It’s the ultimate optimist/pessimist question: Will Soldier Field be a quarter full or three-quarters empty when the 2-9 Bears play host to the 1-10 49ers on Sunday?
It’s possible I’m overstating the disgust level of the team’s fan base and exaggerating how small the crowd will be. The Bears and 49ers are fighting for the second overall pick in next year’s draft. What says “Let’s tailgate!” more than that? And now that San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has weighed in on Fidel Castro’s legacy, maybe he’ll commandeer the public-address system and enlighten us about supply-side economics or the Asia pivot strategy. That possibility could attract a few more people.
You reap what you sow. Bad football should lead to low attendance. There should be a price to pay for the Bears, a reckoning, even if most of the tickets are already sold and ownership is still making its money. But when fans don’t show up, it looks awful, and the McCaskeys, who seem to care about the franchise’s image, couldn’t have been happy that Soldier Field was half-empty for the loss to the Titans on Sunday.
The Bears have gone from 10-6 in 2012 to 8-8 in 2013 to 5-11 in 2014 to 6-10 in 2015 to another bad season in progress, this one hiding behind a bunch of injuries. Barring some miracle involving a laying-on of hands and the spinning of the sun, the Bears will not make the playoffs this season. That will be nine of 10 seasons without a playoff appearance.
In terms of attendance, the only thing that has saved the Bears from more embarrassment this season has been favorable weather. It has been uncommonly mild. Even the forecast for the 49ers game, a high of 40 with a chance of rain and snow, is comfortable by December standards in Chicago.
On Nov. 16, 1997, as the Bears were on their way to their 10th loss in 11 games, fans had seen enough during a brutally cold meeting with the Jets. At halftime, with the windchill dipping to minus-5, they hurried for the exits. Considering that there already were 21,302 no-shows, it made for a very empty Soldier Field. It also made for a very angry fan base, whose team was on its way to the first of two straight 4-12 seasons. Sound familiar?
“It starts with ownership,’’ one fan told me.
That sounds familiar too.
Nothing changes. Oh, the McCaskeys bring in new people to find players and to coach, but the losing continues. The franchise can’t even hire the right people to hire the right people. The constants are the McCaskeys and president Ted Phillips, who has been with the Bears for 33 years. Remember when owner Virginia McCaskey essentially fired her son, Michael, as president after he blew the hiring of Dave McGinnis as head coach in 1999? A firing of that magnitude is not likely to happen again. The McCaskeys see each other and Phillips as vital cogs. Then they all go back to bumping into the furniture.
It’s why the Bears continue to be bad and why the seating sections at Soldier Field will look patchy Sunday. Fans are sending a message by their absence, and good for them. But until they stop paying for season tickets, it’s a message heard only faintly by ownership.
It would be nice if we could put the Bears in receivership – not because they’ve declared bankruptcy but because they’re bankrupt of football smarts at the top. If only we could find a custodian to take the franchise out of the hands of the McCaskeys and build a winning team. Clearly, they have no idea how to do this. There is no bigger problem than that.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry that people have spent the past few days parsing Matt Barkley’s performance against the Titans. It’s the kind of smoke-and-mirrors exercise that is so like the Bears: Forget about the terrible product on the field; we might have found ourselves a No. 2 quarterback for next season!
And rather than understanding the importance of losing to the Titans for the purpose of getting a better draft position, we spend our time breaking down what went wrong against Tennessee. Together, the 10 dropped passes were treated like a first-degree felony. Hello, Bears fans? At this point, you want receivers to drop passes. The prize is the highest draft pick possible next season, not a victory that has no meaning.
I know: You don’t like looking at ugly football, no matter the circumstances. There’s your answer: Stop looking.