CHICAGO Let me introduce you to the best soap opera in the NFL.
Maybe all of sports.
Too many of you all have been stuck on T.O. all season long, sprung on everything Dallas (Parcells, Romo/Bledsoe, Jessica Simpson Kim Etheredge) all caught up in whatever drama the Giants brought every week, tracking Shawne Merriman's suspension and following the Bengals' arrest records.
And for 20-plus weeks, beginning with the opening day of training camp, the most mellow yet melodramatic, campy yet authentic, forgettable yet addictive, trivial yet consequential, Aaron Spelling-like sports season played out in and outside the walls of Halas Hall.
Scandal, intrigue, plot twists, deceit, injury, insubordination, trust and faith concurrently interweaving themes of the personal and professional lives of grown men over and underachieving in their daily routines called life.
Just like how everyone slept on "The Wire" as television's best show for years because all the attention was on "The Sopranos," "Lost," "CSI," "24," "Deadwood," "Grey's Anatomy," "House," "Desperate Housewives," the return of "ER," the shock of "Nip/Tuck," the staying power of "Law & Order" and the first four episodes of "American Idol" each year the drama that has developed within the Chicago Bears football organization has been week in, week out the best inside the NFL.
(Word to Cris Collinsworth.)
Just like any classic soap opera, the stories were ever-changing and everlasting. When one subplot ended, another would be born. Out of nowhere. Out of wedlock. Things no one could dream up. Not even Gloria Monty on her best days.
Plot: Before minicamp even jumps off, two of the team's most important players, running back Thomas Jones and linebacker Lance Briggs, threaten to hold out. They have money and status issues with the team. Cedric Benson, the All-World-before-he-was-drafted-at-the-No. 4-spot running back, decides it's his time to shine now that Jones has decided to sit. Teammates remember how Benson held out before last season and "remind" him that all is not forgotten. During a "light" practice, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Brain Urlacher and Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown "accidentally" dislocate Benson's shoulder. Afterward, Benson says, "Nobody [on this team] likes me." And oh, in July, tight end John Gilmore got charged with trespassing, resisting arrest and possession of weed.
Plot: The coach has controversies. Plural. At quarterback, running back and receiver, he can't confirm (or decide) who his starters will be. The preseason is out of control. The backup QB they brought in, Brian Griese, is looking better than Rex Grossman, the guy who is supposed to be the franchise QB. Jones who's supposed to be the team's top back because he gained nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage the year before "mysteriously" strains his hamstring on the first day of practice. Which leaves coach Lovie Smith going into the season with no clear-cut idea of who his No. 1 players are at the two top positions on offense. It's professional football at its highest and quietest dysfunction. It goes on for weeks. It opens up the season.
Plot: "Winning is the best deodorant in the world." The White Sox don't get into the MLB playoffs, but no one cares because the Bears are 5-0. Rex Grossman is being given a nickname by the media, "Sexy Rexy," that could get him a guest spot as a surgeon on "Grey's Anatomy." Talk and comparisons to the '85 Bears resurface. Cha Cha Slide maestro DJ Casper records "The Monster Slide," dedicated to the Bears. Fans begin booking February flights to Miami. Then they play the Cardinals. In classic soap-opera fashion, the Bears win one of the most dramatic, come-from-behind, only-on-"Monday-Night Football" game seen this generation. Arizona coach Denny Green provides theme music. Demons surface. Weaknesses ascend. Flaws are exposed.
Recurring theme: The most important (not best) defensive player, Mike Brown, goes down. Again. He's out for the season with a foot injury. The one player they could afford to lose the least, they lose. Images of Carolina's Steve Smith haunt the team, the coaching staff, the entire city. 12 catches, 218 yards, 2 TDs 12, 218, 2 12, 218, 2. A repeating nightmare sequence. The Super Bowl dream is officially in jeopardy.
Plot: Defensive back Ricky Manning Jr., pleads no contest to a felony assault charge involving a fight at a Denny's restaurant in Los Angeles and is suspended for one game by the NFL. Urlacher doesn't like it and blasts the NFL, eliminating his shot at two-timing the Defensive POY award.
Plot: Make it public knowledge that the coach has not been offered a contract extension by the team and next year is the last year of his deal. Make it known that Lovie Smith is the lowest-paid coach in the NFL and will be the league's hottest commodity if he's not re-signed. Make the organization look cheap. Make the organization look foolish. Make it the biggest subplot in a season that would make Agnes Nixon proud.
Make Rexy unsexy. Make him the laughingstock of the NFL. Make him have four turnovers (three interceptions, one fumble) in a loss to a playoff-bound AFC team, New England, on Sunday night. Then follow that by making him have an even worse game the very next week: 6-of-19 passing for 34 yards with three INTs. Make the home fans boo him. Make him the topic of national discussion. Make the national media question the coach. Make the coach defend himself, his decisions, his player ("Rex Grossman is our quarterback! We're 10-2 and we won the division with Rex at quarterback. But we still have a lot to do as a team"). Make Tommie Harris go down for the season.
Make the "Urlacher is overrated" conversation enter the clubhouse via radio talk shows. Then make it news that Urlacher has a baby by a black ex-stripper. Make it so that his ex-wife and the woman (who is now a real estate broker) he had a "one-night stand" with have children seven weeks apart. Make it so this story seems fresh, even though it's more than a year old. Rescripted. Rescript it. Make it play out in court. Baby daddy drama. Make it about child support. Make lawyers argue. Make judges seem impartial to the woman. Make it so that the father comes out as the good guy and wants primary custody of his son. This will get an Emmy nomination. Make it a two-hour episode.
Plot: The best defense in the league falls apart. All of a sudden, weak, nonplayoff-bound squads are putting up season-topping yards on the Bears. Chicago is winning games but against Tampa Bay, Detroit and Minnesota. The players never argue with each other or point fingers. That's too cliché. Instead, the swagger is gone. Baltimore took it. The Ravens are now what the Bears used to be. It's like how R. Kelly made people forget about Aaron Hall. "The Monster Slide" flops. Still, Devin Hester becomes a star. Noah Wyle-like. Jones and Benson share time in the backfield. The backup QB takes some snaps, causing doubt to dominate conversations in every bar in the city and surrounding suburbs because every other backup in the league that took over (Vince Young, Tony Romo, Jeff Garcia) is winning. The entire episode is about the players soul-searching, trying to find out who they really are. End the episode with a Kanye West sped-up sampling of "The Bears are who we thought they were. We let them off the hook!"
Script: He walked into a Lake County courtroom with his defense attorney by his side. Ten misdemeanor charges are what he was given. "Not guilty" is what he gave them. The gavel hits the wood. Feb. 16, 2007 is the date he must return. By then he'll either have a Super Bowl ring on his finger. Or he won't.
Fade to black.
A door flies open. There's screaming and yelling. A SWAT team comes in, bum-rushing the show. Think Soderbergh. Guns drawn. Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt. Police say there are six unregistered guns in the house. They find a woman, a baby, a friend and allegedly a few ounces of weed inside the house during the raid. The friend is arrested for possession. He's soon to be interrogated. The house doesn't belong to him, it belongs to one of the Bears. The friend is a small fish, the cops are trying to land Orca. Tank Johnson is his name. The next day, private conversations are had, public apologies are made. Less than 48 hours later, the friend is dead.
Plot: The team's general manager, Jerry Angelo, and the head coach are not in agreement about how to handle the Tank Johnson situation. It becomes a battle between business and football. Police investigate. Speculation and suspicion are the only leads. There's a hazy shade of gray between guilt and innocence, crime and bad decision making. The team has to concentrate through this because, in the words of ESPN 1000 Bears beat reporter Jeff Dickerson, "If they don't win their first playoff game everything will be called into question." Players struggle to take on the calm, uncalculated character of their coach. They made comments like, "The media plays a role in a lot of the decisions that are made in Chicago. This is a respectable team, and we've got a lot of good guys. If it's painted that one guy isn't living up to the Bears' reputation " (Adewale Ogunleye). In the middle of all this, Tank's role and value to the team increase because Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris went down for the season. And suddenly the man who is connected to a murder investigation stands as a major reason the Bears either win or lose in the playoffs, whether or not they get to the Super Bowl and whether or not we crown their asses.
Backdrop: Chicago. Plot: Seattle.
Backdrop: Chicago. Plot: New Orleans.
The saga will continue. It may never end. And like all great soap operas, you'll get caught up before you know it. Addicted. Hooked. Never missing an episode. Never missing a week.
Last week, Chicago Tribune columnist Don Pierson wrote a piece entitled Sad But True: Bears' Story Rather Boring. Saying of the 12 teams entering the NFL playoffs "there are approximately 11 more compelling story lines" than the Bears.
Where was he all season?
Pine Valley and Wisteria Lane have nothin' on this. Neither did the Cowboys, the Saints, the Eagles or the Colts. What developed over the year in Chicago is something Shonda Rhimes (who's from Chicago) couldn't have created. Not even on her best day. Making what happened and what's going to happen with the 10th-most valuable franchise in the NFL (Forbes, 2006) simply the most compelling true-to-life drama in sports.
And the front-runner for the team's marketing slogan for the 2006-07 Super Bowl XLI winning season is a unanimous and unarguable choice: It's not TV it's the Bears.
Scoop Jackson is a national columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. He appears regularly on "Quite Frankly" and other ESPN shows. He resides in Chicago. Sound off to Scoop and Page 2 here.