As Dusk was descending on the Beaver Cleaver town of Apple-ton, Wis., last Saturday, Chicago Bears linebacker Ron Rivera stood outside a restaurant at the corner of Walnut and College, waiting for a table. The Bears usually stay in Apple-ton the night before they play their annual game in Green Bay against the Packers, so the place was crawling with Chicago fans. This year the town seemed especially suited to the Bears, who've shed the arrogant and money-hungry personality they flaunted as 1986 Super Bowl champs and returned to being the selfless, blue-collar Bears of old.
"We're not trying to feature one defensive player, or a group of a few defensive players," said Rivera. "We're featuring a team defense now."
Leave it to Chicago, coming off a 6-10 season, to turn back the clock in a bid to climb back on top. On Sunday, the Bears punished the Packers—quarterback Anthony Dilweg, in particular—with six sacks, six forced fumbles and two interceptions. The final score was 31-13, and, in truth, it wasn't much of a game.
Although many of the faces have changed and that flamboyant arrogance is gone, distinct reminders of Chicago's halcyon days can be found on this season's team, which is 2-0. The offense is a lot like it was in the Walter Payton years. The Bears get by with an adequate quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, while their lifeline is a running back, Neal Anderson, who stretches and stretches the defense across the field before finally picking a hole made by essentially the same line that Payton ran behind for most of the '80s.
September 23, 1990
The defense—well, that's a different story. Nineteen players have significant roles, but no one complains about possibly being unable to cash in on incentive clauses in contracts because playing time is so widely distributed. And no one complains about the number of diverse schemes the defense has had to learn, because those schemes worked so well in shutting out the Seattle Seahawks 17-0 in the season opener and in holding Green Bay's high-powered attack to 13 points. The emphasis is on making no mistakes, allowing no big plays. Read. React. Pressure the quarterback into making quick decisions, but don't throw Buddy Ryan's kitchen sink at him.
Here's how an outsider assesses the 1990 Bears: "I don't think they're as big or as bad as they were," said Packer guard Billy Ard, a 10-year veteran, after Sunday's game. "They can't overwhelm you 40 plays in a row the way they used to. But they're smart. They're good. And they still have that knockout punch."
"What we had five years ago," says Chicago's wise old owl, middle linebacker Mike Singletary, "was a group of tremendous athletes. The attitude was, 'Let's get 'em,' and we usually could. We don't have that raw athletic ability anymore. What we have are guys with big hearts and guys who think."
Lambeau Field in Green Bay was a perfect stage for a thinking man's football game. Professor Lindy Infante, in his third year as the Packer coach, and his quarterback from Duke, Dilweg, got Green Bay off to an impressive start—a 36-24 season-opening victory over the Los Angeles Rams—in preparation for the 140th meeting between the Bears and the Packers. Infante's complex offensive system requires quarterbacks and receivers to exercise one of several options on each play, depending on how it develops, which makes Green Bay a difficult team to defense.
Dilweg became Green Bay's starting quarterback when the hero of the Pack's 10-6 resurgence in 1989, Don Majkowski, held out in a contract dispute until four days before the start of this season. Even though Majik was prepared to play against Chicago, Infante announced two days before the game that he would stick with Dilweg—whose base salary is $165,000, 11% of Majkowski's new $1.5 million salary—for continuity's sake. Infante's decision may have seemed questionable, considering that Majkowski had led Green Bay to a pair of '89 victories over Chicago, which had won eight straight games from the Packers.
However, the populace of Green Bay wasn't up in arms about who started at quarterback. The locals seemed to echo the sentiments expressed by a sign painted on a fence along Lombardi Avenue, right across from the stadium: INFANTE WE TRUST. "You lose sleep when you don't have a quarterback," Infante says. "I don't lose sleep over the decision because I know I've got two."
The Bears, who gave up only 42 points in five preseason games, had dominated a weak Seattle offense, limiting the Sea-hawks to six first downs and not allowing them to penetrate farther than the Chicago 45-yard line. In the second quarter of that game, Chicago defensive coordinator Vince Tobin surprised starters and subs alike by sending eight backups into the game for two series. Singletary, end Richard Dent and cornerback Donnell Wool-ford were the only first-stringers who remained on the field.
"There's no way a defense can play better than we did in the first quarter against Seattle," said Rivera, "but we understood what the coaches were doing in the second quarter. You have to build depth."
Good depth: Chicago's defense was ravaged by injuries in 1989, when 23 players started in 15 different lineups. And unselfish depth: Coach Mike Ditka has been harping on that since last spring, when he distributed white T-shirts emblazoned with TEAM in block lettering and each player's number printed on the front. Corny? Sure. But walk through Chicago's locker room and you'll hear the players parrot the all-for-one talk.
Dilweg didn't know what to expect from the Bears on defense. "They're Jekyll and Hyde from 1989," he said before the game. "They were so aggressive last year. Now they sit back and read. I don't know which team will show up."
