When I moved to Chicago, the Buffalo Bills hadn’t yet reached irrelevance. In fact, despite their record for the previous year being 5-11, they still seemed like a fairly safe option to get behind. Drew Bledsoe had spent three years in Buffalo and led the Bills to the edge of contention in two of them. He was unceremoniously shoved out the door after the 2004 season to make room for 2004 Draft pick JP Losman, and the team had also dug up Lee Evans and Willis McGahee, respectively a receiver and running back. Both of them were oozing with talent. So if anything, 2005 could have been written off as a growing pain year. But it still panned out in what has since been acknowledged as typical Bills fashion: The Bills not looking bad early in the season, with a 3-3 start after the first six games, only to win just two of the remaining ten.
In Chicago, the Bears appeared to be undergoing the long-promised resurgence. Their record was the mirror opposite of the Bills’ record, and that 11-5 was enough for them to claim the division crown. Their offense wasn’t good, but as any follower of the Bears will tell you, proper Bears football was never about putting points on the board; its always been about keeping points off the board. In that respect, the Bears delivered, and their 202 total points against was enough to lead the NFL. The Bears had even gone the opposite of the Bills in delivering their record; with a 1-3 record after the first four games which looked like another one of the team’s endless post-1985 write-offs, the Bears tore off on an eight-game winning streak before a 2-2 split in their last four games. Rookie quarterback Kyle Orton (whom the Bills once yanked out of retirement to lead them to their second winning season this century) pulled just enough decent plays out of his ass to let the Bears fall back on their defense after slated starter Rex Grossman was injured. First round Draft pick Cedric Benson, a running back, suffered a similar fate and had a contract dispute which kept him away from training camp. He was replaced by journeyman Thomas Jones.
I expected to be spending much longer living in Chicago than I did, so I did what my mother did when she moved to Buffalo: I adopted the local teams but held on to my original loyalties. It seemed to be the natural thing to do, even though I didn’t feel a natural draw to most of the local teams. Most of them were pretty easy to talk myself into, though, because there’s little I respect more than a good history, and Chicago’s teams had those in spades. The Cubs and White Sox were both originals teams in the NL and AL for baseball; the Blackhawks were a member of the Original Six; and the Fire had been one of the most stable and consistent teams in MLS since the league was created. The Bulls were a relative baby – they were an expansion team from the late 60’s, some 20 years after the NBA’s formation and the failure of other professional basketball teams to take off in Chicago.
The Bears were one of the founding members of the NFL, and over the course of their history, they accumulated more wins than any other team any more titles than every team except the Green Bay Packers. Every amateur football historian knows that. Every football fan knows the Superfans and the Super Bowl Shuffle. I arrived in Chicago just weeks after the Steelers beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, which meant I got to spend the summer updating myself on Bears history, and there were some pretty cool things to learn: The 1940 NFL Championship, with the Bears winning a 73-0 squeaker over Washington. It set records for points and point differential. (Gee, ya think?) The Sneakers Game, the dynasty of the 1940’s. But my brain started telling me something was slightly amiss because all the Bears writings and paraphernalia emphasized one thing: 1985. I learned more about the 1985 Chicago Bears than I did about any other era in NFL history because it was the only thing Chicagoans seemed to care about.
I ignored that weird feeling, though, because in 2006, the Bears hit a high they hadn’t attained since 1985. They paced the league at 13-3 and finally made their return to the Super Bowl. Even though they were decisively waxed by the Colts, they won me over on account of the fact that they made football FUN again. The 2006 Bears were third in points against and – absolutely fucking incredibly – second in points scored. Rex Grossman was healthy the whole season. Thomas Jones set the tone on the ground. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs made countless big plays on defense. Kick returner Devin Hester became the team’s secret weapon, running seemingly every other kick into the endzone. The Bears started the season by beating Green Bay 26-0; it was the first time Packers quarterback Brett Favre had been shut out since high school. In week six, they posted an incredible comeback win over the Cardinals, returning from a 20-0 deficit without scoring a single offensive touchdown. Eight of their players showed up in the Pro Bowl. After a 40-7 hammering of the Bills, the first thing I said to my mother was, “40-7?! Please explain that.”
Chicago fans have a national reputation for being rabid and knowledgeable, and during 2006, they were living up to it. In the buildup leading to the Super Bowl, it was impossible to not see anyone or anything decked out in their colors, but the excitement was still a bit restrained. The Bears were going to be facing the Colts, after all, and if there was one name away from 1985 that Chicago knew, it was that of Indianapolis star quarterback Peyton Manning. I developed a respect for the fans because even though they were hoping for the good outcome, they were still tempered with the realization that this was going to be Manning’s year. That should have done the trick.
The euphoria surrounding the Super Bowl didn’t even last through the offseason, and my perception of Bears “fans” was put to the test in the first regular season game of 2007. I asked a co-worker what he thought about the Bears’ odds of beating their first opponent, the San Diego Chargers, and his response was just, “Huh?! Oh, I dunno. DA BEARS.” The Bears lost the game 14-3. During the season, it became apparent that 2006 was an anomaly that came from hitting an early peak and playing two patsy divisions (the NFC West and AFC East) during a time when the NFC was going through a power void. The better AFC West and NFC East were both on the schedule in 2007, and while the Bears acquitted themselves well, they still lost too many key matchups against pushovers and finished 7-9.
