Reporters spent the week before the NFC Championship asking San Francisco 49er coach Bill Walsh if his offensive wizardry had finally met its match in the Chicago Bears' defense, the best in pro football. They bounced the question off Joe Montana, the Niners' Pro Bowl quarterback, and Dwight Clark, the wideout who had pulled the '82 NFC Championship out of the sky against Dallas, and then they asked the tight ends, and the running backs and even the linemen.
It was The Angle on the game, and one day, late in the week, the 49ers' Eric Wright, the best cornerback who's not going to the Pro Bowl, passed by the interview area and noted the frenzy of journalism and shook his head. "It's not the main question of this game," he said. "The question is: How are the Bears going to score on us?"
On Sunday in San Francisco the question was unanswered. They didn't. The final score was 23-0, Niners, and the closest Chicago came to putting something on the board was a missed 41-yard field goal at the end of its first possession of the day. And now the 49ers are in Super Bowl XIX, and the angle you will be reading all week is how will the Niners stop that point machine from Miami.
The Bears didn't pose that kind of problem. They deal in lumps, not points. Their running game is: Let's see you try to stop Walter Payton. Their passing game is: We'll try not to screw it up. Steve Fuller, the quarterback who took over when Jim McMahon sustained a lacerated kidney on Nov. 4 against the Raiders, is courageous, but he also operates with the utmost caution. Going into this game, he had thrown no interceptions in 78 regular season attempts and had a repeat zip on 15 postseason attempts. Those are both negative and positive stats. They mean Fuller won't give away anything, but neither will he dazzle you.
The big gunners throw interceptions because they take chances. The Dolphins' Dan Marino has thrown three in this postseason. Joe Namath threw his share, so did Terry Bradshaw and John Unitas. But with Fuller it's a case of no errors, no runs, no hits. Against San Francisco he ran a passing game that avoided mistakes, interceptions—and yards.
In the first half Fuller threw a grand total of seven passes. Net result: zero yards—16 gained on four tiny completions, 16 lost on three of the 49ers' nine sacks on the day. He went to his wideouts two times, once to Willie Gault, who had broken a 75-yarder against Washington the previous week, once to Dennis McKinnon. Both passes were dropped. Gault's miscue resulting in an interception—a bad call by the officials, because the ball actually bounced off the turf and into the hands of San Francisco free safety Dwight Hicks—and that was the last pass aimed at Gault all day. The former world-class high hurdler and sprinter spent the rest of Sunday afternoon as an ornament.
"Gault kept his head on a swivel, looking for the guy who was going to take a shot at him," Wright said. "He's like a lot of those fly-boy receivers. He doesn't want to come in the middle. On film we saw that every time he came inside he short-armed the ball, looking for someone to hit him.
"McKinnon's different. He's kind of a roughneck. He likes to crack back on linebackers. He looks them up. But you've got to treat him the same way, keep bugging him. Every time you get a chance to take a shot, do it."
McKinnon was the only Chicago wideout who caught any passes, three for 48 yards, all of them bunched into a four-play span in the third quarter, when the Bears launched their second and final drive of the day. The first one had been built around the running of Payton and Matt Suhey, and had fizzled out with the missed field goal. This second was a passing drive, but the result was the same—zero. Two 49er sacks took Chicago out of field goal range, after it had reached the Niners' 21-yard line. Between the two drives there was nothing but frustration, four straight series of three-downs-and-punt, one two-play series that ended with the Hicks' interception, and one mini-thrust that produced two first downs but never got out of Bears territory. Chicago's total offensive output for the day was 186 yards, 37 passing (13 for 22 for 87 yards for Fuller, minus 50 in sacks), 149 on the ground (22 for 92 for Payton) and, of course, no points. That gave the 49ers a streak of 10 straight quarters in which their defensive unit had not allowed a touchdown.
The Bear defense was predictably impressive—it held San Francisco to two field goals in the first half—but midway through the third quarter the overworked Chicago defenders finally cracked. The 49ers drove for TDs on two straight possessions, and that was the old ball game. "They've got a fine defensive team, but they can only take so much," 49er tight end Russ Francis said afterward. "They can only be put in the hole so many times."
Too many times. The game was a continuing nightmare that actually had begun in the fourth quarter against Washington a week earlier, when the Bears' offense died but the defense stopped wave after wave of Redskin attacks and held on to the lead. Now there was no lead to hold, no offense, and the Niners were throwing everything at Chicago, such as a weird alignment that put wideout Freddie Solomon at quarterback to run an option pitchout, while Montana lined up on the flank; another one that had a 271-pound guard, Guy McIntyre, set in the backfield as a blocking back; the whole package.
Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan was afraid something like this might happen. On Friday night, while Walsh and Chicago head coach Mike Ditka faced the TV cameras in the big pregame press conference in San Francisco, Ryan sipped a Dewar's and water in his room at the El Rancho Tropicana hotel in Santa Rosa, 50 miles to the north, and meditated over his charts. "We have a hell of a chance if we can just keep the score close," he said, "if we can just put something up on the board. I know Walsh is worried about us, because we're a defense that he can't type. No one can. We don't show tendencies. It's a check-with-me defense. We'll adjust on the move, according to formation, but we get away from tendencies. He'll look at films of us in the last six games, and he'll see that against, say, a 'Brown' formation, we'll show five different fronts and five different coverages, all in the same situation. He'll see that against Detroit we overloaded to the weak side in an 'under,' against Green Bay we used our special 46, with eight guys close to the line, against Minnesota a 5-2 Slam, and so on. We've got his offense typed against different defenses, but there's no way he can get a reading on us. I'll bet you that's worrying him."
Worried. Nervous. "Concerned," was the way one 49er lineman put it. "I've never seen Bill so concerned about a defense. The 46 [it's named after retired Bear safety Doug Plank's jersey numerals so the number isn't descriptive of the alignment] is what bothers him most. Two linebackers on one side, the strong safety in tight as a linebacker, eight men across. It's strange, but by now it's natural to them—and not to us."
Walsh likes to write a script of his first 20 to 25 plays, call them in advance, based on what he figures the defense will do against certain offensive formations. It has been his trademark and it has met with spectacular success. San Francisco usually breaks out of the gate fast. When the script runs out, the Niners have a tendency to settle down, but by then they're usually ahead anyway. What's wrong with that? You're making the other guy play catch-up, and the formula produced a record 15 regular season wins.
But how do you create an offensive script when you don't know what the other guy will do? It worried Walsh. He gave Montana the script, but he also gave him an option; use it against the 46 defense, but if Chicago's not in it, audible out of the prearranged plays.
"It's new to us," Walsh said on Saturday. "I've never done it this way before. You won't see a typical 49er offense out there Sunday. There may not be any smooth flowing progression. We'll take the quick six- or seven-yard plays and hope they turn into something big, a missed tackle or whatever. The running scheme will be hit or miss, all or nothing. We don't want to waste a down, to have to look for a three-yard gain. We want something big. Maybe we'll run at a guy who isn't blocked, hoping we catch him in a wrong slant or stunt, the kind of running play that could be a three-yard loss or a 30-yard gain. You won't see any end-arounds or halfback option passes. The Bears gobble that stuff up. But you may see some things that are totally new, college-type things."
He paused for a moment. What if he'd figured it wrong, if the game turned into a progression of three-yard losses, of Montana throwing on the run, one step ahead of the thundering hoofbeats of Dan Hampton or Steve McMichael or Richard Dent, the Chicago defensive linemen who had feasted on quarterbacks this season?
"The haunting thing about this game," Walsh said, "is that my formula might not hold up at all. We might be scratching from the word go."
Two things helped him from the go. The 49er defense played better than anyone had a right to expect, and the Bears' secondary was in the same crippled shape it had been in at the end of the Redskins' game. Both right cornerbacks were out, forcing strong safety Todd Bell to move over to that spot and nickel back Dave Duerson to take Bell's place.
On their first drive, the Niners went right at the corners, with quickie passes, and they got one of those bonuses Walsh was counting on, a 38-yard gain when Clark broke Bell's tackle on a little sideline pattern. That drive died on the Chicago four, but the 49ers got a field goal out of it. They were on the scoreboard first. On their next series, they had a first down on the Bear two and got nothing out of it when free safety Gary Fencik intercepted a pass in the end zone. San Francisco pulled out the Solomon option play (zero yards on a pitch to Roger Craig) and the McIntyre-at-blocking-back alignment (eight yards and a first down for Wendell Tyler) on its next series and made it to the three, where the Bears held the 49ers to another field goal.
On the Niners' second possession of the third quarter, Chicago's defenders began to give in to the constant pressure and intermittent weirdness. San Francisco scored on a 35-yard drive, all of it on the ground, with Tyler plowing over from the nine, behind blocking back McIntyre. The rout was on.
"Can you imagine that, a guard in the backfield?" 49er right guard Randy Cross said later. "Only Bill Walsh would come up with something like that. Up on the line we were scared that McIntyre might run one of us over."
Montana (18 for 34 for 233 yards and two interceptions) had moments of brilliance, but at other times he struggled. "I did O.K., considering that I'd never gone up against a goofy defense like that," he said.
Solomon seems to save his greatest games for the playoffs, and once again he was brilliant, with seven catches for 73 yards and a TD. And the Bears' defense, which crossed up the Niners by using the 46 alignment a lot less than usual, hung tough in a hopeless cause.
As the clock wound down Mike Singletary, Chicago's All-Pro middle linebacker, stood behind the bench and listened to the taunts of the Candlestick Park fans. He'd led the Bears in total tackles (eight) and passes deflected (two), but right before Tyler's touchdown, he had lost a contact lens and one of his shoes had split. Things literally had started to come apart. Now he had to hear it from the fans.
When the clock showed 14 seconds to play, Singletary turned to face them. "We'll be back!" he shouted.
Better have an offense next time.