My pro-football team, the Chicago Bears, has a fight song called “Bear Down Chicago Bears,” and it’s well known by its supporters. It’s a short ditty that’s easy to memorize, mostly because of the repetitions of the “Bear down” theme. Its best lines go as follows: “We’ll never forget the way you thrilled the nation/ With your T-formation.” That’s in reference to the team’s pioneering role introducing the “T” to the football world, ushering in the modern passing game. The period in question was the 1940s, when the Bears rode high with championships in 1940, ’41, ’43 and ’46.
But ironically, the “T” and the ‘40s teams that honed them turned out to be the apexes of the National Football League’s oldest continuous franchise. Its chesty and history-loving fans to the contrary notwithstanding, the Bears for decades have been one of the league’s sad-sackiest outfits, one that hasn’t developed a first-rate passing game since the leather-helmeted quarterback Sid Luckman left the fold in 1950. Indeed, the great Sid held most of the Bears’ passing records until just a few seasons ago, a 60-plus-year skein that was unmatched in NFL annals, and I think even he might have been put off by the chronic aerial ineptitude of his former club.
Don’t get me wrong, the Bears are not the NFL’s sorriest franchise. Thirteen of its clubs never have won a Super Bowl trophy since that bauble first was contested in 1967, and four of them (the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars) never have qualified for the game. The league’s all-time worst won-lost record (255-404, or .387) belongs to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and they’re so far in the last-place hole they might never crawl out of it.
But the Bears certainly rank in the league’s bottom quadrant by most standards since their 1946 championship run. They’ve won only two league titles since (in 1963 and 1985) and have just one other SB appearance to their credit, in 2006. Since that year they’ve posted just three winning records and have finished below .500 the last four seasons. With a new and untried head coach and young roster, they’ll again be hard-pressed to reach that mark in the season that starts next month.
Further, the post-WWII era Bears have been dull as well as bad, owing most of whatever success they’ve had to defensive prowess. The 1963 champions, led by linebacker Bill George and defensive lineman Doug Atkins, won a bunch of games by scores of 14-10 or so, as did the 2006 crew, led by linebacker Brian Urlacher. The latter team was quarterbacked by Rex Grossman, whose signature play was the fumbled center snap. It may have been the worst to have qualified for a Super Bowl, losing 29-17 there to the Peyton Manning Indianapolis Colts despite being spotted a seven-point lead by Devin Hester’s TD return of the opening kickoff.
Defense with a capital “D” was the hallmark of the 1985 Bears’ champs, a team so dominant that its fans’ eyes still glaze when recalling it. That unit annihilated its opponents, leading the league in about every defensive category and allowing only 10 points in three playoff wins. No member of that outfit has bought himself a drink in Chicago since, it was that good.
Alas, the ’85 performance was a one-off. It was a young club that could and probably should have repeated, but its locker room wasn’t big enough to contain its leaders’ egos, especially that of its head coach, Mike Ditka. Its aura remains, and allows Bears’ fans to pipe up when the great Patriots, Steelers and Cowboys teams are discussed, but the episode was a footnote in NFL history, not a chapter.
It takes no expert analyst to pinpoint the cause of the Bears’ recent ineptitude; it’s simply that they haven’t had enough good players. Every year the ESPN website makes up a list of the league’s 100 best players regardless of position, and the last two years no Bear has made it, as in zero. That would be hard to do even if it were an objective.
Coaches come and go (three since 2013), and a new general manager came on board in 2015, but the talent dearth remains. The current team has pegged its hopes on Mitch Trubitsky, a quarterback for whom it paid up big to acquire with the second choice of the 2017 collegiate draft, despite the fact he’d been just a one-year starter for a mediocre college team (North Carolina).
The plan was for the young man to carry a clipboard his first season while the veteran Mike Glennon ran the offensive show, but Glennon was so bad that Trubitsky was pressed into starting service in game five and stayed there the rest of the season. Trouble was, the coaching staff had so little faith in him that it installed a high-school-level offense that required (and revealed) few of his abilities, so he enters the current campaign as big of a question mark as he was at this time last season. That’s not exactly a model for player development.
Much the same could be said of Roquan Smith, the linebacker who was the team’s top 2018 draft choice. Alone among the league’s latest draftees he held out for a month over an arcane contract dispute, missing the sweatiest month of training camp. That should endear him to his new teammates.
Overseeing this long-running mess are the descendants of George Halas, the team’s founder. He died in 1983, four years after the death of his son and intended heir George Jr., a/k/a Muggs. That left the team to the family of his daughter, Virginia McCaskey, and her brood of 11 kids.
Most other NFL teams are owned by big-ego billionaires who have succeeded mightily in other fields. Not the Bears, whose owners scored big only by picking the right parents. Virginia’s son, George, now is team chairman, having succeeded his brother, Michael, in 1999. Virginia, now 95 and widowed, still is a board of directors member, as are Michael and George. Three others bearing the family name round out the nine-member unit, mirroring the family’s 80% ownership share.
There have been recurring rumors of the team being for sale, but all have been quickly shot down. Virginia McCaskey has been quoted as saying her family will run the team “until the second coming,” and with 21 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren she has the troops to back it up. It’s enough to make one hope for a messiah.