In the second quarter of last Sunday’s game, before the score got out of hand, the Detroit Lions’ quarterback, Chuck Long, dropped back quickly to pass. It was a short drop; he looked, found his man, and fired the ball. Pete Mandley, perhaps the most dangerous of a dangerous corps of receivers, was wide open a few yards from the goal line. No Bear was within ten yards of him. A touchdown would tie the score at 14, after the Bears had led–just as they had in the Denver game the previous Monday night–14-0. Long, however, overthrew the pass. Most fans in the stands, I imagine, were too busy spilling coffee on their laps to notice the reaction of Mike Ditka, but those watching on television saw a replay an instant later. Ditka, dressed in a suit, wearing his mirrored sunglasses, looked like a not-too-undercover detective waiting for a crime to happen. Only his Bears’ sweater indicated otherwise. He followed the path of the ball down the sideline. When it passed over Mandley’s head, there was no sigh of relief, no looking to heaven to praise God, only a turn of the body to face defensive coordinator Vince Tobin and a slight raise of the hands as if to say, “What was that?” Tobin, rattled, with his hat on backward and the headphones over his ears, looked every bit the sidekick, Ditka’s comic relief, Huntz Hall or, to update the simile, Judge Reinhold to Ditka’s stiff straight man. Jaw hanging not-so-firmly below his upper lip, he shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Gee, Boss, I doan know.”
It’s strange, once again, how sports mirrors real life. The crisis in confidence for the Bears’ defense followed quickly upon the crisis on Wall Street, and although some might say I care too little about the stock market or too much about the Bears, I’d say the two events made me feel about the same. Both the stock market and the Bears can operate without the concern or involvement of Joe Sixpack, but when the stock market crashes Joe knows that–by some small increment–his job is no longer as safe as it once was. The Bears do not have the same eventual, inevitable effect on working stiffs, but in recent weeks their fans have felt the same disconcerting lack of confidence. All that was solid was suddenly melting into air, as the Bears’ defense gave up mountains of points to the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs–while the offense saved the day in both cases–then lost a game against the only team of any quality they’ve played since the strike, the Denver Broncos. The stock crash didn’t cause the Bears’ crisis, but its effect on the fans was similar, and many a tout was wise to buy gold rather than bet that the Bears would cover the spread.
Because the Bears’ fans love their defense. Jim McMahon is an interesting character, and he and Ditka will keep the television sportscasters and newspaper columnists entertained during the week, but the fan who goes to see the Bears–the one with season tickets–goes to watch the defense, to watch the Bears crush the opposition, for the eventual, inevitable Sack Time toward the end of another rout. Chess champion Bobby Fischer, once asked to explain his approach to the game, said, “I like to see ’em squirm.” The Bears’ fans approach football in the same manner. Nothing less than total domination will do.
That is not what they have seen in recent weeks. The Bears’ defense gave up yardage in chunks, as they had on only scattered occasions in the last three years–against the Los Angeles Rams on a Monday night last year, and against the Washington Redskins in the playoffs last January. Both these games ended in losses that left us dazed. What had happened to the defense? How did the opposition move the ball so effectively when others had been so stifled? Those games were one thing; when the Chiefs and Packers started moving the ball on the Bears, that was something else again. The Rams beat the Bears with some carefully chosen passes that suddenly freed up the running game. The Redskins did it similarly but more effectively: they threw short left, they threw short right, then they rammed the ball up the middle. The Chiefs and the Packers, however, found receivers wide open in the seams of Tobin’s zone defense, they had all day to pass, and having passed they had no difficulty running. Then, when the Bears’ defense was struggling to get back on its feet, it had to face the Broncos and John Elway, the quarterback who seems almost designed to beat the Bears, the one who can improvise as quickly and as well as even the Bears can when they’re at their best. It was as if Merrill Lynch had gone on television on Black Monday night and said that they were selling and anyone who had any brains would do the same. Elway danced away from the clutches of doom in the Bears’ pass rush, he fired the ball downfield to spots where he knew there would be no Bears, where coach Dan Reeves had designed the pass routes. When it seemed the Bears would finally grab him, he found a receiver coming back to help and put the ball there on his numbers.
It seemed nothing less than a total breakdown, a crash of the system. It’s no wonder that, with stock prices falling and budget talks proceeding in Washington, the Bears’ crash was described in the sports pages as a crisis of confidence. It turned out that the thing holding up stock prices was the same ineffable material that was holding the Bears’ defense together–confidence.