2007 was the season that set the tone for my years failing to support the Bears. The team turned from a contender into an indifferent nonentity. Nothing symbolized that more than a running back controversy between Jones and Cedric Benson. While Benson was a first round pick, he wasn’t as good as Jones in any of the ways that matter in his position. The Bears dumped Jones anyway, and that lopping – which turned out to be as bad as every football fan said it would be – gave fans the excuse they needed to spend the year at lunch. The team was facing an uphill battle in the hearts of Chicagoans anyway; the Cubs had hired Lou Piniella as their manager that year and come out on the top of an exciting division race with the Milwaukee Brewers. For all intents and purposes, they looked ready to contend.
The 2007 season ran by inconspicuously. The Bears reversed their record to end the following year at 9-7, but good luck finding anyone who remembers anything that happened. Okay, well, fans knew two things: Rex Grossman sucked and needed to be replaced, and Matt Forte needed to be the new featured back. If we throw in the constant comparisons to the 1985 Bears, that makes three things. Basically, a Super Bowl euphoria was followed with two seasons of blah before the coming of Jay Cutler. The Bears had needed a good quarterback since Sid Luckman back in the 1940’s so badly that fans managed to talk themselves into thinking Jim McMahon was good. Cutler’s first season was maddening. After watching Rex Grossman’s power bombs from 2006 (he’ll always have that one year), Cutler played remedial football. It was routine for the Bears to hang 48 on the Lions in one game, then lose 10-6 to the 49ers in another. They lost 45-10 against Cincinnati but hammered Cleveland 30-6. As often as there were dazzling performances from Cutler, there were weeks when I could have outplayed him, and I can barely throw a football.
The Bears, in short, were not an endearing team to watch. Their style was as boring as it was outmoded. A bad team can still be fun, but a boring team commits the ultimate crime of sports. What really got to me, though, was the constant harkening back to 1985. Buffalo lost the closest Super Bowl in history because of a missed last-second field goal, but the fans managed to let it go. In Chicago, the Bears WON the fucking game 30 years before, and the fans were convinced that crew of brainless headhunters played the most modern version of football possible. They lionized Mike Ditka, a bad coach lucky enough to ride a good defensive coordinator with a load of talent, and one of the loudest stupid people in sports.
It was in 2010 that I decided something was badly amiss. The 2010 Bears went 11-5 and won their division, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were, well, good. Racking up wins is one thing, but for a team to be legitimate, it has to be beating opponents in some very specific ways. The first game of 2010 was the famous Calvin Johnson Rule game, where Calvin Johnson was robbed of a touchdown because of an obscure and inexplicable rule about “completing the process.” (That was the official term used in the rules.) The touchdown happened right as time ran out, and it would have won the game for Detroit. That was the setting for a season in which the Bears somehow caught all the lucky bounces. A contender doesn’t win with luck; they beat bad teams decisively and take what they need from the good teams. That wasn’t the Bears of 2010. The Bears took very few chances while nature fell in their favor.
When the fans started endorsing the way the Bears were playing, I stopped trying to wrap my mind around them. The way the fans thought was that hey, the Bears were in first, they must be good! Never mind the fact that the Bears barely beat a 4-12 Bills team in Toronto by only three points, or that they got whomped by two teams with losing records, or that they couldn’t take a game from the eventual Super Bowl winner despite holding them to just ten points. When Green Bay exposed the Bears for what they were in the NFC Championship, fans were flabbergasted. Jay Cutler was removed during the game because his knee was visibly out of place, and every fan in Chicago told him to toughen up. Then they bitched about how much better the current backup was.
2010 was my last football season living in Chicago. Since m time in Chicago had been such a huge game-changer, I tried to remain loyal to my adopted teams, but ultimately the Blackhawks and White Sox were the only ones that made it out with me. I never took to the Cubs, and I dumped the Fire almost immediately. The Bulls held out a bit longer, but after some time being a Buffalo sports fan again, I realized that I was frequently finding solace in watching the New York Knicks rather than the Bulls, and the Knicks finally became my official team. As for the Bears, they proved to be my ultimate holdout, and my slip on them was gradual. As I got adjusted to watching the Bills every week again, I just got more into the games than I ever did following the Bears. In Chicago, I was always eager to learn the Bills scores. I never felt any pull to the Bears, and in one Monday Night Football game where they were dominating the other team, I realized that I just didn’t care. I should have been euphoric, but I didn’t feel much of anything aside from my brain telling me to jump up and down screaming my lungs out.
And that was pretty much it. The final nail in the coffin was coming out to Seattle and finding a huge pocket of raging football fans who knew their team and loved their sport. I chatted up a playoff game one night at work that the Seahawks lost, despite making a stirring near-comeback. When I told my co-worker that it would have been the second-greatest comeback in league history, he knew what the biggest one was. The fans were so good that they were the first thing I latched on to in order to find some semblance of familiarity. The Seahawks also offer a lot more than the Bears – a fleet young quarterback in Russell Wilson, a dynamic running back in Marshawn Lynch, and a dominant group of defensive backs known collectively as the Legion of Boom. Within a few months, I had embraced the Seahawks. The Bears were dead to me.