The New England Patriots can beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX, but it will take an almost complete change in philosophy to do it. Is Raymond Berry capable of this, of going against the kind of football that has moved New England further along than any other Patriot team in history? Can he pull the plug on the type of game the Patriots have been playing for the last month, producing the greatest overbalance of running to passing since the old leather-helmet days, a style of offense that has even had the Patriot players smiling? Can he say, O.K., these are the Bears we're playing; they can't be pounded, so we'll throw a little dazzle into our attack? We'll give our quarterback, Tony Eason, the whole package. We'll roll him out, we'll let him throw off a quick setup, we'll go deep on short-yardage situations and hit them with the run on third-and-long. Can Berry put in all that in a week and a half of practice? Does he want to? Or is it just a case of good ol' boy philosophy...dance with what brung ya, etc.? We'll see.
Berry is the uncharted element in this Super Bowl. He's in his first full year as a head coach. His contributions to the Patriots' success have gone deeper than the Xs and Os. He took a team of brooding superstars, disillusioned with life and the NFL and especially the standard of coaching on the Patriots, and brought them together. He gave them extra days off from practice and made sure they stayed fresh for the stretch run.
"He wants us to come out like tigers," says center Pete Brock, a 10-year veteran, "so he makes sure we're physically ready for that. He's setting a trend. Some coaches feel that a long practice is their security blanket. They'll say, 'Whew, I got 'em to look at everything.' What good is it if you don't have the tools left to go out and perform?"
Berry's approach is risky; the wrong kind of a team could take the easy slide under such lenient treatment. But there's a solid nucleus on the Patriots, hard-working, blue-collar types. Six of them are playing for their fourth head coach at New England. They know that they had better take care of this guy, because the next one they get could be a whole lot worse. That's another thing the Patriots have going for them—they're a very together team.
But now we'll find out about Berry, whether there's any risk in him, whether he's willing to give Eason the kind of responsibility he hasn't had in the playoffs. Eason has averaged 14 passes a game, while in the same stretch the team has averaged 49 running plays, including 67 carries by workhorse Craig James for 258 yards. Eason hasn't been intercepted in those three games. The passes he has thrown have been of the safe variety. Even the deep ones have been low risk—quick ups, sideline stuff, with little chance of mishap. The final interception in the Dec. 16 Monday night Miami loss (on a post pattern to the tight end) haunts Berry. Eason has thrown practically nothing deep down the middle since then. The wide receivers have gotten very little work—16 passes aimed their way in the playoffs, compared with 26 to the tight ends and running backs. Of the five playoff TDs Eason has thrown, only one has been to a wideout.
Is this so bad? Just look at his numbers. Eason has completed 29 of those 42 passes, 69%. His rating for those three games is a dazzling 135.6, the kind of number you can achieve when the pass is a surprise rather than a necessity. Operating within the framework of that constrained offense, he's been near perfect.
The strength of the Patriots' offense is their line, reading, from left to right, Brian Holloway, John Hannah, Brock, Ron Wooten and Steve Moore. Average weight: 277. They're honest drive blockers, guys who roll up their sleeves and go to work. There's little screening or influence-blocking in their scheme, although Hannah and Holloway are nifty enough to pull to the right side on traps and lead plays.
They came out pounding against the Jets in the playoffs and went nowhere, and it wasn't until the second quarter when Eason threw two long passes on running downs (third-and-short, first-and-10) that New England got anything going. Then the turnovers started coming the Patriots' way and the hunt was over. They started the game against the Raiders with a run-and-pass mix, leaning more to the run. Again, turnovers won it for them. They pounded Miami all day in the AFC championship game. Anyone would have. Turnovers ultimately swung it, plus the fine defensive work on the Miami wideouts, plus the heavy running.
That's all fine, but it might give the Patriots a false sense of security against the Bears, who bring seven and eight people up close to stop the running, who walk their free safety, Gary Fencik, up to a linebacker's spot, where he has feasted on runners like the Rams' Eric Dickerson. Their linemen do an excellent job of keeping blockers off middle linebacker Mike Singletary, the Samurai, who bends runners backward with his perfectly timed hits. Well, maybe the Patriots can figure out a way to run against those monsters. They couldn't when the teams met in Chicago in September. Their running game was held to 27 yards while the Bears were whipping them 20-7, but, as Brock says, that was a different Patriot team.
"Holloway was hobbling," he says, "Hannah was out, Moore was in his second start as a pro. Through training camp, we'd never had our offensive line intact. We weren't cohesive, and Tony was trying to learn a whole new offensive system. We're much better now."
The Bears, the top-rated defensive team in the league, are better, too. They shut out Dallas and Atlanta during the regular season and they've held six straight opponents to under 100 yards rushing. They've pitched two consecutive shutouts in the playoffs. The Giants and Rams ran 16 series of three downs and out against them, and their combined third-down conversions were 2 for 26. The brain of their coach, Buddy Ryan, has been a veritable racetrack of activity. In passing downs against the Giants, he got away from his base defense, the 46 (the number of former DB Doug Plank). The 46 usually puts both outside linebackers, Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson, on the same side, the strong side, opposite the tight end, and shifts the four-man front into an "under" alignment that overloads against the weak side of the offense. Instead, he lined up Marshall and Wilson as defensive ends, Marshall going left and Wilson right, pulled 308-pound William Perry in favor of nickelback Shaun Gayle, and gave the Giants a five-man pass rush to worry about. The running game was shut down; Joe Morris, who had hit the 49ers for 141 yards in their wild-card game, was held to 32. Meanwhile, Phil Simms completed only 14 of 35 passes, and he was sacked six times.
