They have been fond of saying they were the best 0-4, 1-7, 2-8 team in the league, which doesn't go very far when you continue to lose.
Now at 3-8 after Sunday's 13-10 victory over Tampa Bay at Soldier Field, the Bears can keep that claim going with a little more credibility behind it.
The question is whether they are nearing respectability or embracing mediocrity.
With two victories in their last three games against teams with winning records and a 3-4 record over their last seven games, Bears players want to believe they are on an upward course. As for their defense, it would be hard to argue.
In yielding a season-low 10 points Sunday, the Bears have limited opposing offenses to 13 points or less in three of their last four games. The Bears also had a season-high four sacks and two interceptions and held Tampa Bay to 60 yards passing (just 10 in the second half), also the defense's best effort this season.
While the offense started its third different quarterback, the defense carried the load by scoring on Tony Parrish's interception return and crushing the Bucs' final drive with Brian Urlacher's interception at the Bears' 21-yard line.
In each of their three victories, the Bears have relied on defensive scores.
"We knew all along we had the makings of a good defense," said cornerback Walt Harris, who forced the fourth-quarter fumble that led to Paul Edinger's decisive 48-yard field goal. "It was just a matter of time. And now to go out and play better than Tampa, which has a great defense, really says a lot about us and where we're heading."
In ending a six-game losing streak against the Bucs (6-5) and avenging a 41-0 loss to Tampa Bay in the second game of the season, the Bears extended the Bucs' sub-40-degree losing streak to 18 games. But Bucs players and coaches were as loathe to blame that factor as the Bears were to credit it.
"I wouldn't want to taint their victory with any talk about the weather," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "Conditions were very nice out there. We just didn't get the job done."
For the record, the game-time temperature was 37 degrees, and the last time the Bears beat the Bucs, in November of 1997, it was 29 degrees. If anything, the swirling winds evened the playing field between one quarterback who had been on a hot streak of late, Shaun King, and another who was starting his first game in nearly a year, Shane Matthews.
Both struggled with the elements, though Matthews scored points with his fellow players and coaches, if not on the scoreboard, by making no errors and staying on the field long enough to enable the Bears' defense to go to work.
"Especially with the windy conditions, we just tried to play smart, field-position football," Matthews said. "They didn't give us a lot of big plays. It's the best defense I've ever faced. You don't have much time."
The Bears led 10-3 in the first half on a 34-yard field goal by Edinger, who also missed a 38-yarder, and Parrish's 38-yard interception return. Their biggest regret of the half was losing center Olin Kreutz for the game with a sprained right knee. But the Bucs had worries of their own, losing running back Mike Alstott to a sprained knee and safety John Lynch to a separated shoulder.
"When Alstott got hurt it was a big blow for them," defensive end Bryan Robinson said. "They can pound the ball and pound the ball, and you just can't do that with Warrick Dunn. He's not the type of player who's going to get 30, 35 carries a game."
King picked up that slack, mostly by scrambling for 72 yards in 11 carries, including a 9-yard touchdown run in the third quarter made possible when rookie safety Mike Brown missed a tackle at the line.
"We're still making mistakes, but guys are making big plays now to overshadow the mistakes," tackle Mike Wells said. "Those things happen win or lose. It's just so nice to win. If a guy gets juked and falls down, you can kind of laugh about it. That's not funny when you lose. It's the reason you lost the game when you lose."
Missed tackles were one of the many reasons the defense contributed to early-season losses, and it was evidently worse than they let on.
"We've made a lot of improvements from the beginning of the year," tackle Jim Flanigan said. "The biggest thing that hurt us early was mistakes--lining up wrong, running the wrong defenses, a lot of missed tackles.
"We had a lot today also, but I'm glad to see the mental part of the game has come around to where we can run more blitzes and do more stuff. We were limited there in the middle of the year. We had to scale back a lot of our defense because we made so many mistakes. Young guys, new guys--we kept hurting ourselves, and now we have a little more confidence and we're able to execute our blitzes and stunts better."
The young guys, notably Urlacher, are leading the way with big plays on a consistent basis. It was Urlacher's interception and 19-yard return on first down from the Bears' 40-yard line that sealed the victory with about 2 minutes 10 seconds left. "I'm so glad he's on my side," Wells said. "He's making plays left and right."
Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache said the potential for continued improvement is there. "If they realize how good they can be, they can be a much better defense right now," he said. "They're just starting to get an idea what of they're capable of doing . . . If they looked at how good they can be and did the little things consistently, they can be pretty darn good."
More than that, say the players of whom he is speaking, a certain attitude, if not out-and-out brashness, is starting to develop.
"Teams come in here and underestimate us," Phillip Daniels said. "They come in here and see our record and think they can run all over us. But they have to realize, we're the Bears and we're not going to stop fighting. We're not going to give up anything to anybody."
Bears 13, Buccaneers 10