Slam! Bam! Goodby Rams

Chicago hammered L.A. 24-0 to win the NFC title. Next up: the surprising Patriots
January 20, 1986

As snow came down on darkening Soldier Field in Chicago early Sunday evening, something in the big, rusty town's psyche had been reignited. The Bears had burned the Los Angeles Rams 24-0—giving up just ten pass completions in 31 attempts for 66 yards to Rams quarterback Dieter Brock, 46 rushing yards in 17 carries to Eric Dickerson and 130 net yards for zero points to the Rams in general. The shutout was the Bears' second of the playoffs, setting an NFL record. The team triumphed, but it was Chicago that exploded. There is no reason a sports team should carry a populace's self-esteem on its back the way the Bears carry this town's. But to understand how devastating a defeat would have been to the citizenry, consider this catalog of failure: the Cubs, 1969; the Black Hawks, 1971; the Bulls, 1975; the White Sox, 1983; the Cubs, 1984; the Bears last year. Heartbreakers. Ego-busters. Losers. Like it or not, Chicagoans feel defined by their teams. In the end, resolve wavers. Honey, I see where they got jobs in Orlando. And Tucson. And San Diego. Why are we here?

The Rams lose and Los Angeles shrugs it off en route to sushi at the beach. The Bears lose and what does their 15-1 regular season record mean? Little. And the defense that led the league in just about everything? Less. And the funny Fridge and Danimal and Mongo and Sweetness and the Spaceman from Planet-X and Super Yuppie and Samurai and Iron Mike? Nothing.

And after that, winter.

Not since 1963 had a major Chicago sports team won a huge game. The Loyola University basketball team and the Bears both won it all in '63. But 23 years is almost a generation. In the post-game locker room Bears president Mike McCaskey, the grandson of Papa Bear George Halas, sensed the Tightness of this victory, and the drama.

"There is a real sense of purpose here," he said. "Football. Chicago. Like this. It's as though instead of kicking the sideline markers, grandfather is kicking the edge of a cloud, making it snow."

The Bears themselves were quiet in the locker room, like men sniffing a fine, decanted brandy not quite ready to drink. There were cigars—distributed by guard Jimbo Covert and bearing his personalized label—but no champagne. "Bleep the champagne. I want a beer," said quarterback Jim McMahon, ever the communicator.

McMahon's best statement—in addition to his 16-yard first-quarter run for a touchdown and his 16 of 25 passing for 164 yards and a TD—came from the headband he displayed. It said ROZELLE. Lettered by McMahon himself, it was directed at the NFL commissioner—he was at the game—who had fined Bears management $5,000 the week before for letting Chicago players wear too much "advertising" as part of their uniforms. McMahon had last been seen wearing an Adidas headband. For the Rams' game he had one around his neck and the Rozelle number on his head. He made a Rozelle headband for Walter Payton, too, which nearly canonized the act. But McMahon's point was not saintly.

"Bet you guys thought I left off a verb," he said devilishly to reporters. "It was on the other side."

"A great gag," Rozelle said of the whole episode.

Of course, the Bears also play football like madmen. Indeed, half a Chicago team could have beaten the Rams Sunday. L.A. crossed the Bears' 35-yard line only once, and that was in the second quarter after a Dale Hatcher punt bounced backward, glanced off Bear blocker Reggie Phillips and was recovered at the 21-yard line by the Rams' Jerry Gray. The Rams, who didn't go to a two-minute offense, then drove to the Bears' five but let time expire—they thought they had called a timeout with two seconds left—without setting up a field goal.

The Bears' defense scored its sixth touchdown of the season when end Richard Dent sacked the beleaguered and overmatched Brock in the fourth quarter and linebacker Wilber Marshall picked up the ensuing fumble and carried it the 52 yards to the end zone. On the play Marshall shrugged off a clawing Dicker-son, the previous week's playoff rushing record-setter (248 yards against the Dallas Cowboys) but this week's invisible man, and followed a Refrigerator-escort home. The run gave Marshall six more yards than Dickerson made all day.

There were times Sunday, as there have been in almost every Bears game this year, when the defense looked as if it had to be doing something illegal. How could any team put eight men on the line of scrimmage and stop the pass? How could it stop a running game led by four Pro Bowl offensive linemen who just a week earlier had carved great swaths in the Cowboys' flex defense?

"We felt like we could block them," said L.A. tackle Jackie Slater wearily after the game. "But they have great personnel, and they play hard. Damn hard."

