October 6, 1996, was not a good day for Bryan Cox. The two-time
All-Pro linebacker was on the receiving end of a steady stream
of verbal abuse from his opponents, gave an official the
finger--an act for which he was later fined $87,500--and
witnessed the humiliation of his Bears by the Packers, 37-6, at
Soldier Field. After the game Cox ripped into his teammates.
"Some of us need to see the Wizard because we don't have a lot
of heart," he said. "Search the waiver wire. This ain't college.
People not doing their job, let's get their ass out and get some
people in who want to play."
Though the Bears probably didn't appreciate Cox's tone, the
front office seemed to take his advice to heart. Most notably,
Chicago brought in Seattle's maligned quarterback, Rick Mirer,
in exchange for the Bears' 1997 first-round pick. The move will
most likely determine whether the Bears once again toil in
mediocrity--they've been either 9-7 or 7-9 in each of coach Dave
Wannstedt's four seasons--or challenge the Packers.
Mirer never finished better than 12th in the AFC in passer
efficiency in his four seasons with the Seahawks, and after his
first few workouts for Chicago the buzz was lukewarm at best.
"The more repetitions he gets, the better he will get," says new
offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. "If he didn't have a clue,
I'd be nervous, but that is not the case."
Veteran Erik Kramer, the opening-day starter in '96, missed the
last 12 games of the season with a herniated disk. (The now
departed Dave Krieg filled in.) Kramer has returned healthy, and
his presence will keep heat on Mirer. "We are not going to be
stubborn about it," says Cavanaugh about sticking with Mirer.
"If he's not playing well, we're not going to stay with him just
because we traded for him."
The Bears also received Seattle's fourth-round pick, which they
used on Northwestern running back Darnell Autry. He could play a
significant role if Rashaan Salaam does not regain his form of
1995, when he rushed for 1,074 yards. Salaam missed three games
with knee and hamstring problems, leaving fullback Raymont
Harris to fill in; Harris ended up carrying a significant
portion of the tailback load even after Salaam returned. With
Autry in the fold, Wannstedt can return Harris to fullback full
The receiving corps is the strength of the offense. Curtis
Conway has blossomed into a 1,000-yard performer, and Bobby
Engram's promising rookie year--of his 33 catches, six were for
TDs and 22 others were for first downs--prompted the club to
part with Michael Timpson, who had 62 catches but no touchdowns.
The Bears' first pick this year, John Allred from USC, should
halt the team's revolving door at tight end. Chicago had two
other intriguing draft picks: Bob Sapp, a guard from Washington
who once took part in an extreme-fighting competition, and Mike
Miano, a defensive tackle who wept when his hometown team
drafted him, then showed how tough he is by picking several
fights during minicamp--with Sapp.
Miano might not crack the lineup, but given the state of the
Bears' defensive line, there's no telling. On the ends, former
first-rounder John Thierry has been a bust on both the right and
the left, and Alonzo Spellman has yet to play up to his
potential. Coming off injuries are tackles Jim Flanigan
(ruptured Achilles tendon in the season finale) and Chris Zorich
(season-ending torn ACL last August). Carl Simpson made the team
last year mainly because Zorich was hurt.
The secondary has been solid, though free safety Mark Carrier
was waived after refusing to take a pay cut, which thrust the
largely unproven Anthony Marshall into the mix. Cox will again
anchor the linebacking corps. He missed half of last season with
a broken thumb and before that was hindered by a bad back. The
injuries prompted him to get a head start on his off-season
conditioning. "Instead of drinking a couple of six packs a week,
I was down to maybe four beers a week," he says. "I'm changing
my habits so I can take care of my body." Cox--who worked with a
nutritionist, an exercise guru and a chiropractor--says his back
is better than ever.
As for his locker room tirade, he attributes it to being sick of
seeing his teammates cower in the presence of the mighty Pack.
