Mostly new stadium holds mostly bad team
Soldier Field was rebuilt for the fans. From seat cupholders to 18-inch wide plastic seats to conveniently located television sets with replays and down-and-distance updates, this $606 million redo is better on the inside than it looks on the outside. Critics say it looks as though the Jetsons' spaceship perched itself in the home of the Flintstones.
Too bad the architects didn't fix the Bears, who left a 13-win team in 2001 and returned Monday night as the worst team in football. It was in this environment the Packers hoped to make over a disappointing 1-2 start. A stunning loss in the Phoenix heat Sept. 21 left the Packers dazed and confused.
But the Bears always have been the cure for what ails the Packers. Since 1992, the Packers are 19-4 against the Bears, 11-1 in Illinois. Quarterback Brett Favre has had some of his best days against the Bears. Three minutes into Monday night's 38-23 blowout, Favre watched halfback Ahman Green bust a 60-yard run down the left sidelines.
"It's no different than if the defense starts off with a big interception," Favre said. "It settles you down. Right away, we knew that we had set the tempo for the rest of the game. They were playing on their heels, and we were playing on our toes."
Things have been unsettling this season for the Packers. Shaky play by the defense set a bad tempo heading into the regular season. Like the Bears, the Packers stubbed their toes reopening a remodeled field, losing to the Vikings 25-10 at Lambeau. Green jump-started the offense in Week 2 with a 65-yard run in beating the Lions, but then the Packers wilted in the desert the following week, 20-13.
A loss to the Bears would have put the Packers three games behind the Vikings in the NFC North. Blowing out the Bears had ABC viewers switching to "CSI: Miami" after the first hour, but a loss would have sent David Caruso to Green Bay to give the Packers an autopsy.
As much as this is Favre's team and every day revolves around whether he's going to continue playing past this season, Ahman Green is a lightning rod for this squad. His timing couldn't be better. His career best 176-yard game on 19 carries came against the Bears on Monday night, and before the Packers knew it, they were up, 17-0.
"This is the second game in two wins Ahman broke off a long run," Packers coach Mike Sherman said. "He's not doing that on his own. He's getting help from the offensive line. Bubba Franks is probably one of the best blocking tight ends in this league. Ahman does make them miss. He does have the speed to take it the distance."
During the preseason, Sherman thought Green looked the most explosive he ever has seen him. A year ago, Green battled injuries. Though he didn't complain, Green did his best. Green is a back with few moves and few words. He's quiet, but his explosive speed makes him one of the most dangerous big play runners in the game.
To help the play-action running game the past two weeks, Sherman has been calling more running plays in which Favre sprints out to give Green the ball. During Wednesday's practice, Favre sprinted too quickly and knocked down Green. Not Monday night. Green got the ball and read his zone blocking perfectly. He made a move on Bears cornerback Jerry Azumah and outrushed the Bears to the end zone for the 60-yard touchdown.
Couple that run with one of Green's rare speeches to the team. On Thursday, Green gathered the squad and made a statement.
"Every now and then, I think I need to say something to get us mentally into the football game," Green said. "I said something to get us mentally ready for this game. My main point was that we need to play as one team no matter what happens. We win or lose as a team together."
In many ways, the Packers went back to basics. Favre completed 21 of 30 passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns.
"Brett was hot in the red zone and made some plays and did some very good things," Sherman said. "I was really excited for our football team and for him. He was making some magic out there."
A little bit of the fun came back for the Packers. On one play in the fourth quarter, Favre rolled right and bought time with his feet. As he avoided Bears defenders, he spotted Javon Walker and rifled him a 9-yard touchdown pass that blew open the game, 31-16. The game plan featured basic West Coast offense passes. A 14-yard touchdown pass to fullback William Henderson came when Favre rolled right while Henderson floated into the middle of the field uncovered.
"We executed plays as close to perfect as possible," Favre said. "We played hard last week. We played hard this week. We're 2-2, not 3-1 or 4-0. Is that acceptable? It doesn't make a difference. We're 2-2. But if we play like this, we're capable of winning every game."
The Packers did a lot of good things Monday night. In addition to the 187 team rushing yards and two scores by Green, the Packers averaged 6.8 yards a play. Defensively, the Packers blitzed more than 70 percent of the downs and kept the Bears offense bottled up all night.
"I knew we were going to come out and be aggressive," safety Darren Sharper said. "It's always nice to see that. As a defensive player, that's the type of defense you want to play. You get after them and force the issue. We're very excited. We've had this game plan in before. It's just a matter of calling the plays, calling the blitzes and staying with it. We did a great job with that tonight."
But let's not rush to call Monday night's 15-point victory a cure-all game for the Packers. The Bears are bad. John Shoop's offense has degenerated into passes that rarely go to the first-down marker and sprinkles in too many Kordell Stewart scrambles. If the stadium looks like NASA invading Stonehenge, then the Bears strategy is like blending the wishbone with a short passing attack you'd give a receiver asked to fill in as the team's third quarterback.
Dating back to last season, the Bears have lost 15 of their past 17 games. They've been outscored 111-43 in their three losses. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was in attendance for the opening of the renovated stadium, but you wonder whether he was going to announce that the Bears are on the clock for the first pick in the draft.
"We embarrassed ourselves again," Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "I hope we are embarrassed because I am. I still think we are a good team, and I believe in my teammates."
Fans sitting in their new, comfortable digs might not share that belief. Occasional boos greeted some miscues. Particularly disturbing is the offense. Stewart's 25-for-44 for 201 yards doesn't tell the story. Partly because of shaky offensive line blocking, Stewart looks short to one read, and if that read is coverage, he runs.
Stewart, in fact, ran 12 times for 71 yards and was sacked five times for 21 yards. The Bears, already hearing some boos as they trailed 24-6 at halftime, drove fans crazy by kicking a field goal with two seconds left in the third quarter. However, they managed to briefly get themselves back in the game when Anthony Thomas caught Packers linebacker Nick Barnett out of position in an eight-man front to stop the run. Thomas ran 67 yards for a touchdown that cut the lead to 24-16.
Favre responded by driving for two touchdowns in the next eight minutes to put the game away.
The new Soldier Field is nice for those who attend games. Like all new stadiums, things didn't work perfectly. Bathrooms in the suite area backed up and had to be shut down. A fan blew a whistle in the third quarter that forced officials to stop play for a second and alert both benches.
It's a good environment for football. Too bad the Bears aren't as nice as the seats.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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