If Bears fans were still searching for signs that this is a team worthy of their time, faith and emotional investment, then Sunday's 28-10 victory over the Detroit Lions offered perhaps the most solid evidence yet that they might want to hang in there.
Past Bears teams have been praised for their heart in similar situations. Past Bears teams with few immediate hopes of their own have won December home games against decent teams. But facing a Lions club that desperately needed to build momentum, the Bears not only played hard, they played well. And more significantly, they officially opened the Cade McNown era with some serious reason for optimism.
Soldier Field crowd Sunday, the rookie quarterback demonstrated a growing on-field rapport with receiver Marcus Robinson, which yielded three of McNown's four touchdown passes.
Both finished with career days--McNown becoming the first Bears rookie to pass for 300 yards (27 of 36 for 301 yards), while Robinson had a career-high 11 catches for 170 yards. And not to be overlooked was Bobby Engram with the other touchdown catch, one of his 10 receptions for 94 yards.
"The great thing for him is that he went out and did it," Bears coach Dick Jauron said of McNown, who did have the benefit of operating against a depleted Lions secondary. "The great thing for the team is that he went out and did it. We all thought he would. But to have it done and have it behind him now, we can continue to go forward."
McNown also ran nine times for 36 yards as the Bears trailed only 3-0 in the first quarter before running up a 21-3 lead in the third and 28-3 in the fourth. In the process, the Bears' offense gave the defense a rare opportunity to play loose and take chances, a climate which resulted in four Lions turnovers, three sacks and its best performance in well over a month.
"We felt it deep in our guts," said defensive end Bryan Robinson. "If there was going to be a massacre at the midway, then we wanted to cause the massacre. We really wanted this game and we went out and took it."
The 8-6 Lions, losers of four of their last six games, were chippy at the outset and the Bears did not shy away, trading extracurricular shots on both sides of the line. But as McNown settled down, so too did the game.
After an undistinguished first quarter in which he completed 3 of 8 passes for 16 yards and an interception, McNown went 24 of 28 for 285 yards, four touchdowns and one more interception the rest of the way.
But the turning point--for McNown, the Bears and perhaps the future of both--occurred late in the first half when the Bears scored 14 points in 2 minutes 41 seconds and displayed a rarely seen ability to strike quickly at the end of the half.
An interception by safety Chris Hudson of a Gus Frerotte pass in the second quarter was the impetus, sparking a 13-play, 47-yard drive in which McNown was 6 for 6. The final completion was a a 3-yard dart to Engram under the pressure of a Lions blitz for the go-ahead touchdown.
Lions place-kicker Jason Hanson was well short on a 50-yard field-goal attempt on the next possession, leaving the Bears 1:18 in which to operate. McNown went to work with passes of 30 and 11 yards to Engram and nine yards to Robinson before finding Robinson alone in the left corner of the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown pass with 7 seconds left.
Robinson was surprised. "The defensive guy looked right at me on the line and just went on about his business," he said. "I guess he thought somebody else was out there."
McNown was thrilled. "I caught him out of the corner of my eye and I couldn't get that play called fast enough," he said. "Once I got it in my hands, I kind of lofted it out there."
And Jauron was impressed. "That was huge," he said. "For a young quarterback to take the ball in that situation, move down the field and recognize quickly enough on the goal line that they had left Marcus uncovered, I thought showed a lot of what he is. He's a very aware player for a young man."
McNown's only two glaring mistakes were ultimately harmless. His second interception--on the first drive of the second half--went to the same player who picked off the first one--Detroit free safety Ron Rice. And it was on the same play, a play-action pass downfield and into double coverage. "I've already asked that we never run that play again," McNown joked.
But Bears end Van Tuinei pounced on a fumble by Greg Hill five plays later and McNown put together another impressive drive, this time completing 4 of 4 attempts to Robinson and Engram and scoring on a 36-yard strike to Robinson between two defenders.
Robinson called the catch his toughest of the three touchdowns. But his most aesthetic was his last, a 42-yard beauty that is fast becoming his trademark, a leaping fingertip grab over the defender in which he maintained his balance long enough to tip-toe the final three yards.
Robinson's jump-ball abilities are now drawing comparisons to Randy Moss in his rookie year. "On a play like that, you have to have trust in your hands," said the 6-foot-3-inch Robinson, who expressed some surprise and plenty of gratitude at the man coverage he saw all day. "I love the jump ball."
"A lot of times," McNown said, "it looks like I'm just kind of laying it up there, but that's kind of his spot. He likes getting that thing up where he can see it, where he can jump and go get it and that's what I'll try and do."
Not a bad blueprint for the future.
"We just need to keep feeding on this," Engram said.
At 6-8 with games remaining against St. Louis and Tampa Bay, the Bears' goal of 8-8 is certainly possible. The Rams have secured home field throughout the NFC playoffs and may rest some regulars; and the Buccaneers, who were routed 45-0 Sunday by the Raiders, have traditionally struggled at Soldier Field--last year's victory ended an eight-game losing streak in Chicago.
More importantly, with a playoff berth still mathematically possible and the Bears determined to take momentum into the off-season regardless, December victories are no longer implausible.
"This is what old man McCaskey pays us for," said Bryan Robinson. "He doesn't pay us to just go out there and play the game and make plays. He pays us to win.
"We need to make a statement right now that you're not playing the same old Bears. We can play."
bears 28, Lions 10