January usually signals two things in Chicago--the start of the long winter deep freeze, and time to clear out the lockers at Soldier Field, where it's been so long since the Bears have seen any postseason play that fans feared the team might go the way of the Jordanless Bulls or the hapless Cubs. But amid temperatures that have kept the city virtually snow-free this season, the Bears have postponed their hibernation to seize a spot in this month's NFC play-offs, finishing with their best record in a decade and transforming themselves from cellar dwellers into Super Bowl contenders.
The Bears have done it with flair too, winning several games with frantic comebacks, trick plays and answered Hail Mary passes. There are few dominant teams in the NFL this year--only the St. Louis Rams have a better record--so the Bears stand a good chance to advance. Among their biggest obstacles: the Green Bay Packers, who have beaten them twice.
The Bears' resurrection, after four consecutive doormat finishes and no Super Bowl since 1986, is part mystery and part miracle. The mystery is, Who are these guys? Light on star power, the Bears do not at first look--or second look, either, for that matter--scream championship material. They're a flamboyance-free assortment of rookies, unknowns and slow starters, including offensive tackle James (Big Cat) Williams, who, at 6 ft. 7 in. and 331 lbs., can block out the sun, never mind defenders. Williams was just selected for the Pro Bowl, the NFL's All-Star game, after 11 years in the trenches.
The Bears are an anonymous bunch (Do the names Colvin, Kreutz, Edinger and Dogins mean anything to you?) led by a coach, Dick Jauron, whose own name recognition ranks somewhere south of a suburban alderman. Scan the NFL's list of statistical league leaders, and you won't find many Bears. The closest thing this club has to stars is linebacker Brian Urlacher, 23, an NFL defensive rookie of the year last season; first-year running back Anthony Thomas, 23; and quarterback Jim Miller, 30. The soft-spoken Miller is a rookie of sorts, who got the starting job practically by default in his third year with the Bears. He has ridden the bench for so long--seven seasons with Chicago, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and Atlanta--that his pants are pine scented. No one is mistaking these guys for Dick Butkus, Walter Payton and Jim McMahon, but they've still got game.
The steady Jauron, in his first head-coaching role, insists that he works "with what we do have, not what we don't have. We have a bunch of guys who can make plays and really do believe we can win. It isn't just talk." Jauron had to weather more than a little criticism from both fans and the Bears front office for his decision during the past two seasons to let his young players get field time and experience.