As quarterback Rick Mirer struggled to learn the offense this
summer, there was grumbling among the coaches and the players
that Mirer--the son of a high school football coach, the former
star at Notre Dame, the No. 2 pick in the 1993 draft by the
Seahawks, the player Chicago traded its '97 first-round
selection for last February--wasn't nearly as effective as Erik
Kramer, Chicago's incumbent, who is returning from two herniated
cervical disks, which sidelined him for all but four games last
year. Even late in the preseason one of the Bears said he was
amazed that Mirer, given his football pedigree, was so slow to
master the offense.
But coach Dave Wannstedt and the front office have to share in
the blame. They could have made virtually the same deal for
Mirer last October, at the 1996 trading deadline, and while
Mirer wouldn't have made much difference in Chicago's
injury-ravaged 7-9 season, he at least could have used that time
to learn the offense. Then when new offensive coordinator Matt
Cavanaugh hit town in January, Mirer could have devoted more
time to the 25% of the playbook that was rewritten.
As it was, Mirer didn't begin learning the offense until March,
and though he was diligent about it, he was way behind Kramer,
who looked far more polished and game-ready than Mirer at
The Bears went down to the wire before choosing a quarterback to
start the '97 season, picking Kramer less than two weeks before
the Monday-night opener against the Packers. But success won't
come easily for Kramer--or Mirer if he gets a shot--early in the
season. Wideout Curtis Conway, who led Chicago in receiving last
season with 81 catches for 1,049 yards and seven touchdowns, is
out for at least the first month after breaking his collarbone
in a preseason game against the Cardinals. Journeyman Ricky
Proehl, who caught 23 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns
with the Seahawks last year, moves into the starting lineup.
With a 32-32 record over four seasons in Chicago, Wannstedt was
already under the gun before Conway went down. In May club
president Mike McCaskey relieved the coach of some of his
authority when he hired the Chiefs' Mark Hatley as vice
president of player personnel. "We don't have enough talent,"
Hatley said this summer, and you can be sure that what remains
of Wannstedt's job will be in jeopardy if what talent he has
doesn't generate nine wins. That's all the more reason the coach
needs one of his quarterbacks to emerge.
Late in the preseason Mirer seemed surprised, and a bit hurt,
when it was suggested that he was slow to grasp an offense that
no one will ever confuse with the complex systems used by San
Francisco and Green Bay. "Untrue," he said. "I've come a long
way, being a rookie in this system. I came here with the idea of
making improvements in my game and being the starter, but stuff
doesn't happen overnight. I never looked at this as a quick-fix
career move. I knew it might take time, and I'm learning a huge
amount in a short time. I'm here for the long haul."
Mirer won't rip the coaching he received in Seattle, where he
completed just 53.3% of his passes and had a quarterback rating
of 65.2 over four seasons, but apparently he was pretty much
starting from scratch in Chicago. "Matt is working with me on
things I have never even heard of before," Mirer says. "In terms
of the drops, for example, he goes over exactly where your feet
should be, how big the steps should be--all the itty-bitty
details that it takes to be precise."
No matter who's barking signals, the Bears must also have a
strong ground game to be formidable. They ran on only 45% of
their offensive plays last year and ranked 16th in the league in
rushing offense, but Wannstedt hopes the sturdy backfield tandem
of Rashaan Salaam (496 yards on 143 carries in '96) and Raymont
Harris (748 on 194) can control the clock. Without Conway, the
Bears will need to win a lot of low-scoring games early to
remain in the playoff hunt.
"I still remember going into Denver and Kansas City last season
all beat up, and we should have won both games," Wannstedt says
of the two close calls. "So we're not that far off."