The Detroit Lions are not only the worst team in the Bears’ division; they are one of the worst teams in football. But the Kansas City Chiefs, after playing the Bears tough, had gone on to prove that they were perhaps the Lions’ main challenger for the booby prize, so we approached the game last Sunday with trepidation. Would the defense hold? Could it dominate the line of scrimmage? In the first series the answer was yes. The television cameras, as if clued in on the immediate future, were watching Richard Dent from the beginning. He was opposite Lions tackle Lomas Brown, and it was obvious from the beginning that at some point in the afternoon Dent would end the Bears’ sack drought if no one else did. (The streak was now ten quarters without a quarterback sack.) Announcer Terry Bradshaw read, correctly, that Brown was making Dent work against himself by pushing his usual wide arcing path toward the quarterback even wider, pushing him outside, but Bradshaw thought Brown could do that all afternoon, and anyone who knows Dent knew that would not be the case. Eventually, with help from William Perry, Dent did end the drought.
The Lions started their second possession on their own four-yard line, after the Bears’ offense had sputtered on a penalty and punted from midfield. Where a year or, especially, two years ago we would have been thinking safety, now we were only thinking, “Let’s hold ’em.” The Lions, however, earned a quick first down on an open pass against the zone. They then turned the ball over as Maurice Douglass–the Bears’ new nickel back, or fifth defensive back on passing downs–had his man covered and tipped the ball into the air. Shaun Gayle came down with it and ran down the sideline for the touchdown. Not only had the defense taken the ball away, it had put points on the board, and that, I said to myself, was the key to covering the 14-point spread.
Later in the quarter, the Lions opened a hole in the Bears’ line, and Mike Singletary met the ball-carrier one on one. As often happens in this situation, Singletary forced a fumble. First one Bear, then another, then another scratched at the football, trying to scoop it up on the run and turn in another touchdown. A more conservative or, some would say, a better-coached football team would have fallen on the ball and turned it over to the offense. Yet the great strength of the great Bears seemed to be that no human–except perhaps Buddy Ryan–was capable of coaching them. They were marauders barely under control. So this week, in their haste, the Bears allowed the Lions to recover: the ball squirted free from a circle of Bears and the Lions’ tight end fell on it. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I thought that this was a sign of confidence within the Bears’ defense, that they should be thinking touchdown rather than simple recovery, that they were not playing sound football but Bears football. I imagine it was not unlike interpreting a $14 billion monthly trade deficit as a good omen. In the second quarter, however, the Lions got better field position, and they moved the ball. Long began to hit his receivers, and he burned Mike Richardson for a touchdown pass to Mandley. The Bears had taken a 14-0 lead, as they had against the Broncos, and as in that game the defense was now squandering it. Long moved the Lions again, and had he hit the wide-open Mandley on the pass that had Ditka looking askance at Tobin, the score would have been tied at 14. Given new life, however, the defense stiffened, forcing the Lions to kick a field goal. Then the offense took over.
McMahon, who finally seemed to have remembered the pass routes after some doubtful tosses to nobody in the first quarter, led the team on an 80-yard drive that boded well for the second half. He led the team to another drive and a field goal, then retired with an injury in the Bears’ last possession of the half. Mike Tomczak worked an excellent two-minute drill with no time-outs, however, and Kevin Butler kicked his third field goal in three attempts to give the Bears a 27-10 lead at the half. The Bears had covered the spread, now they had to hold it.
They did not score in the third quarter, but–thanks to a doubtful roughing-the-kicker penalty–they didn’t need to. McMahon engineered two terrific ball-control chives–1970s football a la the Miami Dolphins or Pittsburgh Steelers. Bradshaw, who ran a few of those drives himself with the Steelers, was appreciative. “He’s a real piece of work,” he drawled, failing to pursue the allusive pun, “What a piece of work is McMahon.” When a ten-minute drive sputtered in Lions territory at the end of the quarter, the Bears faked a field goal and failed to get the first down. No points, but the Lions had the ball for barely more than a minute of the quarter. The defense was untested.
Anyone who said the fourth quarter was boring didn’t have money on the Bears or hadn’t picked them in the office pool. The Bears added another field goal, making the score 30-10, but another score by the Lions would move them within the 14-point spread. With four minutes left, the Lions had the ball. The defense was laying back, allowing the Lions to move upfield. The spread was going out the window. Then, at midfield, the defense stiffened, sacked Long, then allowed a long completion on fourth down that just failed to get the necessary yardage. The defense had held, the spread was safe, the Bears had covered, confidence was returning to the tout’s economy.
Yet the causes of the crisis have not been entirely solved. The Lions are a weak team with a young quarterback, easily confounded. The Bears’ offense played well and controlled the ball, but they did so against an overmatched defense, and that defense gathered eight sacks. In short, gold is still looking like a good buy compared with the Bears and the spread against the Packers–even at home. In fact, even the stock market doesn’t look so bad compared with that bet.