Saturday, December 03, 2005

Monsters and Midgets of the Midway

I'm the punky QB known as K. Orton. I'll let it fly, and the season shortens

The most talked-about team in professional football this season has been, of course, the Miami Dolphins. More specifically, the increasingly sad-sack 1972 Miami Dolphins, who are stocking up on Depends in case Indianapolis goes undefeated. A close second is the Chicago Bears. More specifically, the 1985 Chicago Bears, who have become such a unit of legend that it's easy to forget they won only one Super Bowl.

The 1985 Bears are all up in our national face because the 2005 Bears have assembled a defense that could rival that legendary (see?) squad in defensive ferocity. Hard-core football scholars look at today's swarming, bloody-knuckled Bears D, and they recall the days of Buddy Ryan's 46, which bled opponents to death by sacking the quarterback, forcing interceptions and clawing away fumbles. Even casual fans will bend your ear with the parallels between the 1985 team of Dent, Singletary and the Fridge and today's team of Urlacher, That Guy and That Other Guy. Because of these similarities, little men in sports bars and jails across the country are right now chewing over the NFL Question of the Week: Could we be seeing the greatest defense of all time?

Kick-starting this discussion is the fact that, through 11 games, the Bears have surrendered an average of just 10.9 points a game (UPDATE THROUGH 16 GAMES: 12.6). The '85 Bears, by comparison, allowed 12.4 points a game. The only other team allowed to participate in greatest-defense-of-all-time pageants, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, gave up 10.3 points a game. So clearly these 21st-century Bears, if they can keep it up, could earn themselves a nummy slice of gridiron immortality.

In the leather-bound books of football history, however, records like "fewest points allowed" are really just footnotes. The chapters are always named after the champions. Indeed, had the '85 Bears and '00 Ravens not actually won their respective Super Bowls, the historic performance of their defenses would be remembered with grudging respect but, ultimately, disapproval. They'd be the defensive equivalent of the 1998 Minnesota Vikings, a 15-1 juggernaut that blew away one offensive record after another but is known today mostly as the team that couldn't put it together when it counted most.

Unfortunately, the only lesson the Vikings' experience holds for this year's Bears is "Don't choke" -- and I'm betting the Bears already have that one jotted on the locker-room blackboard. Two teams that the Bears could really learn something from are the 1981 San Diego Chargers and the 1992 New Orleans Saints. Both of those teams made the playoffs because they absolutely dominated on one side of the ball, and both teams have since faded into history because they had nothing to offer on the other side of the ball. The '81 Chargers were all about offense, leading the NFL in scoring at 30 points a game. But the Chargers had a J.V. defense that allowed 24 points a game, 26th out of 28 teams in the league. Thus Dan Fouts' Super Bowl dreams were destined to die on the Cincinnati riverfront in the January cold. The '92 Saints, meanwhile, had a huge defense that allowed only 13 points a game, best in the league, but their offense defined the term "nothing special" and was only good for 21 a game. It wasn't enough, and they were one and done in the playoffs.

So we come back to the 2005 Bears, and we realize that, despite that fantastic defense, this team faces extremely long odds of winning the Super Bowl. Because once we start looking beyond that fantastic defense, we see that there ain't much else.

The Bears offense is, in a word, terrible. Don't be distracted by all that's been written (including by, uh, me) about Kyle Orton's evolution into a "game manager." So far he has shown next to no ability to move the team -- certainly not against a competent defense. Take the Bears' past two games, both of them victories: 13-3 at home against Carolina and 13-10 on the road against Tampa Bay. Now, wins are wins, period, and no one should, could or would ever take these two extremely important conference victories away from the Bears. But look at how Chicago scored the deciding points in those games:
  • Bears 13, Panthers 3: The Bears' lone touchdown came after Carolina turned the ball over on its own 8 yard line on its first possession. The Bears added a field goal after Carolina turned the ball over on its own 18.
  • Bears 13, Buccaneers 10: The Bears' lone touchdown came after Tampa turned the ball over on its own 1 yard line on its first possession.
Chicago's defense, of course, deserves credit for coming up with the turnovers that led to the points. But the fact remains that it's been three weeks since the Bears have been able to score a touchdown without the ball having been handed to them inside the opponents' 10 yard line. As I wrote in my Week 12 recap, at some point the Bears are going to run into a team that's able to score 14 or 17 or 21 points on them, and they won't be able to rely on the opposing QB turning it over in the red zone or, as happened in Tampa, the opposing kicker shanking an easy field goal. Who knows who that team may be. It may be the Giants, Cowboys or Seahawks in the playoffs. It may be the Colts, Broncos or Bengals (shut up!) in the Super Bowl. Or maybe it'll be the Packers this weekend. Regardless, unless the team gets improvement out of the offense, and gets it soon, 2005 will not be Chicago's year.

Whenever the 1985 Bears come up, all we ever hear about is that awesome defense. But a team doesn't go 15-1 on the strength of defense alone. The 2000 Ravens, remember, were 12-4 and lost three straight games in which they failed to score a touchdown. The 1992 Saints also went 12-4. The Bears, however, were able to go 15-1 because their offense was a worthy complement to their defense. See, what usually gets overlooked about the '85 Bears is that in addition to having the No. 1 defense, they were also the No. 2 scoring team in the NFL. They held teams to 12 points a game -- but they also scored close to 30 points a game (just like the 1981 Chargers). So on those occasions when an opponent was able to throw a couple touchdowns on the board, the Bears were coming back with four of their own. The defense played a huge role there, too, scoring six touchdowns and often setting the offense up in great field position. But the offense converted those opportunities and it sustained drives of its own. That's something today's Bears are not doing but next year's probably will.

There have been so many comparisons between the '85 and '05 Bears teams, yet rarely is the whole picture being taken into account. The following chart breaks down the week-by-week performance of both Bears teams in terms of The Only Stats That Matter (a phrase I'm thinking of copyrighting): points scored and points allowed. For each week it gives the 1985 and 2005 teams' margins of victory (or loss, in parentheses), plus the scores of that week's games. At bottom are the season averages (rounded to "real" points). I'll be updating this chart as the season progresses (NOW UPDATED THROUGH 16 GAMES):

1 1038-28 (2)7-9
2 1320-7 3238-6
3 9 33-24 (17)7-24
4 3545-10 (10)10-20
5 8 27-19 2528-3
6 1626-10 4 10-6
7 1623-7 6 19-13
8 1827-9 3 20-17
9 6 16-10 8 17-9
102124-3 1013-3
114444-0 3 13-10
123636-0 1219-7
13(14)24-38 (13)9-21
147 17-10 1316-3
151319-6 7 24-17
162037-17 (24)10-34

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