"I just felt that whenever Green Bay came up, we went into a
shell," he says. "And if we're going to do anything, we're going
to have to be able to defeat that monster." He'll get his chance
soon enough: The Bears open the season on Sept. 1 in Green Bay.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK COVER [REGIONAL] The Answer? Chicago asks new QB Rick Mirer to bring some bite to the Bears
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER There's plenty of fire in Cox, but can he light a flame under the tepid Bears? [Bryan Cox in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 record: 7-9 (third in NFC Central)
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 107.5 (16) 199.1 (19) 306.6 (21)
DEFENSE 101.1 (11) 204.2 (14) 305.3 (12)
Bad Stats, Good Omen?
Rick Mirer's 56.6 passer rating last year was the worst in the
NFL and the fifth-lowest single-season mark in this decade for a
quarterback who has averaged at least 14 attempts per game. But
Bears fans can take heart in the poor passer ratings compiled by
some other young QBs who would eventually play in the Super Bowl.
Single-Season Passer Ratings for Rick Mirer and Five Future
Super Bowl QBs
Season Age Att. Comp. Yds. TDs Int. Terry Bradshaw, Steelers 1970* 22 218 83 1,410 6 24
Jim Plunkett, Patriots 1972 25 355 169 2,196 8 25
John Elway, Broncos 1983* 23 259 123 1,663 7 14
Troy Aikman, Cowboys 1989* 23 293 155 1,749 9 18
Rick Mirer, Seahawks 1996 26 265 136 1,546 5 12
Bob Griese, Dolphins 1969 24 252 121 1,695 10 16
[Terry Bradshaw] 30.4 4
[Jim Plunkett] 45.7 2
[John Elway] 54.9 3
[Troy Aikman] 55.7 3
[Rick Mirer] 56.6 --
[Bob Griese] 56.9 3
PLAYER TO WATCH
After going through tight ends last year--Chris Gedney (foot),
Keith Jennings (groin and ankle), Ryan Wetnight (knee), Bobby
Neely (knee)--like Spinal Tap goes through drummers, Chicago
spent its first draft pick (40th overall) in '97 on John Allred,
a bruising blocker with good hands who can also serve as a
long-snapper if needed. "We got to a point where with Jennings
in the game it was run, run, run, and with Wetnight it was pass,
pass, pass," says coach Dave Wannstedt. "This is a guy who can
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Dave Wannstedt
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Rick Mirer [A] 137[*] 265 att. 136 comp. 51.3%
1,546 yds. 5 TDs 12 int.
RB Rashaan Salaam 70[*] 143 att. 496 yds. 3.5 avg.
7 rec. 44 yds. 6.3 avg. 4 TDs
FB Raymont Harris 126[*] 194 att. 748 yds. 3.9 avg.
32 rec. 296 yds. 9.3 avg. 5 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Curtis Conway 82[*] 81 rec. 1,049 yds. 7 TDs
WR Bobby Engram 188[*] 33 rec. 389 yds. 6 TDs
WR Ricky Proehl [A] 284[*] 23 rec. 309 yds. 2 TDs
TE Keith Jennings 228[*] 6 rec. 56 yds. 0 TDs
PK Jeff Jaeger 273[*] 3/23 XPs 19/23 FGs 80 pts.
KR Tyrone Hughes [A] 260[*] 70 ret. 25.6 avg. 0 TDs
PR Tyrone Hughes [A] 260[*] 30 ret. 5.1 avg. 0 TDs
LT Andy Heck 6'6" 298 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Todd Perry 6'5" 312 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Chris Villarrial 6'4" 305 lbs. 14 games 8 starts
RG Todd Burger 6'3" 303 lbs. 11 games 8 starts
RT James Williams 6'7" 340 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE John Thierry 13 tackles 2 sacks
LT Jim Flanigan 41 tackles 5 sacks
RT Carl Simpson 36 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
RE Alonzo Spellman 46 tackles 8 sacks
OLB Sean Harris 7 tackles 0 sacks
MLB Bryan Cox 59 tackles 3 sacks
OLB Barry Minter 56 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
CB Tom Carter[A] 61 tackles 5 int.
SS Marty Carter 101 tackles 3 int.
FS Anthony Marshall 16 tackles 2 int.
CB Walt Harris 98 tackles 2 int.
P Todd Sauerbrun 78 punts 44.8 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*] *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)