Erik Kramer is a better quarterback than Steve Walsh. He looks to have a stronger arm and more mobility while reading defenses at least as well, and the statistics reflect that. Kramer entered last Sunday’s Bears game against the Detroit Lions with a quarterback rating above 100 and an average of about 8.5 yards a pass (the only stat worth commenting on where quarterbacks are concerned), while Walsh had a rating in the 80s and averaged but 6 yards a pass. Kramer knows all this. When he was out with a slightly separated shoulder and Walsh was leading the Bears to three straight victories, Kramer frequently appeared on television with a hurt, confused expression. How could someone who wasn’t as good be enjoying more success where it ultimately counted, in wins and losses?
Kramer’s mistake, however, is to believe that because he is better than Walsh he must be a good quarterback. It leads him into thinking not only that he is better than Walsh, but that he has to prove it at all times, that he must make a difference in the team by doing the things Walsh can’t do. He winds up trying to do things he can’t do either, which leads to costly mistakes. It’s by no means a new phenomenon in the National Football League. Sonny Jurgensen was a much better quarterback than Billy Kilmer–that is, he threw the ball better and had more athletic skills–but Kilmer learned to play within himself much more than Jurgensen did. It wasn’t until Jurgensen learned a little caution and self-control that he again challenged for the Redskins starting job. Likewise, Johnny Unitas was a much better quarterback than Earl Morrall. Yet there came a time when Unitas believed he could still do what he had always done, play the way he had always played, even though the physical abilities weren’t there anymore. At that point Morrall, playing within himself and with a firm grasp of his strengths and weaknesses, became the Colts’ better quarterback.
The Bears appear to be in the same sort of dynamic now. The odd thing is that Kilmer and Morrall reached that point of awareness and self-control late in their careers, while Walsh has arrived there relatively early. He was the top college player chosen in the 1989 supplemental draft, but he has learned the hard way–through mistakes that led him to ride the bench in Dallas, New Orleans, and now Chicago–that his arm is good but not great, that his overall talent is decent but not overly impressive, and that he must be extremely fine in order for his team to win. That knowledge, however, is a large part of being an NFL quarterback in this day of speedy defensive players executing complicated schemes and stunts. And it creates problems for a coach. What does Dave Wannstedt do, play the quarterback who is objectively “better” or the one who wins games?
When Kramer went down with his injury late in the third game of the season, in Minnesota, the Bears were hurtling out of control toward the bottom ranks of the NFL. After an opening win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers–no great feat, that–they were stomped by the Philadelphia Eagles on a Monday night and then by the Vikings. Enter Walsh, who cautiously executed a nifty little win in New York against the Jets to stop the free-fall and get the Bears back to an even record at 2-2. He wasn’t done, however. Then came an upset of the Buffalo Bills at home, as Kramer slid backward with a cold in addition to his shoulder injury. That done, Walsh had earned the right to play his old teammates, the Saints, and he beat them, too, leading the Bears to a convincing clinching score in the fourth quarter to make the final 17-7.
The Bears had the following week off, however, which gave Wannstedt the opportunity to reassess his talent pool, and like Kramer and everyone else concerned he came to the conclusion that Kramer clearly was the better player and should start against his old teammates, the Lions, last Sunday in Detroit.
The Bears, as a team, had been fired up against Buffalo; presumably, they wanted to do whatever they could to keep the Bills from defiling the Super Bowl again. They looked flat at first against the Saints, but rallied in the second half. Against the Lions they again looked flat, in part because Kramer struggled to regain control of the reins; he missed his first six passes, and the sixth was stolen from the receiver, Chris Gedney, and returned for a touchdown by Detroit linebacker Chris Spielman. This came immediately after a Detroit touchdown set up by Barry Sanders’s 84-yard run around left end, from his two-yard line to the Bears’ 14.
The Bears had their early chances, but something or other always went wrong. The Lions’ Mel Gray fumbled the opening kickoff, but the Bears couldn’t convert it into any points. Later Kramer drove the Bears downfield, but had a pass deflected and intercepted at the goal line. Then Chicago defensive tackle Albert Fontenot deflected a Scott Mitchell pass straight up, and it fell into his hands only yards from the goal line; but he dropped it. The Bears should have been up at least 17-7; instead, they were down 14-0.
