Midway through the third quarter of the Bears-Chargers game on Sunday, Chicago defensive tackle Tommie Harris performed a soliloquy for his teammates, who were slumped on the sideline dolefully watching the bad sitcom that passes for the Bears' attack. At that point Chicago was clinging to a 3-0 lead in what could euphemistically be described as a defensive struggle. "Three points is enough!" Harris screamed at his mates. "We got what we need to win! We need to keep 'em at zero!" ¬∂ Yes, it has come to this for the Bears: Their best hope of victory is for their ferocious defense to pitch a shutout. In the end the Chicago D couldn't do it all by itself, especially against the well-balanced Chargers, who last year led the NFL in scoring. Harris and the boys wore down late in the game, losing 14-3 in a matchup that Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers described as having "a championship atmosphere." ¬∂ In fact, it felt just like the last time we saw these Bears, Super Bowl XLI, when offensive ineptitude led to a 29-17 pasting by the Indianapolis Colts. Quarterback Rex Grossman played that game as if his hands had been marinated in butter, throwing two interceptions, losing a fumble and muffing a couple snaps. Against San Diego he was much better, which is to say he was ineffective but didn't royally screw up. Grossman threw one pick, only partly his fault, and fumbled without being touched, which was embarrassing but not costly, as a fortuitous bounce allowed the Bears to keep possession. No, it took some help to produce an effort this lackluster, as Chicago amassed just 202 yards, gained 11 first downs and possessed the ball for less than 23 minutes.
The Bears' offensive line was dominated in the trenches, a handful of catchable passes went uncaught, and the new starting back, heavy-legged Cedric Benson, rushed for 42 yards on 19 carries. Not long after Benson coughed up a fumble early in the third quarter he was stranded on the sideline in a baseball cap, probably wishing he were still an outfielder in the Dodgers farm system, where he spent a couple summers while an undergrad at Texas. Benson's replacement, Adrian Peterson (no, not that one), showed a little fight, but he lost a crucial fourth-quarter fumble that led to San Diego's second touchdown.
"It's unacceptable to waste a defensive performance like that," Bears center Olin Kreutz said after the game. He was asked if he was worried that at some point the Bears' defense would just give up on the O, dividing the team. "That's up to us on the offensive side," Kreutz said. "We have to play better, simple as that."
If the Bears left San Diego with more questions than when they arrived, the Chargers found some closure after a trying eight months. Last season the Bolts had a league-best 14-2 record and 11 Pro Bowlers, but in the playoffs they blew a fourth-quarter lead and lost to the Patriots, a stunner that led to hard questions about the team's toughness and precipitated the ouster of coach Marty Schottenheimer and the hiring of Norv Turner to replace him. So on Sunday there was the slightest whiff of urgency in the air at Qualcomm Stadium.
"The first game always helps define a season," defensive end Igor Olshansky said earlier in the week. "Pressure's on, and we're feeling it. People are saying we're the best team in the league. Now we have to prove it."
Last year the Chargers' defense was a big-play outfit with a league-best 61 sacks. This year's edition has the look of a more disciplined, more complete squad. It is often said (particularly in San Diego) that the Chargers have the best front seven in football, which is another way of saying the four guys behind them are nothing special. The biggest preseason competition was at strong safety, where fifth-year veteran Clinton Hart won the starting job over rookie Eric Weddle, a second-rounder who lined up at safety, cornerback, quarterback, running back, punter, punt returner and placekick holder during his college career at Utah. Coming off the bench against the Bears, Weddle was a sideline-to-sideline terror, with three tackles, a sack and two quarterback hits. Free safety Marlon McCree was also a difference-maker with an interception at the goal line when Bears wideout Bernard Berrian broke off his route sooner than Grossman had anticipated. Kreutz needed only one word to describe the Chargers' defense: "Relentless."
