The Chicago Bears had the best defense in football last year, a proud and forceful unit that got them into their first NFC championship game since 1963. But that defense ended up being humiliated. The ultimate humiliation was called the Angus Play, a weird formation in which 264-pound San Francisco 49er guard Guy McIntyre lined up as a blocking back and helped produce two good gains in the 49ers' 23-0 blowout of the Bears in Candlestick Park last January.
The Bears waited nine months and on Sunday they finally got a bit of revenge. The payback came near the end of their 26-10 victory over the 49ers on the same field. It was called the Refrigerator Play and it was a classic of one-upmanship.
That play had nothing to do with the result. It was a reminder, a mild bit of finger-pointing. Mike Ditka, the Bears' coach, lined up 310-pound defensive tackle William Perry, the Refrigerator, as a fullback, and his two carries for two yards apiece rang down the curtain on the contest. Ditka has a long memory.
"I've got to break him in somewhere," Ditka said afterward, eyes twinkling. "I've got to get him on the field. Besides he just loves to run."
"Oh, we worked on it in practice," the rookie from Clemson said.
"How long?" someone asked.
"About 30 or 40 seconds."
So how do you account for these Bears, one of the two unbeaten teams in the NFL (the Rams are the other)?
You begin with that defense, a unit that sent five players to the Pro Bowl as starters. Then you add Walter Payton, the leading runner of all time, a guy whose 10 years in the NFL have taken none of the zip from his legs. Pretty good foundation, huh? But that wasn't enough last year. Points, the Bear fans pleaded all summer. Give us someone who'll light up the scoreboard and do it quickly, who will put the squeeze on the other guys and make them play catch-up.
Well, he was there all the time, hiding behind a pair of sunglasses and a punk rock haircut. The Raiders lacerated Jim McMahon's kidney in game No. 10 last November, and he was out for the season. The offense went on hold.
But now McMahon is back, enjoying the greatest season a Bear quarterback has had since the days of Sid Luckman, and Chicago is a point machine. The Bears are 6-0 and have a three-game lead in the NFC's Central Division. They're the highest-scoring team in football, averaging 31.5 points a game. Their points have come in mad flurries that have had Ditka rubbing his eyes.
Minnesota game. Vikings leading 17-9 in the third quarter. McMahon's on the sidelines with a sore neck and back, pleading with Ditka to let him in. In he comes and the first two passes he throws are TDs. The next series ends with another one. In a little under seven minutes Chicago is up 30-17—and it's over.
Washington game. In 10 minutes the Bears score four TDs, McMahon throwing for two and catching a Payton pass for a third, and a 10-0 deficit becomes a 28-10 lead.
Ditka played on some pretty sturdy Bear teams in the six years that he was their tight end in the 1960s, but he never saw one that could score this quickly. The night before the 49er game he tried to put it into perspective.
"We're going to be a complete reflection of our quarterback," he said. "In the second half against Minnesota he was a magician. You can't throw the ball any better than he did. Our fortunes are going to run parallel with McMahon's."
Sounds goofy, doesn't it? I mean, these are the Bears. When's the last time they built their offense around a quarterback? They haven't had one in the Pro Bowl since Billy Wade in '64. McMahon's so special that Ditka got away with keeping his two leading receivers out of the 49er game: wideout Dennis McKinnon, who had caught at least one TD pass in each contest, and tight end Emery Moorhead. They were nursing leg and knee injuries, respectively, though Ditka admitted that they would have played if it had been a championship game. But wasn't this a special kind of contest, a repeat of last season's NFC title match, possibly a preview of this season's?
"I've got to be realistic," Ditka said. "After the 49ers we go into four straight Central Division games, and I've got to have them ready. Besides, the pressure's not on us, it's on the 49ers. If they lose, they're 3-3, and they could be three games behind the Rams."
Perhaps that's the scariest thing of all about this Chicago team. The Bears came into the contest loose. Sure, it's nice to beat the Niners on their own turf, to get even for last season, but you have to look at the big picture.
"The game's kind of a litmus test for us," said free safety Gary Fencik. "People look at us and say, O.K., who have they beaten? Tampa Bay twice, New England, Washington? The Redskins game was supposed to be a big one, but then we blew them away 45-10, and everyone talked about the problems they were having."
