Steve McMichael used to talk with dread about having to play the Lions “on that damn carpet up there” at the Pontiac Silverdome outside Detroit. He knew that Barry Sanders ran that rug like a windup mouse–turning, twisting, spinning, and forever finding one way or another to race toward the goal line. That was several years ago, however. The frightening thing about Sanders now is that he runs that rug better than ever. The fast-playing surface of the Silverdome certainly helped his early career, as he ran for 1,470 yards in his rookie year and led the National Football League in rushing in his second season out of Oklahoma State, in 1990. Yet artificial turf should exact a cost over the years, in wear and tear on the legs and in hard tackles. When the Bears went to Detroit for the Lions’ annual Thanksgiving Day game last week, Sanders looked as spry as ever. What’s more, he seemed more skilled than ever in seeing the entire field–the trademark of greats in every sport, from Earvin “Magic” Johnson in basketball to Wayne Gretzky in hockey–in using his blockers, and in cutting the corners with the efficiency of a veteran.
What happened was, I tuned in expecting to write a postmortem on the Bears’ dismal season and found Sanders in the process of performing it, slicing up the Chicago defense as the dead carcass it is and laying open all the Bears’ flaws. Greatness demands attention; instead of concentrating on the present-day Bears I returned to my last column, on the NFL’s greats, and noted Sanders’s painful omission. When he manufactured a 25-yard touchdown run against the Bears–one of three touchdowns he scored, this put the game away, giving the Lions a 34-20 lead–he moved past Eric Dickerson into second on the all-time rushing list behind Walter Payton. Payton has 16,726 lifetime yards to Sanders’s 13,319 at this point, but Sanders shows no signs of slowing down. Unlike Dickerson, who seemed to be mounting a serious challenge to Payton only to suffer a precipitous drop-off in his ninth season, Sanders in his ninth year looks in many ways better than ever. If he keeps racking up yardage at the current pace–and I mean his overall pace this season, not his almost ten yards a carry against the Bears–he will not only catch Payton in about two years but also approach Jim Brown’s sacred 5.2 lifetime rushing average. All along, Sanders has been playing with respect for his opponents and humility for his talents, handing the ball to referees or simply dropping it after every score, instead of spiking it or, in the manner of Emmitt Smith, tucking it away in some trunk like a miser’s riches. Humbly and without drawing excess attention to himself, Sanders has done everything. He is about to be acknowledged the greatest runner of all time.
If there were a team with a vested interest in halting or at least slowing Sanders’s race to the record book, it would figure to be Payton’s own Bears. Yet this year’s team bears so little resemblance to the Monsters of the Midway, whether in the original 40s incarnation or in the 80s version, that any franchise pride seems to have long since been cast out the window. For those, unlike me, who succeeded in putting the Bears from their minds for good earlier this season, here is an unfortunate but necessary review. Their march to a winless campaign was halted with a Monday-night victory in Miami in October, a determined but scabby 36-33 overtime win that left them 1-7. After that brief sign of life, they looked utterly dead the next week, losing to the Washington Redskins 31-8. Two barely respectable losses later, they beat the up-and-coming Tampa Bay Buccaneers 13-7 in Soldier Field, although they owed at least as much to circumstances beyond their control–beginning with the weather–as they did to their own grit and skill.
The Bucs, for all their improvement, came in without a victory in franchise history in a game played in weather below 40 degrees. The temperature at game time was in the mid-30s, and it never did rise very much. The cold-fingered Bucs fumbled on two of their first three plays from scrimmage, and the Bears turned the mistakes into a 10-0 first-quarter lead. With the Bucs never able to get a grip on their offense, and the Bears defense for once playing with determination, the lead held, the big play coming on a fourth and two with two minutes to play as the Bucs drove for a potential winning touchdown. Trent Dilfer passed to Mike Alstott in the flat, but Barry Minter popped him good to stand him up, and Walt Harris closed in to keep him from lunging for the first down. The Bears held on for the victory.
The following Thursday’s game, against Detroit, had an equally promising beginning. The Lions defensive line manhandled the Bears on the first series, resulting in a quick punt, but the Bears stopped Sanders on his first two runs to force a return punt. On the Bears’ second possession, quarterback Erik Kramer read a blitz coming and barely got off a quick toss over the middle to wide receiver Ricky Proehl on a crossing pattern. The Lions were caught with nobody in the area, and Proehl ran the ball all the way down to the Detroit 12. Three crisp runs later, Raymont Harris scored. On the Bears’ next possession, rookie Detroit cornerback Kevin Abrams simply stopped covering Proehl on a down and out. Kramer hit him wide open, and he ran in for a 14-0 lead.
