A Chicago Bears team with an us-against-the-world attitude and a coach few thought would survive the season will attempt to clinch their first NFC Central Division title since 1990, when the Bears host the Jaguars this Sunday in the regular-season finale.
In '90, the names were Jimbo Covert, "Refrigerator" Perry, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent and Mike Singletary, all of them leftovers from the Bears' dominant teams of the mid to late '80s. Mike Ditka was still the Bears' coach and quarterback Mike Tomczak was the focus of Ditka's ire.
This year's Bears team is, for the most part, populated by no-names. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is their star, but his supporting cast is loaded with over-achievers.
How have the Bears risen so suddenly from the depths of 6-10 and 5-11 records to a possible 13-3 mark this year? Third-year coach Dick Jauron, the Jaguars' defensive coordinator from 1995-98, is deserving of the credit for having molded this Bears team into the NFC's "Cinderella."
"I don't feel I've changed as a head coach. I know there are things I probably do better. I still make errors on the field. I made errors the first year. Hopefully, I don't make as many now," Jauron said last week, after Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo announced Jauron will receive a long-term contract when the season is complete.
Jauron was in the final year of his contract throughout this season. Even though he was on his way to possible coach of the year honors, Angelo and Bears President Ted Phillips withheld confirmation of a new contract.
Most believe Jauron's popularity among his players motivated them to play at their highest level, to win their coach a new deal. If that was Phillips' and Angelo's strategy, it worked, but no one believes that was the strategy when the season began.
Angelo was hired from Tampa Bay last spring, and speculation was Angelo would bring in his own coach following this season. Jauron wasn't given a chance of staying, and the Bears were an almost-unanimous choice to finish last in the NFC Central.
"The fact is their relationship has been very positive and very good and it's getting better," Phillips said of his GM and of his coach.
"This was like a dream come true," Angelo said. "If I told you I expected to win like this and win this soon, I'd be lying to you. That's why it makes it such a great achievement in terms of what we've done this year. I'm just happier than heck for the coaches."
Chicago's success story isn't easily traced. After all, the Bears are a team that had made several draft mistakes in recent years. The greatest of those mistakes fell on Jauron's head, for having made quarterback Cade McNown his top pick in 1999. McNown proved to be a major bust and was dealt to Miami for a low-round draft choice just prior to the start of this season.
The Bears' fortunes changed dramatically with the drafting of Urlacher in 2000. This year, the Bears added two Michigan guys, wide receiver David Terrell and running back Anthony Thomas, and both have been major producers.
Beyond those three players, the Bears are a collection of curious names, led by quarterback Jim Miller, who had been released by Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Atlanta and Detroit before finding a "home" in Chicago. These days, Miller is the quarterback of a team headed to the playoffs.
"It's a consensus in our offensive room that you all can kiss our (butt) in the middle of Main Street. We'll give you all an hour to draw a crowd, too. That's the way we feel. We know we're a good football team," Miller said of those who still doubt the Bears are for real.
"We knew. We were the only ones who knew. We felt (from the beginning) we could get into the playoffs, but no one believed in us. We've been the underdogs every week. Let them keep doing it. I don't mind. It helps us, it motivated us, it pushes us," defensive end Phillip Daniels said.
"A lot of people … said we were going to win three or four games. We took that personally," Thomas added.
The Bears are not underdogs this week. They are beginning to gather believers.