The next week against the Rams in the NFC championship, Ryan put that defense back into the filing cabinet. Gayle came in only once while the game was still a game, and that was for Wilson. Instead, Ryan loaded up to stop the run, bringing Fencik in tight as a linebacker. Fencik came up with 10 tackles. Singletary, stacked, or hidden, behind the defensive linemen, made eight.
Normally Singletary leads a schizophrenic existence on the field. At times he'll be assigned the kind of deep coverage responsibility no middle linebacker has had since the heyday of Jack Lambert, but his package is more complicated. He'll be called on to help the cornerback in short or deep zone coverage. He got a deflection that way against the Rams. Sometimes he'll fill the strong safety role and cover the tight end; occasionally he'll clamp on a wide receiver running a crossing pattern.
"Out on the field you can hear Samurai yelling, 'Come to me! Come to me!' " Ryan says. "I've heard a lot of people talk like that, but he's the only one who means it. He'll cover Willie Gault man to man in practice. They'll line up some scout-team receiver against him, and he'll say, I don't want those rookies. I want the best you've got.' Every coach ought to get a chance to coach a guy like that."
Everything Ryan came up with against the Rams seemed to work. In the second half he showed a brand-new defense. He stretched Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael wider on the left side of the defensive line and did the same thing with Perry and Richard Dent on the right. The hole in the middle was filled by the outside linebackers, who lined up opposite the guards. Behind them was Singletary, playing a short free-safety position and creating a triangle effect. Then Ryan ran a variation of it, lining up Marshall on the outside and bringing him inside at the snap of the ball. The Rams had four shots at this exotic alignment, and they got one six-yard completion in three passing attempts, plus a three-yard gain by Dickerson.
And where under the wide blue sky did Ryan ever find a defense like that? "It's the defense I used in high school in Gainesville, Texas," he says. "I call it the TCU Defense. They did it against Oklahoma in '54. Actually, we played some of that against New England three years ago." That one wound up 26-13 Bears, with the Patriots held to 46 yards rushing.
The principles of Ryan's defenses are well known by now—too many people to run against, too many rushers coming all at once to permit you to throw comfortably.
"I really admire their scheme," New England defensive coordinator Rod Rust says. "It's made a lot of their guys Pro Bowlers. I admire Buddy's courage in using a defense like that. They dictate the blocking, they have a consistent pressure rush, but to make it go, they need a middle linebacker who can do what Singletary does. It's almost as if they've done a time-and-motion study. They're saying, you've got so long to do what you've got to do, and no longer."
The defensive linemen enjoy single blocking. Fine, if you've got the kind of linemen who can beat those blocks. McMichael and Pro Bowlers Hampton and Dent qualify. Perry can be blocked. Marshall and Wilson have to have great pass-rush ability, plus the speed to occasionally cover wide receivers. They qualify. Singletary, who says he was clocked at 4.65 coming out of Baylor, is merely expected to be great. Fencik has to be able to stiff a 220-pound running back by himself. No problem. Strong safety Dave Duerson has to fill a weakside linebacker role in the 46 defense, with blitz responsibility. He's done it well enough to get voted to the Pro Bowl next week, along with four other defensive Bears. And the cornerbacks, Mike Richardson and Leslie Frazier, must have the courage to play an aggressive bump-and-run.
"That's one thing our corners do," Fencik says. "They really apply that bump. Some teams pretend to be in bump-and-run, but their corners just open the gates and try to run. What's the sense in tailgating like that? If you're supposed to bump a guy, then bump him. Those little track guys playing wide receiver aren't in there because they're tough."
The Bears' defense has been close to, but not quite, invulnerable. In the Dolphins' 38-24 victory on Dec. 2, Dan Marino shocked the Bears in a way nobody had before—or has since. Miami scored 31 points on five straight series in the first half. That was more than the total number of points the Bears gave up in the six previous games—or the five subsequent ones. Marino threw off a quick drop, or he rolled out and flipped the ball half a step in front of the hot breath of his pursuers. The Bears rushed like maniacs. They abandoned their lanes. They over-pursued on long-yardage downs, and Marino converted third-and-18, -19 and -13 situations. Ryan waves his hand before his eyes when he's reminded of the game, as if trying to brush away a bitter memory. "We didn't contain the quarterback," he says. "They got 100 yards' worth of big plays on third-and-long. They brought a wideout all the way across the field one time. John Elway is the best scrambler in the league and what happened when he played the Bears [in '84]? He couldn't get outside. Marino did. But he wouldn't if we had played our game."
