The Chicago Bears turned back the clock in Texas Stadium Sunday, way back, past their old Monsters of the Midway days, past Bulldog Turner and George Musso and Bronko Nagurski, back to an era when men played football on rocky patches of ground and battled with fists and leather helmets.
They beat the Cowboys 44-0, the worst defeat Dallas has suffered at Texas Stadium or any other stadium. They clinched their division championship and ran their record to 11-0, and they did it without their regular quarterback, Jim McMahon, who watched the game in civvies, thanks to a sore right shoulder. The Bears defense rushed in wild, frenzied waves and knocked out Dallas quarterback Danny White twice, and held his replacement, Gary Hogeboom, to six completions in 22 heaves. The defense sacked the pair of them six times and scored 14 points of its own and shut down the Dallas running game and, hey, there's no end to it.
The pregame angles were swept up like yesterday's sawdust. An emotional contest for the Cowboys (aren't they all these-days?), a payback for the nasty, punch-filled exhibition meeting in August, a chance for Dallas to exert further mastery over a team it had beaten six straight times, a chance to dust off the old Flex defense principles and stop Walter Payton and put the pressure on Chicago quarterback Steve Fuller.
All those sensible notions vanished under an assault wave that made it look as if the Bears were playing 15 men against 11, and 63,855 fans (no-show count: zero) watched in horror and even showed compassion as their team was overrun.
"We said when we left after the preseason game, that they'd better have that little cart gassed up to carry the people off," said defensive end Dan Hampton. The remark seemed frighteningly prophetic in the third quarter when White was stretched out on the ground and the cart was slowly making its way across the field. It was KO No. 2 for Danny. In the second quarter Otis Wilson, a 232-pound sixth-year linebacker, had knocked him cold on a blitz, and now it was Wilson who got him again. Wilson picked himself up from the turf, after flanker Mike Renfro had cut him at the knees, and crashed into White. When White, who had heard his share of boos, finally disdained the cart and walked off the field, unaided, and into the tunnel leading out of the stadium, his neck wrapped in a brace, the fans applauded, a slow, gathering acclaim for an athlete who had gone down in a hopeless cause.
The Cowboys simply couldn't figure out a way to get everyone blocked. The Bears stunted their defensive linemen in the first half and got great penetration inside. They lined up both outside backers, Wilson and Wilber Marshall, on the same side and sent both of them in. Occasionally they would blitz Dave Duerson, the strong safety, or Mike Singletary, their All-Pro middle linebacker, and White and Hogeboom spent the afternoon surrounded by dark jerseys.
Lots of teams blitz heavily—the Steelers, even the Cowboys, with their assault team of defensive backs—but it isn't so much what you do as who does it. The Bears have the greatest collection of defensive talent—and the best defense—since the old Steel Curtain teams at Pittsburgh: Hampton, nicknamed Danimal, the Bears' counterpart to Dallas's Randy (Manimal) White; Richard Dent, one of the great speed-rush defensive ends; Steve McMichael, a sawed-off barrel-chested tackle with lightning moves inside; the great trio of linebackers; free safety Gary Fencik, the upwardly mobile Yalie who turns savage when he hits the field; and cornerbacks Mike Richardson and Leslie Frazier, who have labored under a steady diet of man-to-man coverage because of all the blitzes, and who have emerged as very solid cover guys. And of course there's 307-pound William Perry, the Fridge, the comedy relief, the court jester in the House of Borgia.
Oh, it's a dynamite group, all right, and it makes a 16-0 record—the first unbeaten season since the league went to 16 games in 1978—a real possibility.
Thirteen years ago the Dolphins went 14-0 with a spectacular offense. The defense was sound enough, but it didn't take your breath away. Last year the same formula gave the 49ers a record for regular season wins—15. The Bears can do it the other way around. McMahon and Payton have been potent factors this year, but against the Cowboys, Chicago put the game away in the first half while Payton was being contained and McMahon was watching it all from the sidelines.