The Lions turned a long kick return by Glyn Milburn into a field goal to get on the board, but the Bears responded in kind. Yet this series offered the pivotal play of the game, a draw on third and long that the Lions snuffed. Jeff Jaeger hit the 52-yard field goal, but with their timid play calling the Bears seemed to have conceded the initiative to the Lions.
The swing of momentum was gradual. The Lions drove to midfield, then pinned the Bears down on their one yard line with a perfect punt. The cautious Bears went nowhere, and surrendered ball and field position to the Lions. They scored easily, quarterback Scott Mitchell hitting tall Herman Moore over Harris with a lofted pass to make the game 17-10. The Bears drove back, but again conservative play calling led to a mere field goal. The 20-10 lead would have been fine if the defense had been up to defending it. Yet the Lions marched into Chicago territory, then ran Sanders on a draw. With the Bears and Raymont Harris, the draw is a concession of weakness, an acknowledgment of timidity; with the Lions and Sanders it’s a lethal weapon. He zigzagged through the Bears defense, seeming to pass within arm’s reach of every Chicago player on the field, en route to a 40-yard touchdown. Afterward coach Dave Wannstedt said the defense had been expecting the draw to Sanders. Too bad: if the Bears had been caught unawares they might have tackled him by accident. After that run came the deluge. But first the Bears couldn’t make up their minds whether to run out the clock or run the two-minute drill. (Somehow Kramer had gotten through almost the entire first half without wasting a time-out, so the Bears had all three available.) A Detroit penalty and a couple of easy pass completions jump-started the Bears, but then Kramer fumbled in Detroit territory–a sign of what was to come.
The Lions tied the game right away with a field goal in the second half. The Bears were three and out when Kramer hit a stationary Tony Carter over the middle short of the first-down marker. On the Lions’ next play, Mitchell hit Moore on a square-out, and the receiver spun, lost his man, and dived for the first down. It seems some teams–unlike the Bears–are taught to do things right. The Bears blitzed, but the Lions picked it up and kept the running backs in to block; Mitchell had all day and hit wide-open Johnnie Morton on a post pattern for a 50-yard touchdown pass to put the Lions ahead for good, 27-20. The Bears were three and out again, but this time Kramer decided to forgo a punt. His lost fumble on third down led to Sanders’s 25-yard touchdown run that put him ahead of Dickerson.
The Bears squandered a rare good kickoff return by Tyrone Hughes and an interception by Tom Carter. They went three and out on five straight possessions, counting Kramer’s third-down fumble, and Jaeger missed a 45-yard field goal in there somewhere. Meanwhile, the desperate defense kept blitzing up the middle and the Lions kept handling it. Simple slant blocking freed Sanders to race around the corner off tackle for about 20 yards, and he followed with another touchdown on a draw play, this one from 15 yards out, to make it 41-20. He was through for the afternoon, at least leaving Payton’s record of 275 yards rushing in a single game intact. Minter later said it was like driving a Chevy pickup truck and watching a Lamborghini cruise by.
The Bears of McMichael and Dan Hampton and Mike Singletary never made stopping Sanders look easy–it always seemed to take the utmost in effort and strategy–but they usually managed to do it, by getting upfield, penetrating the Lions offensive line, and, barring that, by staying home to plug holes. That sort of ability is lacking on this team, and the very idea of playing defense with discipline seems foreign to the desperate, blitz-happy bunch. If it seems unfair to compare today’s Bears with those, consider the way these Bears proceeded to make Sanders’s backup, Ron Rivers, look like Sanders himself on another 13-yard touchdown run to make the score 48-20. When Chicago backup quarterback Steve Stenstrom–who probably should have seen action after Kramer’s third-quarter fumble–proceeded to throw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, the score rose to 55-20, the Bears’ worst losing margin of this awful season (2-11 and counting) and the most points the Bears ever have given up in a game.
This was the game that cemented my opinion that Wannstedt–whatever his good points, as a football tactician and a human being–is no coach for the Bears. Not only is he a poor judge of talent, the team displays no flair for tactics of any sort. Yet if the Bears have lost all sense of tradition on the field, they still have some in the front office. Owner Mike McCaskey doesn’t exactly throw nickels around like manhole covers, but neither does he cast $3 million–his remaining commitment to Wannstedt–to the breeze. Remember, George Halas brought back Jim Dooley after the 1-13 campaign in 1969, and now it seems McCaskey is determined to welcome the sins of Papa Bear when they’re visited upon himself by bringing back Wannstedt. The fans will be left with memories of greatness to console them as Sanders overtakes Payton, which should happen in two or three years unless the Lions somehow squeeze in an extra game or two with the Bears, in which case it will happen sooner.