Jay Cutler’s three touchdown passes lifted Chicago to victory over Minnesota, but they did little to make fans forget about what a miserable season it’s been. The Bears are now tied with the Vikings for last place in the NFC North, and the paying customers are screaming for a new face of the franchise
CHICAGO — When you work for a living and spend a sizable chunk of your income on a professional football team, there inevitably comes a time when you must rationalize the emotional and financial expenditures in light of the ruin that your team has become. For Bears fans, that moment arrived Sunday morning outside Soldier Field.
Ticket-holders were there in ski pants and hoodies, about 60,000 men and women braving the snow-bearing winds that whipped across the parking lots from Lake Michigan. They still hadn’t gotten over last week’s Packers game. When your team loses 55-14 in this new NFL, with its salary cap and rookie compensation structure all but mandating parity, you don’t show up the following Sunday with fire in your eyes and zeal in your throats. No. Either you get drunk, or you self-deprecate, or you get drunk and self-deprecate.
The disenchantment was impossible to miss. Jim Felgenhauer of Oak Forest, Ill., wore a dark navy Tim Tebow Chicago Bears jersey. And it wasn’t a replica deal with the pressed-on, glossy No. 15. His is an authentic jersey of a guy who has never played for the Bears and hasn’t taken an NFL snap in nearly two years. It was supposed to be a Christmas present, but with Jay Cutler tossing interceptions at a higher rate than Tebow did over his career, Jim’s pal pulled the trigger early on the present. “He got it for me because I love Tebow,” Felgenhauer says. “Hopefully we can bring him in soon—anybody is better than Cutler.”
Jay Cutler wasn’t the only reason Chicago took a 3-6 record into Sunday’s tilt against the Vikings. The injury-riddled defense gave up 106 points in consecutive games to the Patriots and Packers, leaving many to wonder if coordinator Mel Tucker is the right man to run the unit. People doubt if Marc Trestman, the supposed quarterback whisperer, can get Cutler and a talented receiving group clicking consistently. A Sun-Times headline writer dubbed the bespectacled Trestman “studious” when he was introduced as the Bears’ head coach in January 2013, but now columnists are calling him the village idiot. Or should blame fall upon general manager Phil Emery, a secretive and dour decision-maker in the vein of Bill Belichick who seems to have left the cupboards bare?
Fans poured into Soldier Field to watch a team they’re laughing at, a quarterback they don’t respect, a coach they don’t understand and a game that most likely won’t have any playoff implications. Why?
The MMQB set out to take the temperature of fans at pre-game tailgates along Burnham Harbor, the concrete lots across from the Field Museum and the two-story parking garage southwest of Soldier—all of which combine to form the bratwurst capital of the United States on Sundays in the fall. In these cherished drinking spots, which haven't tasted Super Bowl victory since the 1985 season, everything is awful, and the only way to fix it is to fire the principals immediately and soak everything in Fireball or Miller Lite.
The Packers blowout was a breaking point for most. Green Bay led 42-0 after two quarters, and Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Rosenbloom asked in apparent sincerity, “Why wasn’t Marc Trestman fired at halftime?”
“I’ve been watching since ’72,” says Chuck Bell, a real estate attorney from Joliet, “and I’ve never seen a Bears team lay down like that.”
“We have a lot of relatives from Wisconsin,” says Robin Nordin, a 33-year season ticket holder from Glenview. “Usually we talk a little trash back and forth when the games are close. But they just felt bad for us.”
Robin and her father, Don, sit in the front row near a field entrance and drape a sign for kicker Robbie Gould over the railing. When they made the first one a few years ago, Gould noticed it and jogged over after the game. “Thank you so much,” he said. “Can I have it?” Gould has stopped by nearly every game since during warm-ups to shake hands with the Nordins and greet their guests.
Fans lament that most Bears players aren’t as approachable as they were in bygone eras. Very few of today's players live in Chicago, and when the team is losing, going out in the city can be awkward for them. Bears fans, says guard Kyle Long, can be blunt. “Understandably so,” Long adds. “There’s a different tone that you get approached with when you’re losing. You get funny looks. You don’t know what people are going to say. So if you can limit interactions in those cases, you try to. On the other hand, there’s nothing better than seeing a Bears fan after a win, and they’re everywhere.”
Even in good times, Chicago has never fallen in love with its mercurial quarterback. Fans readily share stories about their encounters with Cutler, like the time he turned away an 8-year-old autograph seeker at a restaurant with a curt, “I’m eating,” only to invite him back over when his meal was done.
Those who have been introduced to their quarterback say he has little interest in conversing with friends of friends at favorite hangouts such as Joe’s Sports Bar on Weed Street, and even less interest in humoring adoring strangers. People think he’s perpetually “over it,” not because of anything he says but for his body language. And almost unilaterally, they’re over him. An article in The Onion quoted Cutler blaming the punter for the Bears’ struggles against the Packers, and the satirical story joined a growing list of Onion plotlines so appealing that enough people believed it for it to become a thing.
Before the Vikings game, a father with son in tow was spotted wearing an altered Cutler jersey. He affixed tape to the ‘C’ so it read BUTLER. Kevin Butler, the man explained, kicked for the Bears from ’85 to ’95 and also wore No. 6. Yet the fans still poured into Soldier Field to watch a team they’re laughing at, a quarterback they don’t respect, a coach they don’t understand and a game that most likely won’t have any playoff implications.