The Bears did it with pressure, the pressure of a defense turned loose to get to the passer without regard for things like rush lanes. Buddy Ryan, who coaches those Bear defenders, once crafted a very fine pass rush when he was with the Super Bowl Jets 17 years ago. He tells a story about those days:
"Weeb Ewbank gave me a reel of film on Gino Marchetti to show Gerry Philbin, our left defensive end. We watched Gino rush inside, outside, it didn't matter. All he knew was getting to the quarterback. I hear a lot of coaches saying now, 'You've got to rush in the lanes.' "
In the first quarter the Cowboys were moving the ball, and the Bears were doing zip offensively. Fuller, who had been traded away by the Chiefs and the Rams, is a solid enough guy, but he missed on five of his first six passes while the Bears were trying to get the Cowboys concerned with stopping people other than Payton. "I admit it, I was nervous," Fuller said.
The Bears had picked up one first down. Three series wound up three downs and punt. Then their defense got uncranked. Maury Buford punted the Cowboys into a hole on their two-yard line. White tried to pass on first down. Hampton, rushing from left end, clubbed tackle Jim Cooper to the ground and closed on White.
"I knew what he was going to call—a quick pass to the outside," Hampton said. "I knew he wasn't going to take a sack, and I knew there was no way I'd get to him in time, so I jumped as high as I could...you could probably slip a Grapevine, Texas phone book under my feet...and got my hand up and managed to deflect the pass."
The ball went straight up, Dent settled under the pop fly, caught it on the one, pivoted and went in for the score. The rout was on. The Bears sacked White twice on the next series. They drove for a field goal. They knocked White out of the game. Wilson put big heat on Hogeboom and pressured him into a throw that Richardson intercepted for a 36-yard touchdown. Frazier intercepted Hogeboom's next pass and returned it 33 yards, setting up another touchdown. The half ended 24-0, and the case was closed. Bears defense 14, Bears offense 10, Cowboys zero.
"I didn't think we were playing very well," Fuller said, "and then I looked up at the board and it said 24-0, and, jeez, it makes you rub your eyes."
"So fast, it all happened so fast," Chicago coach Mike Ditka said. "It kind of stuns you. It was like the Washington game, where we scored 31 points in the second quarter. All you can do is stand there and watch."
The Cowboys played into Chicago's hands by calling 20 straight pass plays to close out the first half. "Coach [Tom] Landry wanted to get something on the board quickly," said Dallas offensive line coach Jim Myers. "Yeah, I would have done it, too."
The Cowboys got six completions out of those 20 plays, and four turnovers (three interceptions and a fumble) and three sacks and one KO'd quarterback. Tony Dorsett, who came into the game with the same number of carries this season as Payton, and only 53 fewer yards, had become a nonfactor. He gained 22 yards on his first carry, but his next five produced minus five, and he was forgotten—until the third quarter when the Cowboys tried to distract the Bears from ravaging their quarterbacks. Dorsett ended up with 44 yards on 12 carries (Payton got 132 on 22), and afterward Tony D. echoed the mood of a very somber Dallas interview session. "As long as I've been playing football," he said, "this is the worst I've ever been embarrassed. I'm ashamed of the way we played."
"We came into the game with three keys," Fencik said. "One, take Dorsett out of the offense early. We did it. Two, contain tight end Doug Cosbie [he went out of action with a twisted neck in the second quarter], and we did that. Three was White, and he got knocked out."
The Chicago defense has some amazing skins on the wall this season. The Bears have held opponents to one touchdown or less eight times. In the last eight games they've given up a total of 19 points in the second half. Only Tampa Bay and Washington have rushed for more than 100 yards on them.
"A lot of people were saying, 'Now the defense has got to go out and score points because McMahon's out,' " Singletary said, "but that wasn't it. It was just a matter of playing the kind of defense we're capable of playing. We're still getting better. We want to reach our peak at the right time, and that's going into the playoffs. It hasn't happened yet."