They do. Plus, they've got pipe-smoking, shoot-from-the-mouth, publicity-oblivious genius Buddy Ryan to move their defensive players around like checkers on a board. The Bears' defensive coordinator bolted the locker room after the game so fast that some observers assumed he was upset about something. Nope, that's just Ryan's style. When the game is done, what's there to do but go home, crack a beer and design some new, horrifying twist to the 46 defense? Ryan had plenty of twists this time. Prime among them was using the 46 short-yardage alignment, a normal third- or fourth-down defense, on first down. "That's where we put Too-Tall [6'7" end Tyrone Keys] in for Fatso [as he calls Perry]," said Ryan as he trotted toward the parking lot with his wife, Joan. "We did it because we expected them to run."

Another twist was bringing free safety Gary Fencik up to the line as strong safety Dave Duerson dropped off. The result was a virtual shutdown of the Rams' weakside running attack and the creation of a hybrid strong-weak safety. Ryan did that, he said, because Fencik "led our team in tackles all year." He did it against the Rams, too, with seven tackles and three assists.

The many Bear defensive fronts snuffed any hopes the Rams' offense might have had about controlling the game. For the 41st time in the last 42 games the Bears had possession of the ball longer than their opponent. Brock, who threw for more than 4,000 yards three times in the Canadian Football League, never got untracked. His longest completion of the day was a 15-yarder to Tony Hunter in the fourth quarter. His best heave—up the right sideline to rookie Michael Young—was ruled incomplete because Young had stepped out of bounds en route. Video replays showed that cornerback Mike Richardson had pushed Young after the legal bump zone, but no penalty was called. "It wasn't our day for luck," sighed L.A. coach John Robinson after the game. "Good teams do that to you."

"When you take us out of our run offense, you can pretty much do what you want," added Dickerson. The Bears did that—the Rams went three-downs-and-punt seven times and converted only two of 14 third-down attempts.

The Bears were more successful with the ball. On Chicago's first drive of the game McMahon saw just what he wanted. After passes to receivers Emery Moorhead and Willie Gault picked up 39 yards and Matt Suhey rushed for four more, McMahon was confronted with third-and-nine at the Rams' 16-yard line. He dropped back to pass. A lane opened to the left where a Rams' linebacker had blitzed, and the former hyperactive kid who says, "Nobody knows what I'm like, and that's the way I want it," headed for the goal line. He got a terrific block from Dennis Gentry on safety Johnnie Johnson and then hurled himself into the end zone. With just 5:25 gone in the game, the Bears, as it turned out, had enough points to win.

"When that happened we felt real confident," said center Jay Hilgenberg. The Bears also felt McMahon's aggressive personality all afternoon.

"He was a crazy nut out there," said Walter Payton afterward. "He did everything but take his clothes off, and if we'd been out there longer, he might have done that."

"He was yelling at us to get our heads out of our butts," added Covert. "But that's normal."

Whatever it is that moves this oddball QB, it can't detract from his awesome talent. Sprinting to his left in the third quarter he connected with Gault on as pretty a post-flag pattern as you'll ever see. McMahon's feet left the ground as he whipped the ball across his body in a perfect spiral that Gault pulled in for a 22-yard touchdown. "You have to take your hat off to a pass like that," said Ram cornerback LeRoy Irvin, who was beaten on the play.

But who takes his hat off for the Bears? If you believe head coach Mike Ditka, it sure isn't the big, bad NFL, which, in Ditka's opinion, wants to squash the renegade Bears worse than Goliath ever wanted to squash David.

"There are teams that are fair-haired, and teams that are not," snarled Ditka earlier in the week. "There are teams named Smith and teams named Grabowski. The Rams are Smith. The Bears are Grabowski."

"I assume he used Grabowski because it's an ethnic name that maybe represents blue-collar, hard-working types," says Jim Grabowski himself, the former Illinois and Green Bay fullback turned radio and TV color announcer for Illini games. "I think it's great. I've been telling friends, 'This is my team!' "

"My name's been Smith all along, and I never associated it with white collar or conformity," says the Rams' Pro Bowl center, Doug Smith, who missed the game with a head injury. "I mean, they're the ones making videos. We could make a video and there would be 50 sales—to our families."

Whatever. Ditka and his boys want a little adversity, even if they have to create it themselves. They still haven't won the really big one, but at last they're in position to do that. Destined to do that. And around them they've got a city on fire.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRALimited to 46 yards, Dickerson felt the full weight of the Bears' D all day. TWO PHOTOSPETER READ MILLERMcMahon had a message for the commissioner, and he sent one to L.A. in the form of the speedy Gault for touchdown No. 2. PHOTOPETER READ MILLEROtis Wilson, who did a number on Barry Redden, has been a handy man this season. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAAs Dan Hampton (99) and Dent put the squeeze on Brock, Fridge (72) tried to stock up... PHOTOJOHN BIEVER...but it was Marshall who wound up with the ball and went 52 yards for the final TD.

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