It’s been eight months and nine days since Meg and I watched the Bears get trounced by Green Bay in their most recent regular season game, and it feels damn good to know that another one is coming. ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL? Damn this feels good! Bears! Football! The start of another NFL season. Man alive…there’s nothing like it.
I get out of bed today at nine, eat a little breakfast, and then shower. Meghan’s doing some homework, but I quickly interrupt her, bringing her a diagram of the Bears’ starting eleven on offense and defense along with their uniform numbers so that she can be up to date on the players. We review positions, going over the I-formation and the specifics of where wide receivers can line up and how to distinguish a tight end from a tackle and which side is the strong side and which is the weak side and what makes it a blitz and what a nickleback is and why it’s important to win third downs and control the ground game.
Then it’s time to get dressed, and as I’m whipping through my closet I realize that I’ve left my Marcus Robinson jersey in Chicago, so it’s onto plan B: the Triple Threat shirt, the one that I wore to Game 1 of the Bulls-Wizards series. Since its comeback at that game, the shirt has become a regular in the rotation, the tight spots under the arms having loosened to a comfortable spot. I grab some red nylon sweats to go with the Bulls shirt, and my new Puma shoes, navy blue low cuts with orange laces that I bought specifically. And to top it off, the cup that Meg and I took from Soldier Field after the Bears-Packers game at the end of last season. Beautiful. We hop in the car and head to Buffalo Wild Wings…
…but when we get there, the packed house that I’ve anticipated is nowhere to be seen. Surprising, certainly, until I remember that the Colts are playing the Sunday night game, leaving the city thin on afternoon football enthusiasm. No matter; I’m here to watch the Bears, not to take part in some sort of conglomerate of football fans. Meg and I order drinks, and when my Guinness comes I let it settle and then pour it into my big plastic Bears cup. The pre-game shows are on, with CBS already pulling Jerry Rice into the studio, even though he’s only been retired for a week, and the game info stats are running across the bottoms of the screens, and then its into the stadiums for shots of the players warming up, and then the national anthem and the coin toss and the kickoff and finally the sweetest words in the world: “The 2005 season is underway.”
Before the Bears game begins, FOX shows clips of the New Orleans Saints coming out of the tunnel in Charlotte to the sounds of cheers and applause from all the fans, even those rooting for the Panthers. The players come out hand in hand, and fans can be seen holding signs that read “EVERYBODY IS A SAINT TODAY” and “WE’RE WITH YOU, NEW ORLEANS.” It’s reminiscent of the first games played in New York after 9/11, interesting since today is the four year anniversary of the attacks. The connection is on everybody’s mind, and the same feelings that existed during the post-9/11 games exist today. How can we watch sports when so many people are without their loved ones, their homes, their lives? And yet, it is at these times when sports can be most powerful. Not as a mindless escape, but as an emotional release…not as an empty entertainment, but as a connector and unifier of many people…not as a drab, lifeless re-establishment of normalcy, but as a boisterous celebration of American life.
Back in Maryland, the big question for the Bears is how rookie quarterback Kyle Orton will play in his first start. Personally, I am expecting a solid performance, perhaps marred by some mistakes, but certainly the kind of game that can produce a win with the help of a good defense and running attack. Many pundits seem to think that the Orton promotion spells doom for the Bears; one of my writing heroes, Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman picked the Bears to finish dead last in the NFL with a record of 3-13. His reasoning for this read as follows:
My West Coast correspondent, coach TJ, a Bears fan, e-mailed me, “Did you pick that 3-13 yourself or did the editors make you do it?” Yeah, they made me, TJ. I could take the lighted cigarettes, but when they shaved my wife’s head, that was too much. He feels that a defense as good as theirs will spring many upsets, create much havoc. I feel that, well, could someone please look up the following for me and e-mail your answer to Andrew: what’s the record for starting QBs who have gone down, one after another, the following year, either by injury or waiver wire? I count four, and this will make a hell of a trivial question some day. Grossman, Krenzel, Quinn, Hutchinson. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
So that was bad. I don’t like reading those kinds of things about the Bears. Not because they put me in a bad mood or because I think that they are true, but simply because I like getting pumped up when I read Bears news, particularly Bears season previews, and Dr. Z’s forecast did not do the job for me. Fortunately Bill Simmons, another one of my favorite writers, picked the Bears as his playoff sleeper. He predicted a 10-6 finish followed by a big first round loss. Now that’s more like it (except for the big loss). His reasoning:
[Here’s] the thing about sleepers: Nobody should be able to predict them. Last year, the Chargers came out of nowhere. The year before, Carolina. In 2001, New England and Chicago. When you hear people throwing the word “sleeper” around for teams like Arizona and Cincy, those are NOT real sleepers. You need to choose someone from this putrid group: Redskins, Giants, Bears, Bucs, Niners, Raiders, Titans, Browns, Bills and Dolphins. I’m telling you, one of those nine teams will make the 2005 playoffs, and everyone is going to say, “Oh my God, how did that happen????”
