That '70s low: Long losing skid follows old script

Tribune staff reporter

It wasn't supposed to happen this way. If they were not yet a team destined for greatness, they weren't awful either. Didn't they make the playoffs the previous season? Weren't they confident in their running game? Excited about their defensive potential?

After a promising start, wasn't a division title a reasonable goal?

But the losses kept coming. And coming. Often by close margins. Game efforts, usually. Just dumb mistakes, a different excuse every week and a black hole the 1978 Bears could not seem to climb out of as they suffered a franchise-record eight consecutive defeats.

As the 2002 Bears try to avoid matching that mark for futility Monday night in St. Louis, they may be struck by some of the similarities. They may also be heartened to know that the '78 Bears, in Neill Armstrong's first season as coach, halted the streak with four victories in their final five games and went back to the playoffs the next season after a 10-6 campaign.

We won't talk about the four seasons after that.

"I saw that New England game last week and it actually made me think of '78," said Armstrong, now retired and living in Texas. "I just hated to see that. Once we got into that losing streak, it was just so hard to climb out of.

"I don't know what it is that happens. Sometimes it only takes one or two plays. It's hard to explain. I don't know if there were sports psychologists at the time, but we could have used one."

The '78 Bears lost a Monday night game to Denver (Loss No. 4) in part because of controversial penalties. An overtime loss (No. 2) to Oakland was the result of a late-game breakdown. Still another (No. 5), to Tampa Bay, could be indirectly attributed to Walter Payton's dog, who on Thursday of that week took a small chunk from the backside of punter Bob Parsons, who then dropped a snap from center late in Sunday's game.

OK, so maybe it's not the ideal comparison to Bryan Robinson's infamous pooch, whom the defensive end accused of tripping him and causing him to fall and break both his wrists during the off-season.

That may or may not have been a factor in Robinson's ill-fated decision not to fall down with the ball he thought he had intercepted in the fourth quarter Sunday against New England.

But maybe some of the following will sound familiar.

Fans disgruntled

Many, including quarterback Bob Avellini, believed the team had overachieved in '77, Jack Pardee's final season before he bolted for Washington. In '78 the Bears' reserved new coach, Armstrong, and his offensive coordinator, Ken Meyer, were criticized for their ultraconservative offense and for playing not to lose, while the defense, under colorful coordinator Buddy Ryan, alternated between great and terrible.

The Bears used two quarterbacks, Avellini and Mike Phipps, neither of whom was a fan favorite. They also seemed to find every conceivable way to lose, once on an illegal spike.

In a 31-29 loss to the Jim Zorn-led Seattle Seahawks (No. 7), Bears tackle Lionel Antoine tapped Seahawks linebacker Terry Beeson on the shoulder to get his attention while Beeson was protesting a Roland Harper touchdown scored with 35 seconds to play. Antoine then spiked the ball at Beeson's feet.

It was the first year the taunting rule was in effect and the Bears were hit with a 15-yard penalty, which pushed back the ensuing kickoff, an onside kick by Bob Thomas, which the Bears recovered. When Phipps' pass to Golden Richards was intercepted to end the game three plays later, the line of scrimmage was the Seahawks' 46. Without the 15-yard penalty, plus another 5-yarder for illegal formation on first down, a makable game-tying field goal could have been the scenario.

None of the Bears except Payton seemed aware of the new taunting rule.

"Yes, I spiked it in his face on purpose," Antoine said. "I was excited because we were back in the ballgame. They add rules and don't tell you about them. What are they trying to do, take emotion out of the ballgame?"

Not in Chicago, they didn't. In 1978 the Bears' general manager was featured each Monday on "The Jim Finks Weekly News Conference," a radio call-in show on WBBM-AM.

"Every week he was hammered," recalled Dan Jiggetts, then a reserve offensive tackle.

"Of course, it wasn't the vindictiveness you get on the air now," said Brad Palmer, the show's host, who's now with WLS-Ch. 7. "The questions were tough but not degrading and mean-spirited. Finks would have been a great commissioner or a diplomat. He talked to anyone on their level and always made himself available."

'Civil war'

Fans were annoyed with an offense that featured Payton right, Payton left and the occasional Payton straight ahead. They were impatient with a defense that was inconsistent as it learned Ryan's system. And they always seemed unhappy with Avellini, who, like Phipps, called most of his own plays and who was benched—for Phipps—for the first time in his four-year career in the Seattle loss.

"It was miserable," Avellini said. "Looking back, we played not to lose instead of to win, and that happens. Conservative then is not what it is now. Then, it was Walter up the middle from the I-formation on third-and-15, and the only time you did throw was on third down."

As Ryan tried to restore the Bears' pride in their defense, he did not discourage an adversarial relationship between the offense and the defense.

"Some of the conversations when the offense came off the field and the defense came on were not fit for 'NFL Films,'" safety Doug Plank recalled. "Especially when we'd get a turnover and then they'd turn it right back over. That's when civil war broke out.

"Buddy tried to instill pride in the defense, even at the expense of the offense. He came up with phrase, 'The defense needs to score.' Someone would ask him what happened and he'd say, 'Our defense didn't score enough points.'"

The defense featured Mike Hartenstine, Alan Page and Jim Osborne up front, Doug Buffone in his 12th season at strong-side linebacker and Plank, Gary Fencik, Virgil Livers and Terry Schmidt in the secondary. The seed was planted for great defenses to come.

"We were fun to watch," Plank said. "Even through those losing periods, Buddy imparted to us that if we're not going to win, let's beat up the other team, and that's what it became. I remember conversations with Fencik where we said we were going to take out our frustration on the other team. We had that solidarity and we realized it was going to get better."

Armstrong realized it, too, and despite how it may have looked, he got along well with Ryan, whom he had coached in college. He also recommended him to Bud Grant as Minnesota's defensive line coach before hiring him in Chicago.

High anxiety

"You have to do what you can to keep the team from being divided, but there is a competitiveness," Armstrong said. "And in '78 that was not the greatest defense in the world either. We were still in the process of trying to build it.

"But it was my nature to keep as much harmony as I could, and I had a staff that worked very hard. What happens when you're losing like that is you're probably working harder than when you're winning.

"When you're losing, you're trying everything you can to get out of it."

Ted Albrecht, a starting offensive tackle on the '78 team, said the "jabbing" between offense and defense was typical, and that Armstrong helped hold the team together.

"One thing we always talked about during a losing streak is never read the paper," Albrecht said. "If you saw anyone with a paper in the locker room, you'd give them so much grief they'd want to burn it on the spot. You have to stick together and not listen to outside influences."

It was bad enough regardless.

"I remember the pain," Albrecht said. "People have been asking me what's going through their minds, is it emotionally taxing, and I say, 'Yes times three.' It's a lot of anxiety. Losing, like winning, is infectious. And in a losing streak, everything just seems to go wrong, a spiral you can't spin out of."

Avellini concurs.

"I don't know if fans truly understand," he said. "When you go through a losing streak like that, it's unlike any other sport because you think about it all week long and if you lose, you have a hard time sleeping at night. Fans think guys are getting paid a lot of money and don't care. We didn't make a lot of money and, believe me, we cared."

Said Plank: "Anybody who played on that '78 team, to this day they don't forget it. That eight-game losing streak is something I'll take to the grave. Hopefully there are better days ahead for these Bears."

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