Bears

Super Bowl XX: 30 years later in a career covering the Bears

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Super Bowl XX: 30 years later in a career covering the Bears

It was my first road trip as a reporter. Bearing down on 23 years old.

Whenever I'm ready to complain about the occasional, overblown inconveniences of a career that's been blessed to get this far, I have to reset and remember two things: The special people I've had the chance to work with and the special moments I was fortunate enough to witness.

Covering the 1983 White Sox and the 1984 Cubs while still a radio student at Columbia College showed me Chicago teams could, after all, help erase some of the youthful nightmares of my local fandom, while trying no longer to be a fan, but build professionalism for the career I was pursuing.

In 1985, there was no internet, OnDemand, DVDs, Blu-ray, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or SnapChat. The media was limited to newspaper, television and radio. And, in those pre-Internet days, something called SportsPhone. Out of college, despite my belief I was already better than a lot of sportscasters on radio at the time (and, yes, a lot of stations had their very own sportscasters), I cut my teeth on a dial-up, recorded phone version of one-minute sportscasts.

312-976-1313.

Gamblers couldn't check for scores online. They - and fanatics simply curious about what was going on out of town or away from their living rooms to follow their favorite teams - would be billed a fee for every call made. We'd update scores, received from stringers that would be paid throughout the country covering games, every 10 minutes. You may have heard of some of the other folks who got their post-collegiate professional starts there: Jeff Joniak, David Schuster, Les Grobstein, Lou Canellis, Fred Huebner, Brian Wheeler.

But we'd also have specific team "hotlines." I was that guy fortunate to be assigned the 1985 Bears.

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There were offices here in Chicago, New York and Detroit. We'd conference up, exchange scores, determine which offices pursued which scores every 10 minutes when games were going on, and each office had reporters ("stringers") covering each team. But when the Bears reached the Super Bowl, I was the pool guy that the company resourced to cover the game and file reports throughout the week, tailored for each city.

So many personal and professional moments and challenges have clouded some of the memories over the past three decades. But except for family vacations, there was hardly any solo out-of-town exposure for me before given this opportunity. I'd covered every Bears home game that season, as it unfolded in mind-blowing fashion for a kid who grew up here so foreign to sports dominance. The lone regular season loss in Miami was proof they could be susceptible. The lack of being exposed to local sports dominance kept a Patriots upset very real in this brain.

More than the day-to-day Super Bowl week particulars, I more clearly remember a completely different vibe to New Orleans than this Chicago Boy had ever been previously exposed. The music. The cab drivers. The food. The January weather.

Thirty years ago, the NFL wasn't nearly as organized (er, "controlled") as it is now. Super Bowl Media Day and the other player availabilities during the week were held on the Superdome playing field. Players would just stroll out wherever they'd want to and much smaller clusters of media would hustle up to wherever certain players they wanted to talk to were standing. No individual podiums, nameplates or speakers. There's a picture inside the modern Halas Hall Press Room of Walter Payton and Matt Suhey sitting on the AstroTurf, with reporters gathered around them. That's how things rolled back then.

But pool reporters covering practices had already been instituted back then, so not everyone got to see Jim McMahon mooning a helicopter trying to find out if he was practicing with his sore gluteus maximus. But for this Kid on the Road, making sure he got his job done right, there wasn't much of a desire to see if I could track down and hang out with a team built to pound (its chest, among other things) and party. Lord knows there were enough places Bears worshipers who made the trip from Chicago and other parts could run into the biggest rock stars in sports, buy some rounds and probably have a few purchased in return. After all, the public wasn't part of the "media" back then, as it is now.

Once we finally got to Sunday, the spectacle was bigger than I ever experienced, but a fraction of what it is now. New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis performed the National Anthem. Then the Bears turned the ball over, leading to a Patriots field goal to open the scoring. Here we go again. Chicago heartbreak.

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But the Bears became the '85 Bears again, scoring the game's next 44 points with a very non-controversial halftime performance by "Up With People" thrown in the middle. A Henry Waechter safety and a "who cares" Pats touchdown later, Mike Ditka and the Bears were world champions for the first time since I was nine months old, 22 years earlier, since Ditka was a part of that one back then, too. The Bears had seven sacks. They held New England to seven yards rushing on 11 attempts, 123 total yards and controlled the clock for more than 39 minutes.