The Vikings' Tommy Kramer gave the world a brief look at what happens when a quarterback is agile enough to escape the horns. That was the Sept. 19 game in which Jim McMahon came off the bench and threw nothing but touchdowns to rally the Bears from a 17-9 deficit to a 33-24 win. But almost lost in the heroics was the fact that Minnesota had the Bears on the ropes and would have put them away if McMahon hadn't saved things. All of a sudden Kramer, buying time, was able to find holes in the coverage.
The question is: Can Eason do that on Sunday? He had some very flashy games in 1984. In Foxboro he matched Marino almost score for score, driving New England for TDs on three straight series. The Patriots lost the shootout, but Eason's numbers were dazzling—313 yards, three TDs, no interceptions. Working almost exclusively off a short, three-step drop, he beat the Jets with three touchdown passes, 354 yards and, again, no interceptions. He came into the Seattle game after Steve Grogan was yanked and brought the Patriots back from 0—23 to a 38—23 win. "That's the game that made believers of us," Brock says.
The '84 season ended in a deluge of sacks for Eason. The line collapsed, allowing 36 sacks in the last five games. Eason started the '85 season working with a new system and a crowd that turned ugly on him. When he went down with a shoulder separation in the sixth game, there were cheers. For six weeks he sat on the bench and watched old pro Grogan work the offense, and he learned. When Eason returned to the lineup on Nov. 24 after Grogan suffered a knee injury, he had gotten himself together, but then Berry put the wraps on him. He had noticed that every time Eason had thrown 30 or more passes (four times), the Patriots had lost.
The Patriots will probably start out running the ball—occasionally throwing on a nonpassing down—to see how things go. McMahon has a hot hand right now, and Walter Payton is still every bit as formidable as he ever was, but the Patriots' defense was magnificent in the Miami victory and Berry has every reason to believe it will be able to hold Chicago—for a while. Then maybe a turnover will come, and a quick score, and New England will be in a position to dictate. That's scenario No. 1. Scenario No. 2 is more realistic. Chicago is a low-turnover team. The Bears have only one turnover in the playoffs—a short Rams punt that hit a Chicago player who was lying on the ground. Praying for turnovers is not logical. Hoping to pound the Bears on the ground is very optimistic. It might come down to Eason's artistry—and how much imagination Berry puts into his passing attack.
One jarring note about the Bears: They're not as together in this thing as people might think. The salary squabbles, which cost them last year's All-Pro strong safety, Todd Bell, and the starting right linebacker, Al Harris, have left a very bad taste on the team, although Mike Ditka refuses to dwell on it. Dent, who led the NFL in sacks, threatened to boycott the Super Bowl because of dissatisfaction over his salary. An All-Pro, he's making $90,000. Bell made $77,000 in 1984, while Harris made $145,000.
"Bell is the best I ever played with, an explosive powerful hitter," Fencik says. "The kind of guy whose hits turn a game."
The Bears rank 24th in the league in payroll, according to an NFL Players Association survey. Some writers already have ranked their defense No. 1 of all time, but the combined salaries of the 11 defensive starters they will put on the field in the Super Bowl is $550,000 less than that of the 11 Patriot defenders, according to a report Sunday in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. None of this is lost on the Bear players.
The salary questions will have to wait, however, until after the Super Bowl. The Bears have been installed as 10-point favorites, one of only two double-figure betting lines on the Super Bowl since the early days, when the NFL automatically got a big price. The Packers covered both times in the first two games, but in the next two, the Jets and Chiefs both upset the odds and won straight up.
I can't see it happening this time. The pick: Bears 17-10.
Chicago Bears Base 46 Defense
—Both outside linebackers on one side
—McMichael and Hampton switch positions: McMichael goes to DE and Hampton to noseguard
—Dent rushes from the weak or open side, but can also drop back into pass coverage
—Strong safety Duerson has weakside linebacker responsibility
—Middle linebacker Singletary has strong safety responsibility
—Three of four defensive linemen face single-man blocking
76 Steve McMichael, DT
99 Dan Hampton, DE*
72 William Perry, DT
95 Richard Dent, DE*
55 Otis Wilson, LLB*
58 Wilber Marshall, RLB
50 Mike Singletary, MLB*
27 Mike Richardson, LCB
45 Gary Fencik, FS
22 Dave Duerson, SS*
21 Leslie Frazier, RCB
23 Shaun Gayle, CB
98 Tyrone Keys, DE
[STAR] *Pro bowl players
46 Nickel variation blitzing scheme vs. Dallas (44-0)
—Wilson (55) and Marshall (58) both blitz, sometimes working stunts off their blitzes
—Tyrone Keys (98) replaces Perry
—Dent (95) moves to DT
3-3-5 Nickel variation pass rush scheme vs. Giants (21-0); 3-wide-receiver formation
—Nickelback Shaun Gayle (23) replaces Perry, giving the Bears a 3-man line. Gayle covers the third wide receiver, or slotman, all over the field
—Marshall (58), normally the right OLB, and Wilson (55), normally the left OLB, rush from defensive end positions, Marshall on the left side, Wilson on the right
—McMichael (76) and Hampton (99) penetrate and try to draw double team coverage, leaving Dent (95) to loop inside to open area (two of his 3½ sacks came on this stunt).