year. We stopped the Redskins 11 of 13 times on third-down passes, and on a third-and-one situation we stopped them on the ground."
Halas is experimenting with using Bennie McRae, a corner back, as a corner linebacker on third downs when a pass seems possible. This may help. The Bear offensive line is much the same as last year except that it does not have Ditka, and that does not aid the blocking at all. It was inadequate with Ditka in 1966; it should be worse this year.
And last, the Bears still do not have a top-quality quarterback. Halas got Jack Concannon from Philadelphia for Ditka, but he is not calculated to improve the situation much for a few years, since he lacks experience. As one Chicago columnist put it, "The Bears got the third-string quarterback from a team where the first-and second-string quarterbacks ranked 16th and 21st in the league."
But, more charitably, Concannon can only help. He can roll out and create some confusion in defenses and he may have more time to find receivers than either of the other two quarterbacks, Rudy Bukich or Larry Rakestraw, who must remain in the very flimsy blocking pocket to throw.
It is a long, long way between the Packers and the Bears, or, for that matter, the Packers and the Vikings and Lions in this least competitive of the NFL's four divisions.