On Sunday morning, as the Bears drove the 37 miles along Highway 41 from Appleton to Green Bay, they passed a house that had a huge white stuffed bear hanging from a tree branch in the yard. Some kids were hitting the bear with a stick. Whenever you turned to the local FM rock station, WAPL, you heard, "Hi, I'm Bill Ard of the Green Bay Packers. And this is a Bears Still Suck block party weekend on the rockin' apple." At the stadium, people were wearing T-shirts that reminded fans of Chicago's 14-13 defeat in Green Bay last fall, when a replay official overruled a line judge's call that had negated a Packer touchdown. The shirts read AFTER FURTHER REVIEW, THE BEARS STILL SUCK!
Folks in these parts take their rivalries seriously. "I remember from my days in Detroit how tough it was to play here," said Chicago offensive coordinator Greg Landry the night before the game. "Everybody in town would be so nice to us until Sunday. Then it was like they were spitting in our faces. I remember going to mass and hearing the priest say a nice mass, until he got to the part where he said, 'And may the Packers kick the daylights out of the Lions today.' That's just the way it is here."
"I think people here view it as small-town America versus the big city," says Infante. And the small town was feeling pretty good about itself just after the opening kickoff.
On Chicago's first offensive play, Harbaugh made a horrible decision: He tried to throw to tight end James Thornton, who was surrounded by four Packers. One of them, cornerback Jerry Holmes, intercepted the pass. "Terrible read on my part," Harbaugh said later. Dilweg immediately directed a 63-yard drive, with running back Keith Woodside slashing 10 yards for the touchdown.
Soon after, Chicago began flexing its big shoulders. The next time Green Bay had the ball, defensive end Trace Armstrong roared by Packer right tackle Tony Mandarich—who did not have a good day in his second pro start—and plowed over Dilweg, forcing a fumble. Green Bay recovered but had to punt from its 14-yard line. The good field position helped the Bears get a 41-yard field goal from Kevin Butler early in the second quarter.
Then the Bears' big plays started coming. Woodside was popped by rookie free safety Mark Carrier and fumbled, and Rivera recovered the ball at the Packer 29. Green Bay held, and Butler's 42-yard field goal attempt failed when the ball hit the left upright. But Green Bay's Clarence Weathers, who tried to block the kick, was penalized for running into Butler, so Chicago got back the ball.
Four plays later, Anderson ran one yard for a touchdown to put the Bears in front, 10-7. On Green Bay's next play from scrimmage, not even a holding penalty by guard Keith Uecker could stop defensive tackle William Perry from sacking Dilweg and forcing another fumble. Armstrong recovered at the Packer 14. Six plays after that, Harbaugh, who regained his composure nicely after his initial snafu, rolled right, found no one open and sneaked into the right corner of the end zone. Bears, 17-7.
Green Bay's Chris Jacke kicked a 37-yard field goal with eight seconds left in the first half to cut the deficit to 17-10, and the Packers were driving for the tying TD midway through the third quarter when, on first down at the Chicago 31, Armstrong beat Mandarich again and sacked Dilweg, who fumbled once more. Three plays later, the Bears scored on a Harbaugh-to-Ron Morris 40-yard "go" pattern down the sideline. Bears, 24-10.
The Packers' last eight possessions ended fumble, fumble, field goal, punt, fumble, field goal, interception, interception. "Boy," Ard said, "did we self-destruct." Besides sacking Dilweg six times, Chicago's pass rush knocked down Green Bay quarterbacks—Majkowski came in to resounding cheers for a futile last drive—11 other times. The game was a coming-out party for Armstrong, who struggled at left end last year as a rookie, and a confirmation party for Perry, who looks as if he finally wants to be a football player instead of a cartoon character.
"The only thing about me that's the same as last year is my number," said Armstrong, who had two sacks and a fumble recovery. He has been helped immensely by the revival of right end Richard Dent, who looks like his old self after he was slow coming back in 1989 from the broken left leg he had suffered in '88.
Not only has Perry developed into Chicago's quickest defensive lineman off the ball, but he's also quick to report for work these days, usually beating most of the other defensive players to Halas Hall. The Fridge watches substantially more film now, too. "He's definitely matured," Singletary says. "It's a great thing to see."
Perry, who's still as big as a mansion—the Bears refuse to divulge his weight—wasn't talking after Sunday's game. "He's truly sacrificing," said Rivera. "He wants to be a good football player."
And so the two-game grade for Chicago is good: 13 points allowed, seven fumbles forced, nine sacks, five interceptions. What lies ahead? The Bears aren't the 49ers, but who is? Chicago can be competitive with the Giants, Raiders, Vikings and Rams, the teams that are a rung below San Francisco. "We're not the Monsters of the Midway anymore," says safety Shaun Gayle, "but we're going to play every down hard and see what happens."
So far, the old Bear way has been the right way.