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.

How soon will Roquan Smith start? The Bears are ready to figure out the answer

How soon will Roquan Smith start? The Bears are ready to figure out the answer

Roquan Smith signed his rookie contract Tuesday morning and took part in a light walkthrough practice shortly thereafter at Halas Hall, but his coaches are still a ways away from anointing him as a contributor, let alone a starter, for Week 1 of the regular season.

In a more narrow scope, coach Matt Nagy said he wasn’t sure if Smith would be available for Saturday’s preseason game against the Denver Broncos, but did say that the eighth overall pick would be in uniform for Wednesday and Thursday’s joint practices with the Broncos in Colorado. The first step for Nagy, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires and the Bears’ training staff will be to determine what kind of football shape Smith is in, which will become apparent in the coming days. 

Nagy said he might have an idea in a week or 10 days whether or not Smith will be able to contribute in Week 1, but not only does he have to prove that he’s in the right physical and mental shape to do so, he’ll have to prove he’s a better option than Nick Kwiatkoski. Chances are, the eighth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft will be able to prove he’s better than Kwiatkoski, who is a solid player in his own right. But if Smith can't, that would say more about him than it would about Kwiatkoski (who, again, Bears coaches already trust). 

“I’ve seen him out here with no pads on for an hour and a half,” Nagy said. “I’ll be able to stay in touch with Vic and we’ll ask, we’ll see how that goes and obviously you hope (he’ll contribute Week 1), right? That’s one of the benefits of him being here now but we just have to see. And I don’t think it’s fair to the other guys as well that have been out here battling each and every day, so again, go back to you have to earn it, and come out here and show it.”

Pro Football Talk reported the Bears and Smith’s camp reached a compromise to end the 29-day holdout. You can read the specifics here, but it boils down to this: Smith received ample protection for on-field disciplinary incidents, while the Bears retained their ability to void the guarantee on Smith’s money in an extreme case (think like if Smith becomes the next Vontaze Burfict). 

Smith declined to get into the specifics of his holdout, frequently deferring to “my agent and Mr. Pace” when asked for specifics. Nagy said he didn’t want to dwell on the past, now that the “past” of Smith’s holdout is over. 

But Nagy did say Smith was getting close to the point in his holdout where his availability for Week 1 would’ve been in doubt. So while the timing of Smith’s deal wasn’t ideal — ideal would’ve been mid-July — the opportunity is there for him to prove to his coaches and teammates that he’ll be ready for that curtain-lifting trip to Green Bay. 

“That’s up to the coaches, to decide on, you know, when they feel that I’m ready,” Smith said. “I’m just going to do whatever I can do to prepare myself to get ready. I’ve got confidence in my coaches in there to catch me back up to speed.”

Smith’s level of participation will be closely watched in the coming weeks, starting with these two joint practices against the Broncos on Wednesday and Thursday. Will he already be swiping first-team reps from Kwiatkoski, who had a solid camp while Smith was away? Will all the positive things he put on tape (without pads on) during OTAs and minicamp show back up? Or will he look a little lost early on and need some more time to get up to speed?

These joint practices will be an interesting introduction for Smith into the preseason, though, given the practices he has participated in — OTAs, minicamps and Tuesday’s walkthrough — have consisted of controllable, relatively low-intensity reps. 

“What’s going to happen is in practice that we go against each other there’s a normal consistent pace every day, and now it’s going to naturally pick up when you go against another team,” Nagy said. “But I’m not worried about it with Roquan. I know that he’ll be ready for that, as the rest of our guys will.”

While the Bears will want to give Kwiatkoski a fair chance to keep his job, come Sept. 9, the two best inside linebackers the Bears have will be on the field together against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Danny Trevathan and Smith could be those guys — and, realistically, they should be those guys. The Bears didn’t draft Smith to sit on the bench against Rodgers in a game against a historic rival they’ve only beat three times in their last 19 meetings. 