So here’s my pick: The Chicago Bears. Easiest schedule in the league. Inferior division and conference. Underrated running game. One All-Pro receiver in Muhsin Muhammad. A defense that has a chance to crack the top-five, helmed by some playmakers (Briggs, Urlacher, Harris, Tillman) and what could turn out to be the best secondary in the league (now that Mike Brown is back). A sizable home-field advantage, especially in November and December. Very good coach (Lovie Smith) who had them playing hard in October and November until their quarterbacks did them in. And best of all, NOBODY is talking about them. In fact, Sports Illustrated ranked them 32 out of 32.
What’s the big problem here? The quarterback. They’re playing a fourth-round rookie (Kyle Orton) who’s loved by the coaches and players … but he’s still a fourth-round rookie. So here’s my question: Even if he’s hit-or-miss, it’s not like he’s going to be much worse than Kyle Boller, Bledsoe, J.P. Losman, Patrick Ramsey or half the crappy starters in the league. Anyway, that’s my 2005 sleeper—I think they’re going 10-6 and losing by 30 points in the first round of the playoffs. You heard it here.
(And if they finish 4-12, you didn’t hear it here.)
That cheers me up. As soon as I see somebody other than Chicago folk picking the Bears to win, my day is made. Again, not because I need someone who is established to write good things about my team for me to feel good, or because I believe everything that I read, but simply because I like reading good things about my team, because, well…I just do. Do I need a better reason than that?
The game begins, and the team looks steady. Not great, but steady. The crappy FOX announcers of the day are Dick Stockton, the Trusted Professional, and Daryl “Moose” Johnston, the former all-pro fullback from the Dallas Cowboys who is acting as FOX’s token former-player color man. They remind me of mediocre high school radio hosts, guys who know just enough to sound professional, and make an effort not to say anything too outlandish. On the Bears’ first offensive series, Orton throws an incomplete pass, and then hands off to Thomas Jones on both second and third down. The Bears punt. From that, Moose Johnston comes to the conclusion that Orton “looks good” and is doing a good job at “handling the pressure.” Brilliant.
So Orton is shaky. But the Bears defense is playing with energy and ferocity, getting constant pressure on Washington QB Patrick Ramsey. Second-year corner Nate Vasher picks off a pass for the team’s first turnover, and then a bit later on Lance Briggs comes untouched on a blitz, roping Ramsey with a vicious clothesline right beneath the facemask. Ramsey goes flying. The ball comes loose. The Bears recover.
“Hell yeah! Hell, yes.” And then: “Now baby, did you see why that was a blitz?”
“Because…” she thinks, looking at the diagram that I made her bring, “because the defense had more people running in than the offense had blockers.”
“That’s right! That’s awesome baby!”
My phone rings. It’s Ben.
“Oh man! That had to be one of the hardest hits I’ve ever seen.”
“I’m surprised they didn’t throw a flag.”
“OK, I gotta go.”
Ramsey leaves the game, and veteran backup Mark Brunell enters, with Stockton calling him Scott Brunell three or four times, despite the fact that Brunell is a former star who has been in the league for more than ten years. In an obvious effort to correct Stockton without actually correcting him, Johnston calls the QB by his full name in his first comment about him after he replaces Ramsey, and then FOX puts up their Mark Brunell graphic complete with his name, prompting Stockton to report that “Scott Brunell is a welcome change for this offense.” Later he points out that the Bears only gained “one yards.” I call Jonny C at a commercial.
“Is Dick Stockton the worst announcer of all-time?”
“I don’t think he’s that bad.”
“Have you heard him referring to Scott Brunell?”
He laughs. “OK, that was bad.”
“How’s football in Indy?”
“Not like home. But not awful. Meg and I are at Buffalo Wild Wings.”
“Tell her I say hi.”
“Jonny says hi.”
“Game’s back on.”