Forty-Niner tackle Keith Fahnhorst saw some humor in the buildup for Sunday's game: "It was almost comical, the way each coach was saying how wonderful the other team was, how they feared for their lives. It was like professional wrestling in reverse."
The Bears came out winging, trying to get on top early and thus put the pressure on Joe Montana. They went with the long pass on their first drive of the game. They threw the ball on their first five plays. A three-yard TD by Payton was set up by McMahon's 34-yard pass to Willie Gault. They scored in six plays, covering 73 yards, and it took them less than 2½ minutes. The next time the Bears had the ball, they drove 45 yards and kicked a field goal. Then they knocked the ball loose on two straight series, setting up two field goals, and with 1:05 gone in the second quarter it was 16-0.
An eerie silence settled over the 60,523 people in Candlestick. The fans had been part of the 49er story this year, the way they had booed, how quickly they'd forgotten last year's magnificent 18-1 achievement, but they weren't booing Sunday. They were in shock. The Bears simply weren't supposed to come out throwing. They called 27 pass plays and only 10 runs in the first half, and 14 out of 18 first-down plays were passes.
But the pass got the 49ers back in the game when McMahon, under heavy pressure from blitzing linebacker Todd Shell, threw the ball up for grabs. Strong safety Carlton Williamson intercepted and ran it back 43 yards for a score. As the second quarter wound down, the 49ers put together their only decent drive of the day and kicked a field goal. The half ended 16-10, and it was a ballgame again.
Then the troubles that have plagued the 49ers this strange, error-laden season crystallized. They managed only three first downs, and 45 of their 183 total yards, in the second half. Steve McMichael, the Bears' greatly underrated defensive tackle ("Right now my best defensive lineman," Ditka says), was getting great penetration up the middle and disrupting the San Francisco operation. "He was very good," 49er right guard Randy Cross said, "and I was very bad." The blitzes were coming in bunches, and Montana, who suffered a career high seven sacks, was coming unglued.
He was missing short and long. After the loss to New Orleans, Walsh had criticized Montana's penchant for holding the ball too long, looking for something downfield that wasn't there, and Montana's huge game against Atlanta the following week (37 for 57, 429 yards and five TDs, all club records) was an instructional session to get him back in the short-passing groove, according to the coach.
Now, against the Bears, it was all coming apart. Flags were flying on practically every series. Montana looked at a first-and-25 on his first series of the third quarter. Result—punt. At 19-10 early in the fourth, with the game slipping away, he faced a second-and-25. Another punt. In one series in the second quarter he had had a third-and-28 situation. Punt. The 13 San Francisco penalties were the most since 1954. Montana would call an audible and people would move.
The Bears applied the cruncher with Payton. Eighty-eight of his season-high 132 yards came in the second half. It was a very sound philosophy—get the 49er linemen tired trying to rush McMahon in the first half and then stick it to 'em with Payton. And Walter, whose work load (and rushing yardage) decreased this year with the emergence of McMahon, was a little bundle of energy, breaking tackles, faking people off their feet or crumpling them with his low, precise cut blocks. A year ago he averaged 23.8 carries and 105.2 yards per game. This season he's averaging 15 carries and 70.3 yards a game.
"Walter's never seen this happen." Ditka said. "He's never been on a team that didn't rely solely on him to win. I don't care what the statistics say. He's having a great year. He's by far the best blocker we have. He'll pick up the blitz all day, he'll catch touchdown passes, throw them, you name it."
"Maybe I'm not getting all the yards I used to, but I'm happy now," Payton said. "Looking back at what I went through in years past, I'd be crazy not to be. I feel so much better, my legs, my mind. Mentally I'm not tired like I used to be."
For his part, Walsh would not blame the loss on Montana's poor play, but he has to be wondering where his quarterback has gone.
"How would you describe the Bear defense?" the coach was asked after the game.
"You describe it—please," he said, looking very tired and drawn. "Use any adjective you want. I'll say it was intense and ferocious. They gave us a good, sound beating. You can't be a Cinderella forever. We're in a position now of being a very average football team. We have to do something about it."
He sounded like a man who'd been hit by a refrigerator.