Sports Nut

The Chicago Bears’ Fascinating, Terrifying Tank Johnson

Chris, I’ll take your bait and spend a moment on the Chicago Bears and their pea-brained, noodle-armed quarterback. What does Rex Grossman have to do to get benched? Since the fifth game of the season, the guy has 13 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. Last week, Grossman explained that he played horribly—33 passing yards, three interceptions—in the Bears’ regular-season finale because, alas, he wasn’t really trying. This Sunday, I predict the Bears will overcome eight Grossman INTs to beat the Seahawks 28-24. (Four Devin Hester kickoff returns for TDs.) After the game, Rex will admit that he wanted Seattle to win because he felt bad about last year’s Super Bowl, that he prefers New York-style pizza, and that he shot Tank Johnson’s bodyguard. Yet Bears coach Lovie Smith will proclaim: “Rex Grossman is our quarterback.” Indeed, he is.

This year’s Bears have a lot in common with the 1997 Chiefs team that you mentioned, Chris—the team Marty Schottenheimer fouled up by playing the wrong quarterback. As you said, the 1997 Chiefs weren’t the undefeated 1972 Dolphins, and the Chiefs’ QB Elvis Grbac was no Bob Griese. The 2006 Bears aren’t the 1972 Dolphins, either—they’re more like the worst 13-3 team in NFL history. But the Bears’ backup quarterback is … Bob Griese’s son! Come on, Lovie, God’s will be done!

Before I put the Bears to rest, can we all agree that the most compelling figure in this year’s playoffs is Tank Johnson? This week, the barrel-chested Chicago defensive lineman pleaded not guilty to weapons charges resulting from a raid on his home that netted six guns and 550 rounds of ammo. As alluded to above, Tank’s friend/bodyguard/associate was murdered less than 48 hours after the December weapons raid. Earlier this year, Mr. Johnson had these kind words for a local copper: “You ain’t the only one with a Glock. If it wasn’t for your gun and your badge, I’d kick your ass.” Against all odds, Tank will play on Sunday. If I were a Seahawks offensive lineman, I’d tread very carefully.

Two Tank-related questions for you, Seth. 1) Is it possible that the 2006 Bears are, in fact, the cast of the long-awaited second season of ESPN’s groundbreaking football soap opera Playmakers? I mean, come on, “Tank Johnson”? 2) This Chicago Sun-Times profile reveals that, like Michael Jackson before him, Tank fled the mean streets of Gary, Ind., as a young boy in search of a better life. As a close M.J. watcher, do you see any parallels in the psychoses of Messrs. Jackson and Johnson?

Before I continue to bore America with thoughts on the Saints, a few quick notes on the Indy-Baltimore game. Like many fans, I think, I’m guilty of underrating the Ravens on account of my extreme loathing for their obnoxious blowhard of a coach, Brian Billick. (Now that’s a guy who I definitely wouldn’t want conjuring our Iraq strategy: “Do you think I’m arrogant when I say we’ll torch the insurgents? Who here thinks I’m arrogant?”) The truth, though, is that Baltimore leads the NFL in total defense, and Colts QB Peyton Manning has never beat a great defense in the playoffs. On account of the Colts’ awful-except-against-the-Chiefs run defense, Manning must have a huge day—I’m thinking four touchdowns—for the Colts to have a chance. I don’t think that’s going to happen, mostly because I buy the Weintraub thesis about the importance of the center. Indy center Jeff Saturday will get jostled by the Ravens’ fat-but-nimble interior linemen, Manning won’t have time to throw, and Billick will cackle his way to the AFC title game.

And now the Saints. Chris, I cannot in good conscience consider the black-and-gold’s bye week a “playoff victory.” I had the honor of attending the franchise’s only postseason win, a first-round squeaker over Kurt Warner’s Rams in 2000 in which the Saints blew a 24-point fourth-quarter lead, only to be rescued when a fullback with the mien of a small-time porn star recovered a muffed punt in the final minutes. That, my friend, was a playoff victory.

Your second question is more of a chin-scratcher: Will a loss to Philly ruin the Saints’ season for me? I’ve had a pretty good run of luck recently, sports-fan-wise: The LSU football team just finished third in the nation, the New York Mets made the 2006 NLCS, and the LSU basketball team got to the Final Four. But of those three, only the basketball Tigers’ near-miss brings me much residual pleasure. There are a bunch of reasons for this. First, the NCAA Tournament is the greatest three weeks in sports. Second, the LSU basketball team was an underdog bunch, running off a series of upsets against hyped opponents. Lastly, I suppose I’ve bought into the hype that making college hoops’ Final Four is a huge accomplishment, while reaching baseball’s final four is no big deal.

Like Major League Baseball, the NFL doesn’t glorify the last four (much less eight) teams standing—the conference championship game participants are historical footnotes. But, like the LSU hoops team, the Saints are a Cinderella team that’s repeatedly exceeded expectations. So, I think that whatever they do the rest of the way, the Saints will get a pass from me on account of their long-term futility and their current status as one of the only visible signs that post-Katrina New Orleans is alive and kicking. A loss this weekend won’t take away the home opener against the Falcons or the Reggie Bush punt return. What it will do is piss me off, a lot. Because they should really beat the Eagles.

Back over to you, Seth. If Marty Schottenheimer outcoaches Bill Belichick, who will you turn to on foreign-policy matters?