Rest in peace to the Bears' 17-year streak with at least one Pro Bowler. From 1999 to 2014, the Bears had 26 players at 14 positions selected for a combined 55 Pro Bowl appearances. Entering this season, that streak was the eighth longest in the NFL. And since it's over, writers are relaying the sad tale of 1998 to a new generation of Bears fans.
At this very site, our colleague Lester wrote about the absence of Bears Pro Bowlers, opening the story by asking readers:
"Do you remember 1998?"
I, like Lester, do. And I don't want any younger Bears fans to misinterpret Lester's question or the mentions by any other writer or site recalling the name of the '98 Bears as a comparison between the two teams. To borrow from Lloyd Bentsen: I lived 1998, I rooted in 1998, I watched the Bears in 1998. 2015, you are no 1998.
Thus, in honor of Sweetness, let me offer 34 reasons Bears fans have it better in 2015 than 1998.
(SIDE NOTE: I originally planned to write 1,998 reasons Bears fans have it better now compared to '98, but quickly scratched that notion as implausible, even for me. Then I scaled back to 98 reasons until I realized it required discussions of, say, Chris Penn and Terry Cousin. So Bears fans have it 34 times better in 2015 than 1998, but not 98 times better.)
1. 1998 was the 6th straight year the Bears were without a Pro Bowl representative. Six! After Richard Dent, Donnell Woolford, and Mark Carrier were selected in 1993, the Bears hit their worst drought in the 16-game era. We were streaking all right, but it wasn't through the quad to the gymnasium.
2. John Fox vs. Dave Wannstedt. One guy led two franchises to the Super Bowl. The other was a defensive wiz in Dallas who never got the Bears to a conference championship. No offense to Wanny, but Fox has the better career.
3. John Fox's first season vs. Dave Wannstedt's sixth and final. Also, this is Fox's first year. That was Wannstedt's last. Even a false notion of "rebuilding" makes a potential 5-11 slate more palatable. 1997's 0-7 start felt like being buried alive, while the remarkable streak breaker in Miami followed by 3 more wins in the final 8 games felt like being dragged out of that shallow grave and dusted off. 1998 was like, "Okay fine, we won't bury you, but you can't leave the cemetery."
4. 4 wins vs. 5 wins (and counting). The 1998 team started 0-4, climbed to 3-5 and finished 1-7. The one win was thrilling -- an unexpected trouncing of the Ravens. But what should have been a citywide thrill was sullied by the overriding Bears fan mood (not mine, incidentally) that the win was more significant for its impact on draft position than the fun of the win itself. (Chicago Tribune Skip Bayless alert!)
5. Jay Cutler vs. Erik Kramer. I love Kramer. Among other attributes (like his record-setting 1995 and his mini-'95 in 1997) he's got my birthday. But he's no Jay Cutler.
6. 2015 Jay Cutler specifically. Highest rating of his career. Lowest interception rate of his career. WCG called it a "renaissance." Absolutely. If the Bears were in the division race Cutler would be garnering MVP talk.
7. 1998 Erik Kramer specifically. Coming off a decent year (3,000 yards, 14 TD), Kramer's body caught up to him in '98. He started all 8 games he played, but only played the 8.
8. 7 games of Steve Stenstrom. 1-6 record. 57.1 completion percentage. 70.4 QB rating. Less than 180 yards passing per game. 4 TD. 6 interceptions.
9. Moses Moreno started a game too. This is not to diminish the achievement of reaching the NFL and starting a game, especially at quarterback. Any athlete who spends a day in this league -- even during training camp -- has reached the pinnacle of his profession. I'm just acknowledging that if your starting quarterback in a regular season game was a 7th-round rookie who finished his career with a 53.9 QB rating, times were tough.
10. Matt Forte vs. 1998 Edgar Bennett. This was Bennett's final full season after missing all of 1997 with a torn Achilles. Forte has 1,100 yards of offense and 6 TDs. Bennett gained 820 and only 611 as the Bears leading rusher. He rushed for two scores. No contest.
11. Jeremy Langford vs. 1998 Edgar Bennett. Forget Forte -- the Bears backup, Langford, has been better than Bennett was in 1998.
12. Let's go back to Bennett, not to pile on, but just to remind ourselves of how good we have it with Forte. Because seriously, did we mention the Bears leading rusher in 1998 gained 611 yards and 2 touchdowns? And that he was a Green Bay castoff with a Super Bowl ring?
13. Rookie Curtis Enis. When I covered the Bears in 2012, one of my favorite guys to talk to was Pat Mannelly. During our first interview, (it became this story), I listed a slew of players whom I thought were Mannelly's best teammates of his career at their respective positions and asked if he agreed. They were: Cutler, Forte, Marshall, Gould, Hester, Peppers, Urlacher, Briggs, Tillman, Lovie. He agreed.
I then asked him for his second best teammate at each position. His answer for running back surprised me:
"Curtis Enis before he got hurt."
I thought he was joking. He was dead serious, adding, "I think he would have been a great pro running back."
Mannelly wasn't alone. Enis's arrival was that exciting, making his disappointing rookie year and total Bears career that much more of a letdown.
Mannelly's other answers, incidentally:
Quarterback, Rex Grossman & Jim Miller: "Those are the two guys we won with."
Wide receiver, Marty Booker: "He was just solid. Great hands, very complete player, a great professional. Came from a small school, and I won’t say overachieved but became more than what people thought he would be."
Defensive line, Ted Washington: "Arguably the best nose guard to ever play the game. People could argue that. I know from talking to Olin Kreutz that he’s arguably one of the best ever."
