A new head coach. A 2nd-year, 1st-round quarterback. A superstar linebacker. A dominant pass rush. A turnover-crazed defense. And an opposing QB running scared.
The date was November 7, 2004, and for the Bears franchise, it was a historic one. I bet a lot of Bears fans would find that statement a head-scratcher. But it’s true nonetheless.
Because that was the day that The Vision arrived.
The 2-5 Bears went into the Meadowlands on a Sunday afternoon and turned a two-touchdown deficit into a 28-21 win over Kurt Warner and the Giants. The victory was powered by a thrilling defensive effort that included two interceptions, three recovered fumbles and seven sacks.
Everything we saw in that game was a vision for what was to come in 2005 and 2006. Alex Brown led the pass rush attack with four sacks and a forced fumble, and was joined by Tommie Harris and Adewale Ogunleye, who bagged a sack each. Jerry Azumah had a sack and forced fumble, which Nathan Vasher recovered. Both Azumah and Vasher also had interceptions, while safety Michael Green forced two fumbles and recovered one.
In that context, the linebacking corps of Brian Urlacher (7 tackles), Lance Briggs and Hunter Hillenmeyer (4 tackles each) had a relatively quiet day, yet they were also part of the vision, as this was the beginning of their five-year run as a linebacker trio.
With the exception of Tommie Harris, the entire starting front seven that day started Super Bowl XLI. Mike Brown and Peanut Tillman missed the game with injuries, but XLI starter Vasher played a huge role in the win. The only XLI defensive starter who was not yet on the roster was safety Chris Harris, whom we drafted the following season.
The offense wasn’t quite there — rookie Craig Krenzel was our starting quarterback, our third of the year following a season-ending injury to Rex Grossman and a perilous run by Jonathan Quinn. But when I watched our defense on that day, the hairs stood on my arm and my eyes bulged and my jaw stayed stuck to the floor.
On that day, I saw our Super Bowl defense. I saw the plan coming together. I saw our collective future happiness.
Two games into this 2018 season, I don’t mind saying: I’ve seen the same.
Can't stop, won't stop!— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) September 19, 2018
The Monsters of da Midway are BACK. pic.twitter.com/CnXbNUObvc
In 2016, I wrote a column here called “Building the 2018 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears.” In that piece, I looked at each position and declared whether or not that person could be our starter for our hypothetical Super Bowl LIII participant. My feeling was that we had 6-8 defensive starters already in place: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Leonard Floyd, Pernell McPhee, Danny Trevathan, Jerrell Freeman, plus up to two undetermined DBs based just on the odds.
I was wrong on McPhee and Freeman but right on the rest, with Kyle Fuller and Adrian Amos holding down their jobs.
Like the Lovie Bears, we’ve added a starting safety through the draft in Eddie Jackson, whose game I like more than either of our XLI starters, Chris Harris and Danieal Manning.
And we now have Mack.
We now have Mack.
My colleague Aaron Leming tweeted a delightful collection of Bears defensive ranks this morning, noting that we are 1st in the NFL in both sacks and defensive touchdowns. And as I noted during the Packers game, Mr. Mack did in one half of football (a sack, pick-six and forced fumble) what no other Bear has done since at least 1950.
The Packers game ended in heartbreak, but the Seahawks game was a revelation. This was a true vision game (a concept I explained in 2015), in which we were given a vision of dominance to come. We sacked Russell Wilson six times, forced three fumbles, recovered one and scored a defensive touchdown for the second straight week. Danny Trevathan was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week, (an honor Mack should have had in Week 1), and led seven Bears players who had either a sack, forced fumble, recovered fumble or interception.
That list doesn’t even include Hicks, who remains one of our most dominant defenders.
Now, not everything is in place. For one thing, the XLI D had depth out the wazoo, something we’re still building. And we still have young players who are developing. But like the win against the Giants in 2004, itself the centerpiece of a defensive-fueled three-game winning streak, the biggest pieces are in place and the vision for the rest feels not just plausible, but destined.
I don’t know if the Bears will fulfill my 2016 prediction by reaching, much less winning, the Super Bowl this year. We still have questions throughout the offense, with a lot of improvement to come from both Mitch Trubisky and Matt Nagy.
But the only questions remaining for the defense are “how many.” How many sacks? How many scores? How many Pro Bowlers? How many All Pros? How many wins will they give us? How many opposing dreams will they dash?
The vision is here. The future is now. Get ready Bears fans. This will be fun.
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.