When I just realized Monday we were a day away from the 30th anniversary of Super Bowl XX, I couldn't find enough time to find out which box in which corner of my house has the media credential, the game program and other interesting souvenirs you guys might like seeing. But it didn't take long to find my postgame audio cassettes, as well as a couple of those from interviews earlier in the week. I'll let all you youngsters guess exactly what cassettes were and how they worked. Look it up on that internet.

Now, the question was whether they'd play in my old Yamaha stereo system and said system wouldn't chew up those 30-year-old artifacts. It was double-decked!

First deck? Nothing. It was quickly popped out in fear of being munched-up into history. I popped the second deck. Inserted the cassette and closed. Hit "play." And now I remembered how it seemed like the Bears thought the real Super Bowl happened two weeks earlier, in the snow, at home, in their NFC Championship win over the Rams.

Jim McMahon: "It's kinda anti-climactic. It's not the kind of feeling I thought I'd have after we won the Super Bowl. 

"It's supposed to be 'we're on top of the World,' and I just feel it's just another ballgame. Maybe it'll hit me later on tonight or something."

He went on to explain the headbands he was offered from fans around the country and how he focused on publicizing charitable causes from United Way to the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation to POWs/MIAs.

Mike Ditka on whether he was surprised at the final score: "No." 

If it bothered him the score was so one-sided: "Not at all. This is the game of football."

Other postgame Ditka-isms: "The game was never in question." "We made history today and that's beautiful."

The late Dave Duerson on defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan's speech to his players: "Buddy's a very tough guy. Of course he plays that role. We all know because we've been working with him so long he's a very loving, caring person and his statement was very simply, 'win or lose, next week, you guys are my heroes.'

"By the time he was able to finish his statement, his eyes were filled with tears. They were running down his chin. His entire face was quivering. We gave him a standing ovation, then Steve (McMichael) proceeded to destroy a chalkboard. Then we had a few seconds of film. We said, 'The hell with this, we don't need it,' and went to our rooms."

Walter Payton was nowhere to be found amidst the celebration and locker room after the game. Despite the blowout win, the Patriots had keyed on him to make sure he didn't beat them, holding him to 61 yards on 22 carries (with a longest run of seven yards), while being held out of the end zone. A touchdown would have been an exclamation point to 11 years of toil for too many bad teams. Ditka was criticized, with a 37-7 lead, for giving the ball to William Perry for a one-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, rather than giving Payton another opportunity to score on the game's biggest stage. McMahon even took a veiled shot at the playcall after the game (though he probably easily could've changed the call himself).

I walked out of the locker room, towards the field to make my way up to the press box. There was Walter, with his family and friends, starting to walk across the field. I ran up to him, catching up with the guy who'd eluded the NFL's best defenders for 11 seasons and the media that night. A couple of other reporters were there, too, though I can't remember who.

"Whaddya need?"

Though I never specifically asked him about not being "allowed" the opportunity to score, his comments really answered that question after giving blood, sweat and tears to the organization since 1975. It wasn't okay that I didn't ask the exact question, but his answer almost came in the responses to being a Super Bowl champion, similar to McMahon's.

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"It's not like I expected," he said. "Believe me. The mind is unbelievable the way it can paint pictures of things, and when you think about things in your mind, you can do anything with it. But when it actually happens, you know the way you picture it in your mind, it seems a little bit inferior.

"It wasn't easy," Payton continued while briskly walking the length of the Superdome field as I and a few others tried to keep up. "The defense played unbelievable. We had everybody doing their jobs - Jim McMahon, Willie Gault, Ken Margerum, Matt Suhey, Emery Moorehead. They knew what it was going to take to win. They knew what they had to do, and they did it."

They.

Then, when I asked whether he talked to Ditka afterward:

"I didn't talk to him. I didn't get a chance to."

Ditka has since repeatedly, publicly regretted not making a more concerted effort to get Payton a touchdown.

What seemed like the start of a run of Super Bowls actually ended that day. This piece has gone too long and there were multiple reasons that've already been assessed why the Bears were a comet that streaked brightly across the sky, then faded away.

But for a kid reporter who didn't know he'd get the chance to cover Michael Jordan and six Bulls championships and three Blackhawks Stanley Cups in six years, those 1985 Bears were absolutely the most dominant team this town has ever seen. I'm pretty confident about that since not being around or have much to remember prior to 1970. 

That Bears team over Blackhawks and Bulls in one game. Best of-seven? Maybe not.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 
 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl.