Bears face crossroads against Packers
New and improved offense under Monday spotlight vs. title contender
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- A cordon of cameras surrounded the man with the diamond stud in his left ear and the hook shaved into his hair.
D.J. Moore, the heretofore invisible defensive back, was holding court with a full array of reporters, showing off his wit and talking about the inner confidence that allowed him to catch two tipped balls for interceptions in the Bears' win over Dallas on Sunday.
Andy Warhol couldn't have predicted it better.
And Moore, an inveterate chatterbox, summed up his life as a cipher last season.
"I might've done one [interview]," he said. "And that was in the mirror."
Moore was joking. I think.
Fifteen-minute heroes such as Moore are a way of life for a good football team, and the Bears are a good football team, as Lovie Smith is wont to say.
At 2-0, Chicago's often-embattled and always-salivated-over football team is at a crossroads of sorts.
With the Packers coming to town for "Monday Night Football" and a trip to New York to play the Giants the next week, the Bears could easily be 2-2 soon enough, and the positive buzz could dissipate just like Moore's nascent fame.
But for now, the buzz is here, and it's growing, and there's nothing that brings Chicago's sports community together like a really good Bears team.
"We say that we're a good football team, but you need wins to validate that," Smith said. "So when you get off to that start, guys really start believing. I shouldn't say 'start believing,' our players have believed all along. But it validates it for everyone else."
Everyone else means the core fan base, which came into this season frustrated and cynical. Smith, given his stature and the team's fall from Super Bowl grace, has been the target of the fans' ire at times. But he is steadfast in his support of the fans.
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"We need everyone," Smith said. "Monday night, big game. As I said Sunday night after the game, our fans in Dallas were outstanding. The Bears fans all over. You can imagine how excited they'll be, how pumped up they'll be. The momentum is going that with the fans, too. We'll need them. We're a tough combination to beat together."
The Bears will need the so-called "fourth phase" (I say "so-called" because it's a pretty lame nickname for a fan base. Also, bring back the Honey Bears!) to make the Packers pretty uncomfortable. This Green Bay team is a Super Bowl favorite.
Although the Bears are a solid 13th in the Football Outsiders team efficiency rankings, the Packers are No. 1, with a high-powered offense and a beguiling 3-4 defense that flummoxed Jay Cutler last season. The Packers swept Chicago last year, including Cutler's four-interception team debut.
This Bears team is much more talented, with a growing offense and a healthy defense recommitted to Smith's main tenet of causing turnovers. So this game will be an early, and obvious, measuring stick. Beating Dallas on the road was impressive, but taking care of the Packers on national TV will vault Chicago to the upper stratosphere of the NFL. A loss, of course, would temper any enthusiasm.
Despite player comments to the contrary -- Charles Tillman said the Bears will treat preparation for the game as if they were playing "the Bills, Detroit or Oakland" -- they are taking a special tack to make sure this game is valued higher. The players are wearing throwback uniforms and seemingly are getting paid every time they mention the old nickname "Monsters of the Midway" in interviews. You'd better believe that Smith, who relates to his players as well as any coach in the league, will have them fired up.
"This game is getting a lot of hype because it's Monday night and it's Green Bay, as it should be," Cutler said. "There's going to be 13 other games after that, that are going to be just as big."
That's the right thing to say, of course. But for a guy who is still looking for his first winning season as a starter since high school, a win Monday could do wonders for his confidence. Not that he needs it right now.
The way Cutler has been playing -- tops in the NFL in quarterback rating, third in the Football Outsiders quarterback efficiency rankings and presumably the best signal-caller among boyfriends of reality show ingenues -- he'll more than earn the hype he was given coming into last season.
Cutler has fit into Mike Martz's quick-read Air Coryell offense just like it was drawn up. He has thrown for 649 yards, five touchdowns and only one interception. There are kinks to be worked out: The offensive line isn't settled, and thus the running game has stalled (69.5 yards per game, tied for 28th in the league), and Devin Hester's circus catch this past week is the only touchdown catch by a wide receiver.
Still, the offense is setting its bar high. It is fifth in the league in total offense, third in passing.
"We wanted to get out to a good start," Cutler said. "This offense really needed it. We're still a young group, as a whole. Any time you can go out and be successful early on, it's going to be helpful in the long run."
Like the Bears as a whole, Cutler's ascendance will be judged Monday night against that of Aaron Rodgers, who is thought of as a more reliable Cutler.
The two quarterbacks are chummy, so it's a friendly rivalry, unlike the one between Cutler and Philip Rivers when they were in the AFC West.
"Really good player," Cutler said of Rodgers. "He played at a high caliber. He did it last year. He looks like he's going to be back on track this year. He's definitely one of the top quarterbacks in the league."
"You can see his swagger out there," cornerback Zack Bowman said of Rodgers.
The question is: Will we see the Bears' swagger at Soldier Field?
If we do, this team might be able to stretch its 15 minutes of fame another week and we'll know pretty soon whether we have a contender in Chicago.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.