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Appraising those Bears

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Take it for what it's worth: Matt Forte rushed for 166 yards Sunday against the Panthers.

You might have noticed a recent shift in the public conversation about the Bears.

Initially, it centered on whether they were a good team. Now the discussion has swerved to: ''Who cares whether they're good or not- They're 4-1!''

Well, you should care. If excellence doesn't matter, we might as well pack 70,000-seat stadiums to watch Pop Warner games. But we seek out the best, which is why we watch NFL games with a concentration level normally reserved for heart surgeons.

Many of you care only that the Bears are in first place in the NFC North, no matter how they got there. I understand that.

There's a difference between being a football fan and a Bears fan. I understand that too. You want your team to win, no matter what. But do you have to suspend brain activity to be a true-blue Bears fan-

Aside from a lockdown defense, it's ridiculous to say we've seen much in the way of excellence out of this team.

The fashionable argument for the Bears being legit is that nobody in the NFL is very good right now. But just because few teams are playing particularly well, it doesn't necessarily follow that the Bears are good.

If you went to a string of mediocre movies, would you begin to think that mediocre movies are good- No, you'd start to wonder what was wrong with Hollywood.

We have eyes

Most of us know a good team when we see one. We knew last year's Blackhawks team was great, and we know this year's team will be very good, at a minimum. This year's Bulls team will be good. You didn't need a PhD in basketball to know the Jordan Bulls were dominant or an advanced degree in football to know the '85 Bears were going to trample everything in their path.

This version of the Bears insists it's good, and lots of Bears fans are starting to identify with their captors.

On Wednesday, I asked Jay Cutler if he believes the Bears are a good football team.

''Yes. You might not, but that doesn't really matter to us,'' he said. ''We're 4-1. The locker room, everyone's good.

''We're playing good football. Are we playing our best football- No. I don't think anybody is. I don't think you really want to be playing your best football now. That's November and December when you really start peaking.''

Cutler has been cleared to play against the Seahawks on Sunday, which is good news for the Bears and Todd Collins. The doctors who examined Cutler say the concussion he suffered 11 days ago is a thing of the past.

But what about the offensive line that was largely responsible for his getting sacked nine times against the Giants- Why should anyone believe that Cutler won't be running for his life again Sunday-

Why should he believe it-

''We're kind of moving some guys around,'' he said. ''We've got some guys banged up. Hopefully, we'll get Chris Williams back here pretty soon. This whole offense is kind of going through change and still figuring out what we're good at, what we need to work on.

''But the good thing is we're 4-1, and we keep winning ballgames while we're figuring it out.''

The Bears are moving Williams from left tackle to left guard, which has a whiff of desperation to it. But how could a 4-1 team be desperate-

We're going to have to see a trajectory from this team soon. The Bears have found ways to win, but there hasn't been improvement every week. After the miserable loss to the Giants, were the Bears an improved team Sunday in Carolina- Or were the Panthers just short of pathetic- The latter is the correct answer.

''It's starting to feel like college,'' defensive tackle Tommie Harris said. ''When you're a top team, you get the best shot of everyone.''

Sure. And Matt Forte is suddenly great because he ran for 166 yards against the Panthers.

Drinking the Bears' Kool-Aid

This Bears team makes you ask questions. What does it mean to be a fan- Does it mean you have to root for your team at all costs- Does it mean you have to love the product on the field or else you're not a fan-

If the answer to the last two questions is a resounding yes, there wouldn't seem to be much room in town for a discriminating fan.

Even we doubters can look at the schedule and see that the Bears have a good chance of being 7-1 at the halfway point of the season. After the Seahawks, they have the Redskins at home and the Bills in Toronto. There's a bye week in there, too.

When those first eight games are done, there's a good chance discerning observers will be asking the same question: Are the Bears good-