The process of getting on the field began Tuesday for Smith. It will continue this week — even if he doesn’t play Saturday in Denver — and then next week leading up to Aug. 25’s preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. When Nagy said he’ll have a good idea in a week or a week and a half if Smith will be ready for Green Bay, that hints at Smith’s role in the Chiefs game being telling for what he’ll do at Lambeau Field 15 days later. 

To figure that out, the Bears are going to put a lot on Smith’s plate. There’s no time for a slow introduction into things. 

And if the team’s evaluation of his skillset, football intelligence and work ethic is correct, he’ll handle that accelerated workload well and, ultimately, earn the starting gig for which he’s been destined since late April. 

“If you take too many baby steps  and you don’t test him enough then you don’t know what his limit is,” Nagy said. “So I think you go ahead  and you throw stuff at him. I think right now we have to make sure physically you don’t overdo it. Mentally he’s fine. We can pull back on that but physically don’t over do it.”

With Roquan Smith and others, Bears moving closer to elite defense in a hurry

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USA TODAY

With Roquan Smith and others, Bears moving closer to elite defense in a hurry

As encouraging as some elements of the 2017 season was for the Bears defense, it wasn’t enough. Ranking in the top 10 in fewest points and yards allowed left linchpins like lineman Akiem Hicks setting “top five” as a declared goal.

With what has happened within the last 13 days – from the first preseason game vs. Baltimore through the long-anticipated arrival of Roquan Smith – the Bears have had arguably seen a handful of developments that could put “elite” within reach of a defense intent on being just that.

The developments have been the play of linebackers Kylie Fitts and Isaiah Irving, and now topped off by the Smith addition. The reasons are obvious – a linebacker-dependent defense (as all 3-4’s inherently are) has moved to the brink of realizing impact from not one, not two, but possibly three.

None is being given a leading role in an already good defense. But what they all represent are high-speed additions in a sport where speed rules and rivals pad-level in importance. Fitts and Irving have flashed off the edges, and Smith was the No. 8 pick of the draft for his speed in getting to targets, followed of course what he does to them when he gets there.

How any change occurs remains to play out, and Vic Fangio has used rotations in his front seven’s. One scenario could be Smith easing in as part of nickel packages, where the Bears have used a 4-2 front and would have Smith and Danny Trevathan as their ILB’s. Likewise, Fitts and Irving present edge options in that package as well as in base 3-4.

Perspective, please

Understand: No criticism of any sort is directed at either of the incumbents. No knock on Nick Kwiatkoski, who has in two seasons and this training camp established himself as an NFL inside linebacker. Nor is it a diss of Sam Acho, who is a physical edge presence with some pass-rush pop. The Bears need both, REALLY need both. 

But the 1983 Bears ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed with Al Harris as part of a linebacker corps that included Mike Singletary and Otis Wilson. Jim Finks drafted Wilber Marshall in the 1984 first round and Ron Rivera in the second. Harris remained the starter but the Bears also jumped to third in points allowed with Marshall and first the two years after that.

Elite.

Hall of Fame defensive lineman Dan Hampton said years later that Marshall – nicknamed “Pit Bull”by teammates – was the single best individual player on that elite defense, and the player that took things to another level entirely. And as Marshall told Hall of Fame NFL writer Rick “Goose” Gosselin, who created the special-teams ranking system used by every NFL team and now hosts "Talk of Fame Radio:”

"They had Mike [Singletary] sitting on the sidelines when I’m playing middle linebacker on third down. So I wasn’t just a rush guy, like the guys on the end that you see them go 90 percent of the time."

Sounding like a bill of particulars for Smith.

Best guess that Smith – wearing the No. 58 that Marshall wore – will have a new level of impact for a defense that just added a piece with a chance to earn the designation of “elite.”

Fitts and Irving are younger, faster options on the edge. Fitts is bigger and faster (4.69 sec. 40) than Irving, but one can never be too rich, too thin or have too many edge rushers.

And Smith, who had 6.5 sacks last season at Georgia (his only credited sacks in three seasons there), projects to be the fastest Bears linebacker with a documented 4.51-sec. time in the 40 – faster than Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher and…well, you get the point.

And speed is the route to “elite.”