SI correspondent Kevin Lamb reports on the Vikings' 23-7 upset of the Bears on Sunday:
When Mike Ditka kept saying the Super Bowl champions needed to get better, his warnings were generally dismissed as the ravings of a mad perfectionist. Here was a team that had won its first six games in '86 and had won 24 of 25 before heading off to Minneapolis.
The Vikings stopped the Bears' running game and unleashed their pass rushers for seven sacks. They controlled the ball 17 more minutes than the Bears, who had led 43 of their last 44 regular-season opponents in possession time.
"They dominated us, up front on the line of scrimmage, on offense and defense," Ditka said.
Most of all, the Vikings gave hope to the rest of the NFL as it reaches the season's midpoint this weekend. It will take a few weeks to see whether Minnesota's victory was an ominous alarm for the Bears or merely a wake-up call. "You hope you don't have to get beat to get the players' attention," Chicago's defensive coordinator Vince Tobin said, "but maybe you do."
Ditka has measured the whole season against what it will take to win the first back-to-back Super Bowl championships of the '80s. That was why the Bears underwent a minor shake-up even though they were 6-0.
The day after the Houston game on Oct. 12, Ditka announced backup guard Kurt Becker would share time with starters Tom Thayer and Mark Bortz. "They ought to take their shoulder pads off and put on hand pads," he said of the guards' blocking at Houston. Ditka also took William Perry out of the goal-line offense. Perry's weight is up to nearly 330 pounds and he hasn't qualified all season for the twice-weekly $1,000 bonuses he could get for weighing 320. And Perry, suffering from a slightly dislocated kneecap, no longer has the quick start that prompted Ditka to put a defensive tackle at fullback.
On Oct. 13 testiness grew at the Bears' camp when the team traded with the Rams for Doug Flutie, the USFL refugee. In protest, Jim McMahon, who missed the Vikings game with a sore shoulder and bruised kidney, wore Flutie's college No. 22 on his red quarterback jersey at practice. He cried about Ditka's lack of loyalty to Steve Fuller and Mike Tomczak, the backup quarterbacks who have started and won for the Bears. On Monday Ditka said the Bears would sign Flutie "for this year" and added, "I could carry four quarterbacks."
Ditka says he has put more pressure on himself this season "because of personal goals." He had occasionally alluded to going undefeated. Now that possibility is gone. The bickering and controversy remain. The Bears and Ditka met Monday for what the coach called an "air-clearing session."
"A lot of players," he said, "have become offended about being criticized." Said safety Gary Fencik, "One of the problems we've had this year is that every time we win a game, no one's happy."
Greg Townsend, suspended by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, missed Sunday's Miami game and was fined one sixteenth of his salary ($7,812) for—among other acts of flagrant violence—stomping on the helmetless head of David Lutz, the Chiefs' offensive tackle, on Oct. 5.
Here's what players are saying about Townsend:
•Reggie Williams, Bengals linebacker: "He has put a very large bull's-eye on his back—a flashing neon bull's-eye.... Stomping on a player's head when he doesn't have his helmet on is the height of cheap shots."
•Kellen Winslow, Chargers tight end: "He broke [the code] a long time ago, because he did it to me before. That's Greg's style of play. I've been kicked; I've been kneed by Greg. Blatant. But it's never been called. I have no sympathy for his plight whatsoever. Just because you're playing this game for a living doesn't mean you throw out the laws of civilization."
•Rickey Jackson, Saints outside linebacker: "He played beyond the players' morals...what they take inside themselves. He should be made to write an apology letter [to Lutz]."
The Townsend incident is proof that the NFL's fine and suspension system for violence must be overhauled. Several players surveyed believe that the penalties are too lenient. Some went so far as to call for more suspensions.
"The only thing that makes a player stop and think is a suspension," says Kansas City safety Deron Cherry. "What's a fine?"
Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association, says, "We believe the fines are too high already." However, Jack Donlan, the director of the NFL Management Council, says he will try to change the structure of the fine system—based on a percentage of a player's salary—in upcoming collective bargaining negotiations.