Slowly the Bears and Kramer regained their footing. There are those who say quarterback is only one position, and that it exerts no extraordinary control over a football squad–certainly not over the defense. Yet the quarterback makes the ultimate offensive decisions and handles the ball on almost every offensive play, and a defense that feels confident about turning the ball over to him–to a Jim McMahon, say–plays better than one that’s counting on a Jim Harbaugh. Kramer began completing passes–not enough to threaten a sustained drive, however. But when Mitchell muffed a snap at midfield late in the first half and Dante Jones recovered, Kramer marched the Bears down for a score–14-7 at intermission.
By this time the Bears had settled into a very cautious, self-contained style of play. Kramer was hitting running backs–Robert Green especially–time and again circling out of the backfield. The Lions had no good answer for that. A daring pass for the Bears was a quick slant or a crossing pattern over the middle. When Kramer opened the second half by marching the Bears to a field goal, the Lions were clearly being outcoached and outplayed. After their rough start, it seemed a matter of time before the Bears took the lead.
That was when Detroit’s Gray ran back the kickoff for a touchdown. The Bears were slow getting down to break up the Lions’ blocking wedge, the result being that over the course of 102 yards, from the Detroit end zone to the opposing goal line, Gray wasn’t touched. He wasn’t even disturbed by his own blockers; he never broke stride. Suddenly the Bears were down 21-10.
The Bears had their own bolt of lightning. Having lulled the Detroit secondary to sleep, Kramer hit Jeff Graham in stride with a bomb for a 76-yard touchdown pass play. The Bears missed the attempt at a two-point conversion when they were called for an illegal pick.
Kramer was marching the Bears again, next possession, when he noticed the Lions preparing a blitz. It wasn’t hard to notice; why, we noticed it at home. The Lions all but put up a sign saying, “No waiting–single coverage on all receivers.” Kramer made the proper, if risky, decision, given that his team was down a touchdown and looking for a quick score: he arched a pass up for Curtis Conway to run under down the sideline. What’s more, he was working on a substitute cornerback, Milton Mack, after the more experienced Robert Massey had gone out with an injury. Yet Mack made the fundamental mistake of playing the ball rather than the man in this situation, and it led him to intercept it.
The Lions had scored on two fluke plays and on the good graces of Sanders’s 84-yard run; they really didn’t deserve to win the game. They went about trying to prove that when Mitchell threw a fourth-quarter interception to Donnell Woolford. The Bears had the ball and the momentum and six and a half minutes to play. Yet then came a rather curious call in the middle of a promising drive. On third down and two yards to go, Kramer dropped deep–not a quick slant or a pass to a back in the flat, he was looking downfield. He was sacked to end the drive. Had he called the play himself or had offensive coordinator Ron Turner had a momentary brain lock? When a team is losing it sometimes thinks all sorts of things it shouldn’t–and otherwise wouldn’t.
The defense produced a three-and-out series to get the Bears the ball back with three and a half minutes left. Kramer again drove the team downfield. Thrown into the mix this time were a couple of surprising draw plays–one on first down. (Funny how one never thinks of crediting a losing quarterback with calling such plays.) Yet on third and four from the Detroit 20, tight end Marv Cook went out and ran right into the linebacker covering him. The ball went sailing past where Cook should have been, but the referees couldn’t very well call pass interference on what looked to be not merely incidental but purposeful contact on Cook’s part. On fourth down, wide receiver Nate Lewis was mugged on a slant pattern, but the Bears weren’t likely to get that call on a critical play in Detroit–and they didn’t.
It seems clear: when a team is winning, stick with the hot hand. Yet with a week off, Wannstedt had the opportunity to second-guess himself, and now the hot hand has gone cold–not merely with a week off but with a loss. The Bears didn’t really have a quarterback controversy before. Sticking with a winning starting lineup–that doesn’t have to be defended on reason, not if it’s put forth as superstition. Now Wannstedt has to choose the absolute best quarterback for the team and stick with him. Yet what is best, talent or temperament, ability or chemistry? That’s the sort of dilemma that can drive a coach crazy.