The Bears are looking to get back to their ghoulish past
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- It's hard to look like monsters in shorts.
It's even hard to look like monsters in T-shirts with "Monsters" written on them.
But desperation sometimes breeds success, and the Bears are nothing if not oozing desperation.
From the acquisition of Jay Cutler for the proverbial ranch last year, to the team's about-face in offensive philosophy with the hiring of Mike Martz, to the biggest free-agent signing of the offseason in defensive end Julius Peppers, the Bears are banking on a lot of things going right.
And they're certainly talking the talk, perhaps none bigger than coach Lovie Smith's early proclamation that, "We're going to talk a lot about the Monsters of the Midway."
For those who aren't familiar with the history of the nickname, the Bears first made it famous in the early '40s, although the University of Chicago originated it in the late '30s before dropping its football program.
The Bears picked up the nickname and the "C" on their helmets. And the '85 Super Bowl champions resuscitated the "Monsters" moniker. Not because it was cute and not because it was inspiring, but because it fit.
Now the 2010 Bears have decided to dust it off again, with Smith going so far as to show players a highlight reel of Monsters doing their thing.
"We have to take it back to '80s style, Monsters of the Midway," defensive end Mark Anderson said. "We have T-shirts and slogans already. We're going to go out there and go hard every play."
Anderson said he wasn't sure whether this was meant to instill a new attitude in the defense.
"I just came into my dorm room and saw the T-shirt on the bed, and I saw Tommie [Harris] with it on and everybody walking around with it, so I guess we're going to use that. That's our motivation, and that's the thing for this camp."
Of course, just saying that's their thing will not magically make it happen. To truly earn the nickname, the defensive line will have to put consistent pressure on the quarterback for the first time since the Bears' Super Bowl season of '06, when they tied for eighth in the league in sacks. And Peppers, for his $91.5 million (over six years), will have to shed the image of taking off plays and keep up his double-digit sack average.
Anderson will have to find his '06 rookie form, when he had a Bears rookie-record 12 sacks, after which he managed just 9.5 in the three seasons since.
The secondary also will have to go back to its ball-stripping ways of '06, when the Bears were second in the NFL in interceptions, ranked third in forced fumbles, scored three defensive touchdowns in the regular season and had nine takeaways in the postseason.
"I think the attitude is that we've got big nine-zero back there, so he's going to help out a lot," Bears cornerback Charles Tillman said of Peppers. "Him and Mark Anderson, I'm confident in the pass rush they're going to get."
Peppers was mentioned often on the first day of training camp. Brian Urlacher may be the team's leader, but clearly the defense is counting on Peppers as its enforcer. For his part, Peppers shrugged off any talk of pressure.
"It's something I've dealt with my whole life, really," the mammoth defensive end said. "So it's nothing new. I relish the role, and I'm sure I can live up to all the expectations."
Add all the monster talk to the list.
"I was born in '80, so I was 5 years old when they last won the Super Bowl," Peppers said. "But the history of the players, I'm pretty well aware of all the rich tradition here."
"We've just got to take it back to the old school," Tillman said. "You can learn a lot from your past, and back in the day when they had the Monsters of the Midway, they were a force to be reckoned with. That's what we're trying to do, we're trying to bring that back."
Tillman seemed to enjoy the old Monster movies they were shown.
"Not whole games but just plays here and there, and they were brutal," he said. "I'm sure the style of football they played is somewhat illegal nowadays, with the forearms, but we'll try to get as close to that as we can without penalties."
Forcing turnovers has been a calling card of Smith's teams, and they are -- there's that word again -- desperate to return to that.
"[Smith's] style, his swagger on defense, he wants us to score," Tillman said. "The attitude that defense wins games, that's just what he's trying to bring back, the whole Monsters of the Midway, that's his style, that's what he wants."
But it's not a switch they can turn on. And like Dick Jauron before him, Smith has been criticized for going too easy on his players, giving veterans days off in camp, not practicing enough in pads. Of course, their predecessor, Dave Wannstedt, was criticized for just the opposite.
Smith said the team will practice in pads more this summer and is even following the '06 team's camp schedule. Tillman said the players will try not to hurt one another while trying on their new and improved tough-guy image.
"You want to compete, but at the same time you don't want to hurt your guys," he said.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.