I skip out on the press box and head to the stands in search of an answer. It wasn’t hard to find a scalper; they’re the middle-aged black guys pacing rapidly through the tailgates, not wearing any Bears gear.
Chicago’s predominantly black South Side has a role at Soldier Field, and it’s almost entirely commercial. I’ve asked close to 100 stadium security staff, concessions and hospitality workers where they’re from over two seasons of Bears games, and 8 out of 10 are black and hail from south of 18th Street. On Sundays, Soldier Field becomes the North Side’s playground and the South Side’s workplace.
My scalper lives in Chicago’s Lawn neighborhood, a place I haven’t visited despite living in the city for 18 months, mainly because someone gets shot there about once a week. He works Blackhawks games, Bulls games and Bears games, buying extra tickets online and in person during the morning hours on game days, then flipping them for profit as kickoff nears. I scoff at his $100 price tag for a single 300-level seat in the end zone with an $80 face value.
“Fifty bucks,” I say.
“$60?” he asks.
Business isn’t good.
“That’s a $200 ticket you’re holding if they weren’t so bad right now,” he says.
I walk to my seat, staring up at the Greek Doric columns at the east entrance that are now dwarfed by modern renovations and rising bleachers. There’s a real sense of community in this part of the stands. If this were Steelers-Ravens, there might be hard drinking and fisticuffs going on, but this is Vikings-Bears, and everybody just kind of feels sorry for one another.
Nobody feels any need to justify why they're there in the 25-degree cold clutching $6 hand warmers and $10 beers. It will take much stronger blows to the public’s confidence to keep football fans away from Soldier Field on Sundays. They’ve celebrated Mike Ditka and Walter Payton and the Monsters of the Midway, but they’ve also endured Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron and a host of others who couldn't get it done. Cutler and Trestman may soon move on, but the fans will still be here in their salvaged Starter jackets from the ’80s, because the Bears matter in Chicago in ways that other franchises in other NFL cities do not.
When Cutler throws an interception in the third quarter—his second of the game and 12th of the season—there are no audible gasps or hands thrown skyward in frustration. Bears fans are beyond that and simply curse under their breath; it’s business as usual.
Before the fourth quarter begins, I start losing feeling in my toes and head to a bar to watch the rest of the game. I end up at State Restaurant, an establishment on the west side of Lincoln Park that’s a favorite of the mid-20s to early-30s crowd. The place claims to have the most TVs of any sports bar in Chicago, and it’s typically standing-room-only during Bears games. But a waitress estimates that business is down about 50% on Sundays compared to last year. As the game ends, a 21-13 Bears’ victory, one lonely drunk guy half-jogs around the bar begging for high-fives. I watch him stumble around in a Matt Forte jersey and think to myself, This place isn’t Chicago. I need to go somewhere dark and grungy where there’s no hair gel and the bartender knows everyone’s name. I need to go to Joe’s on Broadway.
Joe’s has a plastic screen door that opens up to a wooden door, behind which you’ll find the dingiest little bar in the North Side neighborhood unofficially known as East Lakeview. There’s a team portrait of the ’89 Cubs above the bar with the headline “Boys of Zimmer” and a fake six-foot marlin mounted on the opposite wall some 15 feet away. It’s the kind of place that sells Marlboros and Camels from behind the bar, and where the middle-aged bartender tucks his long sleeve Bears shirt into his blue Levi’s.
“Rodgers has all the endorsements. Great personality. Seems like a nice guy,” a graying woman at the bar says. “Then you look at Cutler, who has two faces: upset and don’t-caaaaaaare. How many more years are we stuck with him?”
On the lone television above the bar, Aaron Rodgers is dicing up the Eagles in the same manner he worked over the Bears a week earlier. Just before halftime the broadcast focuses on his face as he looks out at the Eagles alignment. He smirks and calls a timeout just before the play clock expires.
“Now you look at that,” says a graying woman at the bar. “Rodgers has all the endorsements. Great personality. Seems like a nice guy. Then you look at Cutler, who has two faces: upset and don’t-caaaaaaare. How many more years are we stuck with him? If you ask me, pay should be performance-based, not based on potential you haven’t shown yet.”
All six Chicagoans at the bar nod in agreement.
As I leave Joe’s, I wonder what Cutler must think about how the city views him. He wasn’t available for interviews at the team’s practice facility on Monday, but Long was around. This is all new territory for the second-year pro, a 2013 first-rounder out of Oregon who can’t remember if he’s ever been on a football team that finished with a losing record. Long, who is close with Cutler, has a framed artist’s rendition of a picture that was snapped during the 2013 season-opener of him stepping between his quarterback and Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
Though Cutler threw three touchdowns against the Vikings and the Bears improved to 4-6 on Sunday, the win did little to change the conversation around the team. Not all wins make it good to be a Bears player, not when you pull yourself into a last-place tie with Minnesota. Does Cutler pretend to not hear the noise, or is he actually deaf to it?
“Jay does a really good job of tuning it out,” says Long, running interference as if he’s stepping in front of a linebacker. “I don’t even think it exists in his mind. He’s so one-track minded. He’s thinking about football when he’s not thinking about his family. That’s Jay Cutler. It’s not as though he doesn’t care.”
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