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SACKED IN CHICAGO
There have been plenty of moments this season when Bear quarterback Jim Harbaugh has felt like the loneliest man in Chicago. Starting with the first preseason game, Harbaugh, who signed a four-year, $13 million contract in March that pays him $5 million this season, has been loudly booed by the sellout crowds at Soldier Field. In the regular-season home opener, the verbal barrage began right after the national anthem. On radio talk shows in Chicago, caller after caller has crucified him, and the local sports columnists have questioned everything from his ability to inspire his teammates to his instincts, arm strength and guts.
"Jim Harbaugh is not fit to quarterback any pro team south of the Canadian border," wrote Jay Mariotti of the Sun-Times after the Bears started the season 0-2. "Bench him. Forever." About a week ago Harbaugh, a 29-year-old bachelor who subsists on microwaved frozen cheese pizza, tried to have a relaxing dinner downtown for a change, but an irate fan put a damper on the evening by approaching the quarterback and snarling, "Harbaugh, you——!"
Through all of the humiliation, Harbaugh has somehow maintained a stoic front. In fact, he showed little emotion until Sunday's 47-17 victory over the lowly Buccaneers. With 4:51 remaining in the second quarter, Harbaugh took the snap at the Buc one, faked left and bolted to the right, straight through the front corner of the end zone. Then he powerfully slammed the football to the turf.
He added two touchdown passes before halftime and finished the afternoon 17 of 22 for 192 yards as the Bears put up the highest point total of any team in the NFL this season. The victory, which was the first for rookie coach Dave Wannstedt, made Harbaugh downright giddy.
"There was a lot of pressure on the whole team," replied Harbaugh when asked if he felt as though a gorilla had been lifted off his back. "Everybody needed this win. Not to take anything away from Tampa Bay, but if we'd lost to that team, I don't know what people would've said."
But how could life have gotten any worse for Harbaugh? He had entered the game with a quarterback rating (61.2) that put him 25th in the league, had thrown for only 261 yards and one touchdown, and had been sacked eight times and pulverized countless times more after releasing the ball. In Harbaugh's defense, the players are still learning Wannstedt's new offensive system, a 49er-style controlled passing game, and the Bear offense, ranked 26th in the NFL through Sunday, has been crippled by injuries. None of that, however, seems to matter to Harbaugh's critics.
"Chicago thrives on two things—quarterback controversies and complaining about property taxes," explained WLUP's Chet Coppock, who hosts one of the city's most popular radio talk shows. "First of all, he's too damn good-looking for his own good. Secondly, people have attached his salary figure to a built-in guarantee that he'll throw 425 yards every game. There'll be brief flirtations, but the fans will never have a love affair with Harbaugh."
"Actually, there've been times when the booing pumps me up," Harbaugh said. "Whether people are booing or cheering me—that's not why I play the game. I play it because I love it. I've never played so I can pick up the paper and see how many great things writers say about me. I've never played so that people like me or so I can date the prettiest girl. That's so superficial, so temporary. one day, you're The Man, and the next, you're a piece of crap.
"I don't hold anything against the fans or the media. We can reel off the next five wins and things will be different. Everybody will be writing about how great we are, and the fans won't stop cheering."