That's the style being preached by new coordinator Ted Cottrell, who got the job after Wade Phillips was named coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Cottrell is known for his mastery of the 3--4 and his extremely salty pep talks. "The personality of this defense is a little different now," says All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman. "Wade never raised his voice. Cottrell, his energy fits a little more with how we play." That would be with the volume turned all the way up.
Cottrell is one of nine new faces on the coaching staff, which was overhauled after Schottenheimer lost a messy power struggle with general manager A.J. Smith. Around San Diego, Martyball has become a dirty word. It is shorthand for conservative play-calling, among other things. On San Diego's second possession on Sunday, Turner was staring at a fourth-and-one on the Chicago 15. When he decided to go for it, an unmistakable buzz rippled through Qualcomm. Martyball had left the building.
Turner made his bones as an offensive mastermind calling plays for two Super Bowl winners in Dallas, and during a cameo as San Diego's offensive coordinator in 2001 he installed the system that has helped LaDainian Tomlinson become the NFL's most accomplished running back. Chicago's game plan was built around stuffing LT, and the Bears did so emphatically, holding him to 25 yards on 17 carries. But as the second half wore on, it became increasingly clear that one or two big plays would decide the game, and the Chargers were confident about which side would make them. "Oh, man, it feels great when your defense is playing as good as ours was," said Rivers. "Offensively, you just keep plugging, because with the playmakers we have, sooner or later someone is going to bust one."
The Chargers' first big break came in the dying minutes of the third quarter, when a punt doinked off the backside of Chicago blocker Brandon McGowan. San Diego recovered on the Bears' 29, and Tomlinson proved yet again that he'll find a way to beat you, tossing a 17-yard TD pass to tight end Antonio Gates on an option. On the next possession Peterson fumbled, setting up the San Diego touchdown that more or less iced the game, a vintage seven-yard run by Tomlinson on which he bounced off two Bears. From there Rivers was entrusted with running out the clock.
"There's a really nice rhythm to [Turner's] play-calling," said Rivers, in his second season as a starter. "There are times as a quarterback you're hoping for a certain play, and it's funny how often that [play was called] today."
His favorite call came with five minutes to go. Having stopped Chicago on downs, the Chargers faced third-and-six from their 39. "We ran a play-action fake, sending three guys down the field," says Rivers. "It wasn't, Let's play it safe, let's not make a mistake. [It was] Hey, let's make a play. That showed me [Turner] trusted me to make a smart choice." With no one open downfield, Rivers found Tomlinson in the flat for the first down. It was a modest seven-yard gain, but, says Rivers, "I liked what that play meant."
He told this story while walking out of a deserted locker room. Eventually Rivers made his way to the parking lot, where he exchanged pleasantries with Harris, who was waiting to board the Bears' bus. The 295-pound lineman was toting a Louis Vuitton travel bag and was turned out in a pinstripe suit. Back in Chicago, though, the garb of choice is a black T-shirt that hangs in the lockers at Halas Hall. Printed on the back, in large white letters, is UNFINISHED. Below that it reads FEB. 3, 2008, the date of Super Bowl XLII.
One week of football is not definitive, but after a gritty, physical victory—exactly the kind needed to succeed in the postseason—right now the Chargers' defense looks every bit as strong as the Bears'. With its game-breaking offense and reliable kicking game, San Diego seems destined to battle the Colts and the Patriots for supremacy in the AFC. As for the Bears, those T-shirts have suddenly taken on a different meaning. After Sunday's dispiriting loss, this imbalanced team looks more unfinished than ever.
"Pressure's on, and we're FEELING IT," says Olshansky. "People are saying we're the best team the league. Now we have to prove it."
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Photograph by Robert Beck
PARTYBALL Though the going against Chicago was tough, Rivers (throwing) is happy he and Tomlinson (21) will be allowed to take more chances with the offense this season.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
PLAY LOUD Merriman loves his new coordinator's intensity.
HIGH-STEPPING Tomlinson was held to 25 yards rushing but still made the big plays.
MEL LEVINE (FOLDOUT)