The CSL begins once you understand the broader context of the games, teams and players who already have you fanatically obsessed. Before the CSL, you get pumped up and ride the emotional waves, but you don’t understand how a team’s momentum fits into its greater franchise story, or sometimes even how a team fits into the league landscape.
You don’t really understand that an old player who just came to your team was a star earlier in his career. You don’t really understand that while you’ve been waiting seven years for a championship, your parents have been waiting 37 years and your grandparents have been waiting 67 years.
Back to ‘88.
My CSL formation period went from probably 1989 (when I started filling in the blanks on the Cubs history because of our division title, and when the “will they or won’t they?” talk around the Bulls began to build) to 1991 (my first CSL championship and the release of Tecmo Super Bowl), with my CSL finalization period running through the end of 1992 (second Bulls championship and my first CSL bad Bears season).
In 1988, right on the cusp of that sports fan transformation, I was just beginning to understand the Bears’ history, but mostly that meant hearing my dad talk about the ‘63 championship and remembering Richie Petitbon’s interception.
By 1988, the Bears were a sustained powerhouse, albeit with only one championship. We were riding a wave of five straight division crowns. We had the Super Bowl Shuffle and everything around ‘85. We had two other NFC championship games. We entered the playoffs in ‘85, ‘86 and ‘87 ASSUMING we would win a title, and we went into the playoffs in ‘88 with just about the same feeling.
Here’s the difference though between a CSL Bears fan in 1988 and a pre-CSL Bears fan in 1988, such as yours truly. A CSL Bears fan in 1988 knew what happened in the pre-Ditka days. They had the scars from Gibron and Dooley. They knew the horrors of 1-13. They appreciated ‘84-’88 more than I ever could because they understood it better than I possibly could.
My mindset was just as real as theirs. But it was limited. And that gave me a supernatural confidence about the Bears that was rooted in truth yet bereft of context.
Okay then, let’s talk about the Lions.
In my mind, the Lions are one of the two saddest franchises in the NFL, along with the Browns. Those are the only two teams that existed prior to the Super Bowl to never play in a Super Bowl. The Browns last won an NFL championship in 1964, but you have to go back even further to see Detroit’s last NFL title.
That would be 1957, the franchise’s third title in six years, and all with Bears-castaway and Hall of Famer Bobby Layne at quarterback, no less.
Since 1957, Detroit’s best sustained run of success came in the 1990s with Barry Sanders, Herman Moore, Chris Spielman and a host of average QBs. The Lions went to the playoffs six times between 1991 and 1999, peaking with an appearance in the 1991 NFC championship game.
The point is, any fan with any context knows the Lions are like a hermit alcoholic: they pose no danger to anyone but themselves. Bears fans over the age of, I dunno, 15 probably don’t sweat the Lions at all.
The problem is that young Lions fans don’t have that context, and we are now in danger of a new generation of Lions fans growing up believing that they “own the Bears.”
Seriously, check out the smack talk Lions fans lay on Twitter and elsewhere about the Bears. Our WCG colleague Aaron Leming is duly fighting back, looking like Neo when he realizes he can control the Matrix.
I won't speak for everyone but Lions week is quickly becoming much more fun than Packers week on here.— Aaron Leming (@AaronLemingNFL) November 7, 2018
You’re a Lions fan. Sit down.— Aaron Leming (@AaronLemingNFL) October 12, 2018
Come back when the Lions win a playoff game this millennium.— Aaron Leming (@AaronLemingNFL) October 12, 2018
Yet from the perspective of Lions fans, Leming and others like us don’t look like Neo at the end of the Matrix. To them, we look like Neo jumping off the roof on his first attempt and crashing to the ground.
Can you blame them? They are 9-1 against us since 2013. Nine and one. That’s five seasons! That’s the equivalent of seven-year-old Jack getting amped in ‘88 because of everything since ‘84!
The trend started bothering me entering the first Lions game of 2016. I wrote a piece here called “We need to talk about the Lions,” and sure enough the Bears went out and knocked off Detroit by three points. I thought it was something to build on. Instead it was a blip in a hideous chart.
Seriously, look at this madness:
The non-head-to-head picture is rough too. Since our last playoff appearance in 2010, the Lions have the edge over us in wins (60-50), playoff seasons (3-0), winning seasons (4-1) and 10-win seasons (2-1).
Oh, and here’s the worst one.
Last place finishes, NFC North, since 2011:
That’s right: we are the NFC North’s most frequent cellar-dweller since 2011. And with no NFC North team reaching the Super Bowl in that time, a pre-CSL Lions fan actually thinks he/she roots for a WINNER.
It’s enough to make you sick.
And that’s why I’m stoked for Sunday.
One of the best experiences as a sports fan is seeing a young, hungry, momentum-shifting team come along and start flipping depressing trends like an Othello board. Obviously there are big trends like winning our first Super Bowl since 1985, reaching our first postseason since 2010 and bagging our first winning record since 2012.
Then there are the seemingly smaller yet in many ways more personal trends that speak to the larger experience of fandom. One of those trends is getting the Rodgers monkey off our backs. That’s still to come.
Another is digging ourselves out of this embarrassing Lions rut.
The Lions problem is real. The change starts Sunday.
To my fellow CSL Bears fans, your smiles are coming.
Jack M Silverstein is Windy City Gridiron’s Bears historian, and author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” He is the proprietor of Chicago sports history Instagram “A Shot on Ehlo.” Say hey at @readjack.