Just in time, the Bears rediscovered the draw play.
In their comeback win against the New York Giants two Sundays ago they used it to convert a third-and-22 near the end of a first half in which they’d looked outmatched. Thomas Jones’s gallop led to a touchdown that put them within three points of the Giants at intermission. Chicago took a quick lead in the second half and never looked back.
The impact of Jones’s run on the Giants went far beyond the 26 yards he gained. The draw is used to thwart a blitz or an overaggressive pass rush. The offensive linemen drop back as if to block for a pass, but instead they block their men sideways to open a hole for the running back. A bit of deception is necessary, for the runner is late receiving the ball from the quarterback. That’s why the play, sometimes called a delay, is risky–a blitzing linebacker shooting a gap can snuff the run or even tackle the quarterback before the handoff. Yet executed properly the draw is a powerful tool–it keeps the pass rush honest.
The Bears used to run it exquisitely with Walter Payton. A ferocious blocker, Payton could stay put without automatically signaling a ruse. And when he took off with the ball, the pass rush pushed aside and the defensive secondary dropping deep against the pass, he usually had ample room to maneuver. The draw actually became something of a crutch for the overly cautious Mike Ditka. When the Bears found themselves third and long, odds were that Ditka would call the draw. It never worked as well after Payton retired, and its status lapsed in the Bears’ playbook.
But a draw was just what the moment required against the Giants at the Meadowlands. As Jones is a solid blocker, no alarms went off when he stayed by quarterback Rex Grossman as if to protect him. Then he got the ball, slipped through a hole in the line, shook off a couple of hip tackles, and was gone. The Giants’ pass rush became more tentative and Grossman soon hit Mark Bradley with a touchdown pass. And that’s the way the second half went too. Grossman had time to pass, and when he wasn’t handing off to Jones he was deceiving the Giants with the draw’s opposite, the play-action pass, a pass that first looks like a run. The Bears won going away, 38-20, helped mightily by Devin Hester’s ultimate deception: he faked downing a missed field goal in the end zone and then ran it back 108 yards for the touchdown that broke the game open.
Despite Grossman’s firepower in the second half, the game seemed to signal a significant change in the Bears’ offensive philosophy. Grossman has been either brilliant or inept, rarely anything in between, and he’s shown himself vulnerable to both nerves and pressure–which should be expected of someone yet to play his 20th game as a pro. In the Bears’ one loss, pressure from the Miami Dolphins’ defense kept Grossman out of rhythm and made him rush his throws. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner seems to have realized that for all Grossman’s promise, Jones and the Bears’ offensive line are more reliable. So when the Bears returned to the Meadowlands Sunday to play the other New York team, the Jets, the emphasis was again on Jones.
That’s probably as it should have been all along. After all, the Bears won 13 games last year with an offense that consisted of Jones and a quarterback, Kyle Orton, whose orders were not to screw things up. But Jones had issues with the coaching staff over missing “voluntary” summer practice sessions, and then he pulled a hamstring early in training camp, so he was demoted to second string as running was demoted to the offense’s secondary weapon. The coaches were enamored of Grossman, expecting him to elevate the Bears to Super Bowl contention–he may yet play that role–and Jones slipped behind hotshot sophomore Cedric Benson on the depth chart. I recall seeing him off on his own at the Soldier Field practice session this summer. While the rest of the offense ran plays at one end of the field Jones was at the other, trotting from sideline to sideline, cutting lightly back and forth as if eluding defenders. He wore a cap pulled low on his forehead and a cutaway jersey that revealed his six-pack abs, and every step seemed purposeful and deliberate. This was a pro. It was only a matter of time before he’d reestablish his prominence.
Having run for 113 yards against the Giants, Jones was again the Bears’ primary offensive weapon against the Jets. Grossman was having another off day, though to his credit he seemed to realize it and didn’t force things. When he wasn’t misfiring to receivers he simply handed the ball off to Jones. The Bears were outplayed but got out of the first half in a scoreless tie, thanks to Brian Urlacher’s interception in the end zone. The Jets’ rash young coach, Eric Mangini, tried to surprise the Bears with an onside kickoff to open the second half, but the Bears recovered the ball in good field position and Jones ran the first play for 18 yards. Every play of this drive was put in his hands, and though he couldn’t convert a first-and-goal from the four yard line, a field goal put the Bears up 3-0. Now it was the Jets and quarterback Chad Pennington who seemed rattled, while the Bears just kept running the ball. With Benson in the game to give Jones a breather at the end of the third quarter, the Jets pulled their safeties up to stop the run and Bradley ran a simple buttonhook. He caught the pass from Grossman as the Jets’ cornerback fell, then turned and sped 57 yards for the game’s only touchdown. The 10-0 lead stood; Jones finished with 121 yards.
Grossman’s firepower might still be what distinguishes this year’s contenders from last year’s also-rans, but as the season wears on and his inexperience shows, Jones and the reliable running game seem to be setting up Grossman’s passing, not vice versa. At the end of the season Bears fans might look back and say that what defined this team wasn’t the emergence of Grossman at quarterback but the refusal of Jones to surrender his job.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim McIsaac/Getty Images.