It was a cold and dreary November afternoon, the sort that puts one in mind of Thanksgiving Day football: muddy fields and messy uniforms, players like Alex Karras and Dick Butkus, Mike Lucci and Doug Buffone, Charlie Sanders and Walter Payton, Mel Gray and Mike Singletary. Something between rain and snow was falling, a sort of airborne slush, but what really made the day seem traditional in the extreme was that the Bears entered Sunday’s game at Soldier Field with a record of 4-7, the Detroit Lions with a record of 5-6–mediocre both, just like in the old days. So we stayed in and watched the game on television; we would no more have missed it than we would turn down a second helping of turkey and stuffing.
It’s been a rough season for the Bears, no doubt about it, but somehow they have avoided a complete return to the embarrassing days of coaches like Neill Armstrong, Abe Gibron, and Jim Dooley. Their season went in the tank, for all intents and purposes, when they lost a miserable 27-24 game to the New Orleans Saints in mid-October to drop to 2-5. Yet they followed with a surprising victory in Minnesota against the Vikings and then three straight solid performances. They lost two of those on the road to superior teams, in Denver to the Broncos and in Kansas City to the Chiefs, and it didn’t help matters that both weeks they had goal-line shots at a winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. Yet it didn’t hurt matters either. What it did was make watching the Bears rewarding, if not entirely worthwhile. “The Bears: not a total waste of time” might as well have become their motto, and that’s in marked contrast to the Dooley, Gibron, and Armstrong eras. Of course, we didn’t miss many Bears games back in those days either, sad to report.
So we dutifully sat down to watch the Bears Sunday, even going so far as to turn down the sound on the TV and turn on the radio to WGN to get the Bears’ partisan play-by-play, and we were immediately welcomed to a good old-fashioned National Football Conference Central Division battle. From the opening kickoff, both teams seemed to be spoiling for a fight; the hitting was severe and did not always end at the whistle. Ghosts of Butkus, Lucci, Karras, and Buffone lingered in the air like tribal Americans in that chestnut poem the Tribune no longer publishes. Yet there were a couple of noteworthy violations of convention. For one thing, the field, while slick and soggy, held firm. The uniforms got soiled but not muddy, and not exactly grass stained. They grew a dingy, pale green color, sort of the shade of green ink that’s run on a note left out in the rain. It took WGN’s Wayne Larrivee to point out that the grass stains were actually green paint stains, acquired from a field that had received a little cosmetic enhancement before the game. It was akin to discovering that a nice, moist turkey was actually one of those idiot-proof brands injected with broth at the factory.
Tradition was also violated when the game turned out to be interesting. November football, especially as played in the NFC Central, is a brutally soporific affair: three yards, a splash of mud, and maybe a tugged face mask now and then for spice. Yet this game was well played, well designed–especially on the part of the Bears–and enlivened with razzle-dazzle. No mere tryptophan would have prompted a Bears fan to drift off on this afternoon.
Coach Dave Wannstedt has come in for his share of criticism this year for overestimating the Bears’ talent and depth, but the timid, unimaginative, and seemingly ill-prepared game plans of offensive coordinator Ron Turner have been at least equally responsible for the team’s woes. Bill Walsh, the old coach of the San Francisco 49ers, used to arrive for a game prepared with a 25-play sequence that he believed would work, judging from his study of the opponents’ weaknesses. The first play, especially, was almost certain to succeed, thus getting his team and his quarterback off to a confident start. The game with the Lions was the first time this year that Turner seemed to have come to the game with such a play.
It was a hitch-and-go to Michael Timpson, complete with pump fake by quarterback Dave Krieg, and the Detroit defender bit on it the way Turner must have known he would. Timpson dashed downfield wide-open, waiting for Krieg’s pass to arrive. That took the Bears deep into Detroit territory on their first play from scrimmage, and one play later they had another blackboard success, with Timpson and Curtis Conway running parallel post patterns from the right side of the field. Conway got single coverage and snagged a Krieg pass over his far shoulder–more difficult than he made it look–to give the Bears a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
The Bears defense did not get off to such a smooth start. There was an air of desperation to it as the Bears committed four penalties, giving away 33 yards, on the Lions’ first possession. The Lions scored the tying touchdown on a quarterback sneak by Scott Mitchell. The critical play was a Donnell Woolford interception in the end zone that was rubbed out when safety Marty Carter stepped offside faking a blitz. The Bears’ luck–which has been awful all year, ranging from injuries to penalties to just plain bad calls by the referees–was running true to form.
That’s when things got wacky. Bears special-teams coach Danny Abramowicz pulled a cross-field lateral out of his bag of tricks on the ensuing kickoff. Rookie Bobby Engram fielded the ball, dashed a few steps, then threw it the width of the field to Anthony Marshall. He dashed 77 yards to the Detroit 10. “You couldna drawn it up in the dirt any better,” Dan Hampton said on the radio. Knocking at the door, the Bears pulled out yet another well-designed play. They had defensive lineman Jim Flanigan playing fullback, and one of their favorite plays out of that formation is the play-action pass with Flanigan circling out of the backfield. (He dropped the potential game-winning touchdown on just such a play in Denver.) This time, however, Flanigan circled out of the backfield, drawing coverage, and Krieg threw instead to running back Mike Faulkerson, open in the end zone. The Bears were back up 14-7.
