I'm not a football coach. Far from it. I run the Better Government Association, an anti-corruption civic watchdog organization in Chicago. And I spent most of my professional life covering news, including 26 years as the political reporter at WLS, the ABC station in Chicago.
But I've been following the Bears slavishly for 50 years.
My family had season tickets on the 50 yard-line when the team played at Wrigley Field, so I went to most of the home games from the time I was ten years old. We parked across from the old Marigold Arena on Grace Street, bought 15 cent burgers at Henry's Drive-in (now a McDonald's) and crisscrossed the crumbling concrete walkways to reach the upper deck of Wrigley, where we took our seats in the third row of nosebleed central. Lousy bathrooms and shabby concession stands but we had the best view in the house, the live version of the TV picture we see every week. For more than a decade I went to virtually every home game with my dad and my grandfather, including the frozen 1963 NFL Championship victory over the New York Giants, and I watched Gayle Sayers score six touchdowns in a rainy 1966 game against the San Francisco 49ers. The team's move to Soldier Field changed the seating configuration so we were farther from the field, and my aging body grew increasingly incapable of braving the chill of December. So I wimped out as a serious in-person fan, selling or giving away many of my November and December tickets, including the solid gold entrees into the 1985 playoff games against New York and Los Angeles. I watched the Super Bowl run on TV. And that's where I've been ever since. But I'm arrogant enough to believe, like most lifelong fans, that I've seen enough games and know enough about football strategy to weigh in on the team's performance. So after a frustrating half-season of erratic performances and endless controversies, here are my recommendations to Lovie Smith and the rest of the coaching staff in the wake of Sunday's Pyrrhic 22-19 victory over the hapless and winless Buffalo Bills, which puts the Bears at 5-3 heading into next week's Soldier Field showdown against Brett Favre and the hated Vikings:
* Start going after the opposing quarterback with at least one blitzer on every play. Quarterbacks with all day to look over the field will beat you almost every time. Quarterbacks with grass stains on their jerseys, a little blood on their knees and fear in their eyes won't. Cover 2, whatever that means, sucks. Teams move up and down the field against the Bears, setting up wins or comebacks even when the Bears hang on. It's time to play what used to be known as "Bears football" or Buddy Ryan football. Blitz, blitz and blitz some more. Send Urlacher. Send Briggs. Send Manning. Send somebody. Disrupt the offense and shake up the quarterback. Sure you might get beat deep once in a while. But that's better than death by a thousand cuts, or an 80-yard drive. This is supposed to be football, not softball, and I've missed aggressive defensive football for the entire Lovie era. In the spirit of Bill George, Dick Butkus and Dan Hampton--go after them!
* OK, run the ball, as the critics are demanding, but not if every first down play is a line plunge. How about an occasional slant, or pitchout, or draw? Or a pass? In other words, mix it up. Don't read the "run run run" stories and do it predictably. The offensive line is mediocre so the running plays have to be creative. Hey Mike Martz---it's not rocket science. You don't pass or run every play, you mix it up and try to confuse the other team---not your own offensive line.
* Let Devon Hester return kickoffs. Punts aren't enough when his role in the passing game is minimal. Put him in situations that change games. That's kick returns. Knox and Manning are fine returners but Hester is exquisite. Put the ball in his hands where it offers the best potential for a big play.
* Encourage Jay Cutler to call audibles at the line of scrimmage. He seems programmed to run the original play, regardless of the defense, or to call a timeout when things don't look right. Hey---the guy may be erratic or intemperate but he's a tough, experienced quarterback with a great arm and an ability to make plays. Let him manage the game when he's at the line. It can't be any worse than throwing into triple coverage when he's executing the original play.
These are my thoughts at the midpoint of another frustrating season that will probably end up in a record of 8-8. But we can always dream the impossible dream, right?. That's why we watch the games. To scream at the players, swear at the coaches and excoriate the team management that foisted both on us. We may be neurotic but we care about this team. Enough to waste our precious few remaining Fall Sundays inside in front of the tube instead of outside doing something healthy. So Bears management and coaches: feel free to ignore us. But at least you can listen. And think about it. Some of us have been watching these games longer than you've been alive. So maybe we know something.