Linebacker, a tie between Rosevelt Colvin and Warrick Holdman.
Cornerback, Nathan Vasher: "He went to the Pro Bowl."
Kicker, a tie between Paul Edinger and Jeff Jaeger.
Returner, a tie between Jerry Azumah and Glyn Milburn.
Head coach, Dick Jauron: "Because I spent the most years with him."
14. The stat at 9:59:
Seriously, look how pumped people were for Enis. This was his 3rd NFL game. Weirdly, like Payton and Sayers, Enis was drafted 4th overall by the Bears. So naturally he'd equal them, right? Start that clip at 9:59, as the announcer quotes then-Bucs coach Tony Dungy saying Enis reminds him of Earl Campbell. Yeesh.
15. List of Bears who scored more rushing touchdowns in 1998 than Enis (0): Bennett, FB Robert Chancey, Stenstrom (2 each); James Allen, Ty Hallock (back on him in a moment), and Kramer (1 each).
16. James Allen vs. Jeremy Langford. The Bears other rookie running back, Allen, had a breakout game vs. Baltimore down the stretch. But nothing like what Langford has achieved.
17. Randy Moss, rookie supreme. I know a lot of teams passed Moss, but him landing in our division when clearly he made sense at #4... that one hurt. Here's rookie Randy being amazing.
18. The ass-kicking Vikings and Packers. At least in 2015 we feel like we can hang with the division's best. And yes, we did our best against Minny (lost by 3 at home) and the Packers (lost two games by a combined 9 points) in three of our four games against them. But we never had a sense that we could compete with either team over the course of a season. And did I mention Randall Cunningham threw 8 TDs against us in '98?
19. Ty Hallock. The Bears starting fullback in 1998 was a guy named Ty Hallock, whose skills at that position were such that two years later, the team transitioned him to linebacker and flipped his number from 49 to 94.
20. Wait, let's go back to quarterback: The backup QBs threw only three more TDs (5) than did the punter and starting RB combined (2). Curtis Conway also attempted a pass.
21. Game breakers at receiver. No 1998 Bears receiver could touch even an injured Alshon Jeffery, and no 1998 Bears tight end could touch even an injured Martellus Bennett. Even Marquess Wilson has hauled in more exciting catches than anyone in '98.
22. Talent that was thiiiiiis close to popping. Speaking of game breakers, the 1998 Bears were still a year away from realizing the team's best receiver was Marcus Robinson. And still a year away from realizing its best o-lineman was Olin Kreutz. Both men were rookies in 1998.
23. The curse of Fabien Bownes. (Sure, why not?) In 1998 a Bears receiver named Fabien Bownes was in his third and final year in Chicago, in which he scored his lone Bears touchdown. One year later, as a member of the Seahawks, Bownes caught his second career (and final) touchdown: a 49-yard de facto game-winner against, you guessed it: the Bears.
24. Tight ends Alonzo Mayes and Ryan Wetnight combined for 2 touchdowns. Zach Miller and Martellus Bennett have 8.
25. Ryan Wetnight, #89. While we're at it, why oh why did they give Ditka's number to Wetnight?
26. 25th in points scored, 23rd in points allowed. Okay, that's not that much better.
27. 1998: weak edge rushers. Former first-round pick John Thierry was in his final season in Chicago. He had 3.5 sacks and then went to the Browns and then the Packers to rejuvenate his career. 32-year-old Shawn Lee (RIP) was in his final NFL season.
28. 1998: uninspiring linebackers. Everyone liked Barry Minter, but compared to the revolution to come -- Colvin/Holdman, then Urlacher, then Briggs and even Hunter Hillenmeyer -- Minter was underwhelming. He was flanked by Sean Harris and Ricardo McDonald AKA Rico AKA "I was the last player not named Urlacher to wear #54." Compare that to...
29. 2015: team-leading linebackers. Linebacker is a special position in Chicago -- the franchise's history is draped in significant LBs. And this year, though no Pro Bowlers roam among them and nothing close to Urlacher/Briggs, the Bears have seen spirited and clutch performances from Pernell McPhee, Willie Young, Shea McClellin (depending on your viewpoint), and Sam Acho.
30. Fourth Quarter Porter! Love this dude.
31. Antrel Rolle. Bears captain prior to his season-ending injury. Another pickup to whom Bears fans have gravitated.
32. An overperforming Jeff Jaeger was about the same as an underperforming Robbie Gould. In his last full season, the 34-year-old Jaeger converted under 80.8% of his field goals and missed a PAT, back when PAT's were gimmes. Jaeger's career field goal percentage was 74.1%, and his best three-season stretch came in Chicago, though he did make a Pro Bowl and earn All Pro honors once with the Raiders -- a true peak season.
That year, Jaeger converted 85.3% of his field goals, one tenth of a percent higher than Robbie Gould's entire career. This season, the 34-year-old Gould has converted 81.8% of his field goals and missed one extra point, which was blocked.
33. Let's go back to that 0-4 start, because it hurt. Week 1, we lose a thriller to Jacksonville. Such a sad, sorry start to a season. You've got a playoff team on the ropes at home, only to watch them drive the field and with less than a minute to go shove pins in your heart.
Then we lose halftime leads in losses to Pittsburgh (10-7, lost 17-12), Tampa (15-0, lost 27-15) and Minnesota (21-10, lost 31-28). Season was pretty much f'd after that.
34. It's the management, stupid! We're not just in Year 1 of a coach -- we're in Year 1 of a general manager and coaching staff. Back in '98, Michael McCaskey was still making Important Decisions. Here in 2015, the year of Back to the Future, I am happy to be a Bears fan.