The Redskins go into the locker room with a 6-0 lead on two John Hall field goals, but on the opening kickoff of the second half, the Bears force and recover a fumble. Orton leads them right down the field, and Jones punches it in on a one-yard run to put us up 7-6. Hall gets another field goal to put the Skins up two, but the Bears are still in it…
The high level of parity in the NFL has made each game a battle, and with the low number of games, each closely contested match is now determined on two or three key plays. In turn, the key to winning in the NFL is taking advantage of every opportunity and winning those two or three key plays. The Bears fail to do this. They are destroyed on the ground—Jones runs for only 31 yards on 15 carries, while Clinton Portis gains 121 on 21 carries with backup Ladell Betts kicking in another 41—and they kill themselves twice in the second half with nonsense. At the end of the third quarter, Orton throws a 22-yard strike to Mark Bradley to give the Bears first and ten at the Redskins’ 22, only to throw a pick into triple coverage on the next play. Then in the fourth, Orton leads a drive from their own 25 down to the Washington 34. Thomas Jones is stuffed for a loss of three, and on second and 13 the Bears are flagged for an unbelievable THREE CONSECUTIVE FALSE START PENALTIES!!! Veterans Fred Miller, John Tait, and Ruben Brown were all called for false starts, right in a row, backing the Bears up to second and 28 at their own 48. Orton is then sacked for a loss of ten followed by an incomplete pass on third and 38, forcing the Bears to punt. The drive takes seven minutes and five seconds, netting a total of thirteen yards, which is really a gain of 41 yards followed by a loss of 28. The Bears get the ball back with 1:43 on the clock, but on second and ten Orton fumbles after a sack. The Redskins recover, and Brunell trots back to kneel out the clock.
I’m a little bit drunk at this point, having had two Guinness, and now the Bears have just lost a lackluster game in which they played OK but not well enough. It reminds me of the famous quote: “Great athletes are not always great, just great when they have to be.” Well, the Bears were not great when they had to be, and they now sit at 0-1. The phone rings as the clock hits 0:00. It’s Nana.
“Hi dear. I’m sorry Jack.”
“Yeah, well…what can you do.”
“I thought they played well. It’s a shame.”
“Yup. On to next week.”
The call waiting beeps in. It’s Ben.
“Nana, Ben’s calling. Can I call you back?”
“Sure honey. I just wanted to say hi and see if you were alright.”
“Thanks a lot. I love you.”
“Love you too. Bye.”
I click over.
“Hey man. That sucked.”
“I thought Orton looked alright.”
“Yeah me too. Obviously some mistakes, but it’s to be expected.”
“Those false starts though…”
“Lions next week.”
“We’ll take ’em.”
Meg and I pay our bill and leave, heading home just long enough to use the bathroom before heading back out. I wanted to head back to a bar to watch the U.S. Open final, but Meghan’s grandparents have invited us over to their camper for some dinner. When we get there, Meghan’s Nana has some pasta out for us, and to my delight, her husband Toby is watching the Federer-Agassi match. Federer won the first set, Agassi the second; they are tied 1-1 in the third.
“Oh yes!” I scream, very excited to see the match.
“You play tennis?” Nana Bernice asks.
“No, but my dad does. He played in high school and college.”
“And he still plays,” adds Meghan.
“That’s true. He plays every week with friends.”
“Oh, that’s good.”
“Yeah. He likes it. He—ooh, ooh, look at that. Look at that shot from Federer.” Federer has just roped a return cross court into the corner for the point, leaving Agassi helpless. “What a shot.”
But Agassi is clearly playing as Federer’s equal, and for the first time in quite a while Federer is faced with an opponent who can move him around the court. Roger does not look like himself, as Andre works him back and forth, leaving the young star flustered and helpless.
“Wow, did you guys see that?” I say, excitedly. “Agassi’s really got Federer on the ropes. He’s got him backed up and moving and playing out of position. Look how calm Agassi is, and look how Federer is caught reacting to every one of Agassi’s shots. You don’t see that often.”
“Who are you rooting for?” Toby asks.
“Nobody, really. I just like watching.”
Federer is flat, and he looks disappointed, and his poor play is compounded by Agassi’s near flawless execution. But Federer gets his game back in gear, and soon turns the match around, winning the third set and then jumping all over the old-timer in the fourth. We sit and watch the match, the four of us, me and Meg eating pasta and then joining Nana and Toby for an ice cream sandwich for dessert. Sunday night, sports and family. We leave in the fourth with Federer ahead, and I call my folks to get a report on the rest. I talk to Mom, as Dad is watching every last bit, savoring every point between these two greats, the old champion taking full advantage of one of his final title shots, the young champion entering his prime. Federer wins the fourth set to take the title, his second straight U.S. Open title and the sixth Grand Slam of his young career. He has now been ranked number 1 for 84 consecutive weeks. He is 71-3 in matches this year, and he is the first man to win his first six Grand Slam finals in over fifty years.
Some people argue that this kind of domination is bad for a sport, but I think it is just the opposite. Like Tiger Woods or Jordan and Pippen’s Bulls, a dominant champion sets the bar, and forces everyone else to play harder. So it is with Federer.