The Townsend incident has also accentuated an even more important issue: Rozelle's lack of action in wiping out violence as well as his inconsistency in imposing fines. The best example: There were several kicks to the head in the massive melee in the Cards-Bears exhibition game, and four Cards were fined a total of $8,800. But there were no suspensions. Rozelle should suspend any player for kicking, whether the helmet is on or off.
Says John Robinson, the Rams coach: "The league must prevent a climate of violence from developing. Like on the 11 o'clock news. The clip of a hockey game is the goals and the fights. If the NFL allows this game to be just touchdowns and fights, it's in deep trouble."
Last week, as his league was filing papers in Federal District Court in New York City seeking injunctive relief against the NFL, USFL commissioner Harry Usher was pondering his own future and packing for his return home to California.
Usher, 47, who has lived in New York since taking office in 1984, had shuttled coast to coast at least twice a month to see his wife and four children.
"In terms of where the league stands right now, I just don't see a need for my being on-site in New York. I don't have to physically be here to be commissioner," Usher said.
When asked what toll the job had taken on him, Usher laughed and said, "Besides having a heart attack? Besides heart surgery?" Usher underwent quadruple-bypass surgery last year; it was his second such operation.
The USFL will reduce its front office staff to three people—controller Joe Cussick, director of operations Peter Hadhazy and general counsel Jane Ellison.
Meanwhile, the USFL will hope for help from the courts. The most intriguing proposal presented to Judge Peter Leisure suggests that the AFC, NFC and USFL hold separate player drafts, have separate negotiations for TV contracts and share revenues by division.
Ernest Givins, the Oilers' No. 2 draft pick out of Louisville, is causing a lot of commotion in Houston. The little wide receiver—he's 5'9", 168 pounds—isn't afraid to go over the middle. "If you concentrate on the football and not the defenders, it doesn't hurt," says Givins, who is averaging 18.7 yards per catch. "When you worry about the collision, it'll really hurt."
After a spectacular catch, Givins spins the ball on the ground like a top. "It feels sooooo good," says Givins, nicknamed Spinner by his Oiler teammates.
The rookie, who has run a 4.36 40, has two veterans to thank for his success—John Jefferson, the former San Diego and Green Bay All-Pro, who had tried out with the Oilers, and Tim Smith, the two-time 1,000-yard performer whom Givins has replaced in the starting lineup.
Jefferson pulled Givins aside in practice one day in July and said, "I've heard a lot about you. I'd like to help you." J.J. taught Givins how to cut on the run, to round off his routes.
"I was slipping all over the field," Givins says. "I couldn't keep my balance. But J.J. kept after me. If I hadn't learned to run this way, I never would have caught a pass."
Smith helps Givins during games. "He gives me tips on coverages," Givins says. "He's such a nice guy, sometimes I feel funny about taking his job."
Givins grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., with dreams of becoming a major league baseball player. His father, Ernest Sr., was an outfielder in the Cleveland farm system. But in Givins's senior year at Lakewood High, he struck out twice in one game and decided baseball wasn't for him. The opposing pitcher was Dwight Gooden.
"That changed my mind about baseball," Givins says. "I thought I was that bad. I didn't realize he was just that good."
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
OFFENSE: Saints running back Rueben Mayes carried the ball 24 times for 172 yards—the second-best rushing performance in club history—and two TDs as New Orleans beat Tampa Bay 38-7.
DEFENSE: Chiefs safety Lloyd Burruss had nine tackles, three assists and three interceptions—two of which he returned for TDs, tying an NFL record—as Kansas City defeated the Chargers 42-41.
Here is the All-Black-and-Blue Team--running backs and quarterbacks who have subjected their bodies to more week-after-week pounding than anybody else in NFL history. (Asterisks indicate current players.)
TOP 10 IN RUSHING ATTEMPTS
QBS SUFFERING MOST SACKS