By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) The pregame shows were more insufferable than usual.
How will Chicago Bears fans receive Lovie Smith in his return to Soldier Field? What about his former players that love him so?
Do you think this game has a greater meaning for Smith or Marc Trestman? Let’s compare records and stats since Smith’s departure.
How devastating a loss would it be for Bears fans? Would they be better off with Smith?
I had to get away. The takes were too hot to swim in. Just as I flipped the channel to some Joel Osteen saccharine ambient noise, I heard Mike Ditka garbling something about locker room leadership, and it reminded me that I needed to defrost the tub of Italian beef in my freezer.
My pregame brunch was fairly simple: Polish chorizo and eggs. I made sure to leave room for the beef as thermodynamics took its course in the kitchen sink.
Play-by-play man Thom Brennaman’s dulcet tones greeted me as I made my return to pigskin coverage, and I knew at least he of all people was professional enough not to try to add any more gravitas to a matchup of losing football teams. The superfluous “h” stands for “humility.”
The Bears won the coin toss and deferred. In the chilly drizzle amid what was only 10 degrees above Bears weather, Robbie Gould didn’t quite get the best plant on his opening kickoff, and it fell into the returner’s arms a few feet shy of the end zone. Ten seconds later the Buccaneers had first down on the Chicago 23-yard line with a wake of scattered and slipping Bears special teamers.
Josh “McGowan,” as analyst David Diehl introduced him, trotted onto the field to the tune of an on-screen graphic showing his stats with his old team and pregame footage of him hugging Jay Cutler during warmups. After the Bucs gained eight yards on a 24 Dive call, McCown found his tight end in the end zone for a 15-yard score. Chris Conte arrived in time to put his helmet in the receiver’s ribs as he held the ball up in celebration.
The beef in the sink was still rock solid.
New Bears returner Marc Mariani took the ensuing kickoff all the way to his own 17-yard line, and it was Cutler’s turn to respond to the smiley, tow-headed menace who had never fully left town, even if he was now in a different sad joke of a uniform. Tampa had been giving up 118 rushing yards a game, so naturally, Chicago passed on its first three plays because, hey, unorthodoxy.
A fair catch on the punt left McGowan and crew with 60 wet, sloppy yards to make out with. And, oh, did they tongue-kiss them. After a 30-yard interference penalty on Ryan Mundy, the Bears defense made a noble stand in stopping the next three plays. The Patrick Murray kick sailed just wide right, and momentum seemed to have shifted the Bears way.
Except for a bright yellow glaring, festering sore lying in the backfield. Roughing the kicker gave Tampa a fresh set of downs, but the Bucs only needed one as Doug Martin scampered around missed tackles for the score. Cameras immediately cut to Cutler, his ennui a slap in the face to every fan demanding to know why he hadn’t volunteered to play defene and stop that Tampa touchdown. McCowan would. Just saying.
And the beef hadn’t thawed.
Coming back from commercial with a shot of a deep dish pizza being removed from an oven, the Bears’ next drive was methodical. They moved slowly but surely with Matt Forte chunks and five-yard screen passes that would justify their otherwise failures two out of three times. The conservative nature of it all was like a remix of a Lovie jam of yesteryear. Three points later, and Smith had lost his precious shutout, and the Gould children were in no danger of going hungry this week.
I avoided directly absorbing the halftime studio jabber of how Cutler and Trestman were at risk of losing a city to its former beloved sons, Smith and McCullen. Some warm water was run over the tub of beef that hadn’t lost its solid state seemingly in the least, and I heard in the next room a Louisiana drawl describe a quarterback’s smile-to-touchdown ratio.
A hot dog would recharge me for the second half. And like Trestman throwing caution to the wind, I defied tradition and lathered it in ketchup.
Maybe it was the ignored expiration date on the Vienna Beef neon green relish jar, but the next 30 minutes of football were a hallucination mixed with a blur mixed with bad gas. The Bears abandoned the run to play ketchup … catsup… catch-up, and despite 280 yards and two touchdowns, Cutler had a costly interception returned to the house and a fumble lost late that left him limping heavily off the field. Word was he would have an MRI the next day. Demonic whispers of “Santa Clausen” danced in my head and the room swirled.
The beef lay in the sink, the coating of frost now thicker than before. As though the frost fed off of the negative energy in the house.
Tampa Bay scored a season-high 38 points to the Bears’ 24. As he walked off the field, Lovie Smith was asked how he felt returning to Chicago and getting the win. He gave his banal platitudes in typical Lovie fashion, but there was the faintest hint of a smile on his face, as though he were channeling his forbidden middle fingers into the camera. Into my soul.
I ran into my alley in my underwear, unshowered and unforgiven, and hurled the tub of solid beef into the garbage can, poured gasoline over the can as I giggled while crying, lit a match and walked away. Back in the house shivering, though not from the temperature, a final graphic crossed my TV screen comparing that day’s stats of Cutler and Josh McMahon. Cutler’s were overall better, but he wasn’t a winner.
I woke suddenly in a pool of sweat. My clock radio alarm belted out a familiar voice. Hey, gang, it’s Da Coach, and I wanna tell you about…
It was just a dream, I thought as I sat up panting and gathering in reality. My mouth was a desert, and I shuffled to the kitchen for a drink of water.
And there it was.
The cinderblock tub of roast beef. That doorstop to the gates of hell. Sitting, laughing in the sink.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @TimBaffoe.