The only consolation for the Cowboys was the fact that they're 7-4 and a serious playoff contender. "We'll get them again," defensive tackle John Dutton said. Maybe, if the Cowboys can come up with some scheme for getting all those pass-rushers blocked.
"The Bears' theory," Danny White said a few days before the game, "is that if you can pick out the right guy and hit him in two seconds, great, because we'll give you two seconds and that's all. So you have to make the right read and make it quickly."
Landry said the ball wasn't getting away quickly enough. Myers said the Bears' defensive shifts were causing problems. "They were shifting, then sifting through us," he said. The double linebacker blitz from the outside, with Marshall coming inside Wilson, caused even worse problems. "We'd slide a tackle over for the inside guy, but the outside guy was coming free." Myers said. So how do you stop it? "We'd sure better figure out a way."
"Sure, everyone's gonna have trouble with our stunts and blitzes," Hampton said. "Sometimes we don't even know what we're doing ourselves."
"Just constant movement," Singletary said. "They call an audible, we move. It's tough to make an adjustment when someone is moving. The whole key, though, is that our guys get off the ball so fast."
Afterward someone asked Ditka if a score like 44-0 isn't perhaps overdoing it—with a possible rematch on the horizon. What better emotional spur than those big numbers?
"Yeah, I thought about that," he said. "After the game I said to Tom, 'I'm sorry it ended that way.' I'm embarrassed. But, gee, at the end we scored [two times] on straight running plays with zone blocking. I can't tell the backs to just go and fall down. They want to score, too. That's life, though. If the shoe's on the other foot, I'll accept it graciously."
Someday Ditka might go down in the history books as the coach who gave life to a 307-pound running back when he put Perry into his backfield, thereby spawning a whole sea of strange fish. The Patriots did it with 285-pound tackle Steve Moore. The Jets tried it with defensive linemen Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau. And yes, another chapter in the Perry saga was written Sunday when he entered the game in two goal-line situations, with the usual unusual results.
During the week the Cowboys had grown tired of answering questions about him. "The big hype is that everyone thinks he's so hard to bring down," said middle linebacker Gene (The Hitting Machine) Lockhart. "Just get off the mark quicker than he does, and you can bring him down hard or soft or any way you want."
Perry didn't have much of a day defensively. The stat sheet showed him with one tackle, no assists, and on Dallas's first play he got squashed in a double team while Dorsett scampered for 22 yards. But that was just a prelude to his serious work as a goal-line specialist.
He made his first appearance in the backfield near the end of the first half on first-and-goal from the Dallas two. He carried for a yard and tried to roll into the end zone. Nice try. Next play he decoyed as Fuller snuck over for the score. In the third quarter he was in on a third-and-goal from the two. He fell on strong safety Dextor Clinkscale as Payton was stopped short, whereupon William the Fridge lifted Payton and the rest of the pile and tried to deposit them into the end zone. He drew a 10-yard penalty for illegal use of the hands, and he was out of the lineup. The next play drew a sack, then a penalty, and the Bears ended up with a field goal.
"What were you trying to do?" someone asked Perry afterward.
"Trying to pick up the guy who was on Walter—and Walter, too," he said. "I didn't know you weren't allowed to do that."
The next episode will come on Sunday when the Bears face Atlanta. McMahon might not be back. His shoulder, which was originally damaged against the 49ers in the season's sixth game, was reinjured in game No. 9 against Green Bay.
Last year McMahon missed the playoffs. The Bears got by Washington with Fuller, but then the whole thing collapsed in the NFC championship when San Francisco beat them 23-0. The memory of those days and the concern they feel for their quarterback are the only shadows over a very sunny Bear picture. Maybe Singletary is right and the defense is headed for the heights. On Sunday it sure made believers out of the Cowboys.