It's a cultural thing. The Chicago Bears have always relied on their chest-thumping, head-banging, mud-spattered defense. Just don't expect a lot of points, right? Wrong. On Sunday at Soldier Field the Bears debuted a new offense that stole the glory from the defense in a 21-9 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Beginning his second season as coach of the Bears, Dave Wannstedt appears to have reversed his team's fortunes. After the offense finished last in the NFL last season and averaged a pathetic 14.6 points per game, Wannstedt signed second-rank free agents like Erik Kramer, the sometime quarterback of the Detroit Lions, and Lewis Tillman, a former New York Giant running back. "I can promise the offense won't go down from 28th," Wannstedt said dryly the day before the game. And indeed, by Chicago standards, 21 points was a scoring extravaganza.
The offense that faced the Bucs featured seven players making their first starts for the Bears. But the Bears drove 68 yards in only four plays on their initial possession, and scored a TD on a 10-yard pass from Kramer to Chris Gedney. In '93 the Bears did not score on an opening possession until Game 10 and mustered only four touchdown drives of 68 yards or longer all season.
Kramer wound up completing 18 of 25 passes for 212 yards and made a second crucial touchdown throw, a 37-yarder to Gedney, with 5:35 left. Tillman contributed 62 yards rushing and a touchdown. "I liked those three touchdowns," said defensive end Trace Armstrong afterward. "I could get used to that in a hurry."
What nobody on the Bears could warm to was the way the defense, usually among the league's most grudging units, was playing. The line allowed 103 yards rushing to backs Vince Workman and rookie Errict Rhett in the first half; during one embarrassing stretch, the defense permitted the Bucs to assemble a 21-play drive that consumed 10:05 and left defensive tackle Chris Zorich and linebacker Dantè Jones gasping on the sideline. In the past the Bear defense had a ready scapegoat in the team's three-and-out offense. "At least last year we had somebody to blame," Zorich said. "This time we have nobody to blame but ourselves."
Still, the Bears did not give up a touchdown, allowing Tampa Bay only three Michael Husted field goals. And their defensive ills are curable. One reason for their generosity to the Bucs was that the defense, too, sported a bunch of new faces. Alonzo Spellman, a 22-year-old defensive end, and 24-year-old defensive tackle Carl Simpson looked confused. "I don't think anybody is happy with the way we played," said Armstrong, whose two fourth-quarter sacks of Craig Erickson saved the Bears' pass-rushing reputation.
The overall verdict on the Bears is that they are much improved. It was left to tight end Marv Cook, a free-agent addition who spent five years with the New England Patriots, to sum it up. "Hey, man, when you come from New England, you just appreciate a win," Cook said.
It might pain an old Bear like Dick Butkus (above) to see Zorich (97) and the other defenders struggle.