The Lions came back on the strength of running back Barry Sanders, the man who’s struck terror into the hearts of Chicago defensive linemen for years. Sanders finished a nice drive with a sweep left that was stopped, then reversed field and ran unmolested for a touchdown. The game was tied again, 14-14.
Remarkably, it was still only the first quarter. This was not the typical Central Division mud-wrestling contest. The wide-open, west-coast style of play suited Krieg, the cagey old Seattle Seahawks castoff (and Lions castoff to boot), and he was having his best game since replacing the injured Erik Kramer early in the season. Krieg is relatively short and dumpy by the standards of NFL quarterbacks. His shoulder pads seem large, like the pads on a pee-wee leaguer, and his helmet is relatively small and snug, which makes him seem doubly diminutive. He drove the Bears again to within striking range, and hit Conway in the end zone on another post pattern. This time, however, two Lions were there to lower the boom, and Conway dropped the ball. Yet again, Turner came up with an unstoppable play on third down. He lined up three wide receivers to the right and Timpson to the left, to assure Timpson single coverage, then Krieg hit Timpson on a simple slant-in for first and goal. A couple of plays later, Krieg spun out of a blitz and hit a diving Engram with a touchdown pass to complete a 13-play, 73-yard drive.
From there the teams exchanged turnovers, with the Bears getting the best of it, two for one, and Krieg followed a Marty Carter interception by driving the Bears close enough for a 42-yard Jeff Jaeger field goal. The half ended with the Bears up 24-14, but not before the Lions tried a double lateral (the second illegal) on a makeshift improvisation of the old stepladder play. What a fitting conclusion to the Bears’ wildest 30 minutes of football of the year.
The big thing about getting ahead of the Lions is that when they fall behind by more than a touchdown, coach Wayne Fontes suddenly forgets all about Sanders. If Mike Ditka coached that team, Sanders would run the ball 40 times a game, rain or shine, ahead or behind, and the Lions would be better off for it. In Sunday’s second half, however, Sanders was a nonfactor. That made it easy on the Bears, because sidewinding quarterback Scott Mitchell, newly returned from an injury, was having an awful day. He completed almost as many passes to the Bears as he did to the Lions, but Fontes never wavered, never even thought about bringing in backup Don Majkowski, the once-renowned “Magic Man” now on his second life after being ditched by the Green Bay Packers a few years ago.
Mitchell did drive the Lions to the Bears’ 35-yard line in the third quarter. Yet the Bears stiffened, with Donnell Woolford deflecting a pass intended for Herman Moore in the end zone on third down. Looking into the wind, Fontes opted not to try an unlikely 52-yard field goal and went for it on fourth down. Another incomplete pass gave the Bears the ball. The Bears offensive line–the Jekyll and Hyde of the team, playing well two weeks before in Denver but miserably in the previous game in Kansas City–was back on its good side and began to take control of the line of scrimmage. Raymont Harris blew through a couple of big holes to take the Bears into Detroit territory, and from there Krieg just kept giving him the ball until he bulled into the end zone. The big play, though, was a fourth-and-two where Wannstedt decided to go for it. Running Harris was the logical call, but Turner called a quick pop pass to Conway over the middle. It worked, preserving the drive and setting up Harris’s touchdown.
With the slush coming down and the ball slick, the Lions never rallied and lost 31-14. The Bears, the snakebitten Bears, managed to survive a shanked five-yard punt by Todd Sauerbrun, who found himself in the ignominious position of downing his own kick, and a bad Rob Davis snap on another punt, which forced Sauerbrun to scramble for what turned out to be a first down. Wannstedt reamed Davis out good on the sideline after that play, but it was the only time he had to go to the whip down the stretch.
Talk about winning ugly: the Lions looked awful in their white road uniforms, dyed a sickly green by the sodden turf, and Wannstedt looked even worse. He had to find a hat to keep the mixed snow and rain out of his face, but the best he could come up with was a Bears cap with the brim bent over the right eyebrow, apparently salvaged from the bottom of some equipment bag. Still, the game ended with him looking up at the clock for the first time in weeks without that too-familiar pained, whipped-dog expression on his face. There’s something to be said for the right kind of mediocre. Better the steady overachieving of Wannstedt’s Bears than the erratic underachieving of Fontes’s Lions. It’s less damaging to the appetite when they lose, and when they actually play well and show some moxie, well, it’s a double scoop of whipped cream on a piece of pumpkin pie. Where the coaches themselves are concerned, it means Fontes is now bound for the slaughterhouse, while Wannstedt will live to feast another year.