The Chicago bearshave been dealt five cards in their 1987 quarterback poker game: To get toSuper Bowl XXII they will have to discard a pair, hold two, draw none, lay downone and call the bets.
On Sunday againstthe Miami Dolphins in the first game at Joe Robbie Stadium—somewhere out nearthe Broward County line and built on land repossessed from swamp animals—theBears played showdown with Mike Tomczak for one half and with Doug Flutie andJim Harbaugh for one quarter each. The Bears won 10-3 and nobody called theirbluff. All three of the young guys did O.K. against one of the NFL's weakerdefenses, and coach Mike Ditka even managed a half-smile in the postgame lockerroom. Earlier he had said, "We don't necessarily have to live and die witha quarterback. It's not all gonna come down to the startingquarterback."
Yes it is. Itreally is.
And exactly howdid the mighty Bears get into such an insecure position? As we all remember,Chicago beat the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX, the most lopsidedSuper Bowl ever. Jim McMahon, he of the billboard headbands and ostentatiouspunkness, led the team that day with 2 rushing touchdowns and 12 completions in20 passing attempts for 256 yards, proving in no uncertain terms that he wasthe Man in charge of this very talented group. Under McMahon, the theory went,the Bears could become pro football's dynasty of the decade, the PittsburghSteelers of the "80s. The team seemed to lack nothing.
August 23, 1987
But McMahonproved to be as fragile as he is charismatic. Last season he missed 10 gamesplus the 27-13 playoff loss to Washington because of a damaged right shoulder.He had rotator cuff surgery on the shoulder in December. All he has been ableto prove since January 1986 is that no man can be the Man from a hospitalbed.
Indeed, theMcMahon era has been almost as ironic and unsettling for the Bears as it hasbeen glorious. McMahon has missed 25 games because of injuries since mid-1982,when he became the full-time starter. The Bears have had to use sevenquarterbacks to fill in for him. Remember Rusty Lisch? Greg Landry? WalterPayton working from the shotgun? Every play with McMahon is a crapshoot. Everynew season is a desperate spin of the wheel. And the uncertainty drains histeammates.
"I would hateto see what happened last year happen again this year," says center JayHilgenberg. "We didn't know until the pregame huddle who was going to beour quarterback. Always a big mystery."
And so the Bearshold a poker hand from which must come either a dazzling winner or a dismalloser. With good quarterbacking the Bears are a royal flush, without it they'rea four-card straight. The cards:
1) McMahon—joker.You either make this the winning wild card or you throw it out. McMahon's rightshoulder is in approximately the same condition as that of a pitcher who hasthrown too many sliders. The surgery, performed by Dr. Frank Jobe, could givethe 28-year-old McMahon the ability to throw the way he used to. That is, withmaximum cunning if not magnum force.
The problem isthat McMahon has not yet loosened up—or at least the Bears hope that is theproblem. He threw some passes at the beginning of training camp, but recentlyhis shoulder has been too sore for him to throw at all. McMahon'srehabilitation specialist. Bob Gajda, insists that the pain is from "musclesoreness" and not a warning signal of some major structural defect."It's the same soreness anybody would feel if they went to spring trainingwith the White Sox or Cubs," he says. But as McMahon notes, "Dr. Jobesaid it would take a year at least for the reconstruction area to behealed." Only eight months have passed since the surgery.
McMahon posed fora shot in Playboy recently, wearing a tank top and shades, curling a chromeddumbbell with his right arm. No surgical scar is visible in the picture, whichbothers McMahon. "I wanted people to see it," he says. Why? "Sothey'd know I did have something done." As he bends down in the locker roomto tie his high-topped shoes, he flinches, and it's obvious that he hadsomething done, all right—something that still hurts.
"Maybe I'mhoping more than I'm using logic, but I have a good gut feeling that he's goingto be O.K.," Ditka said at the Bear training camp in Platteville, Wis.,before the Miami game. "I know he's communicating better with me this year.And he wants his shoulder to be better. But it's essential that he startthrowing again, and he's gotta have contact. I don't think I'd allow him tohave his first contact, of the year come from the Giants in ouropener."
Then, employinglogic instead of hope, Ditka sighed and said, "The scenario is he may haveto go on injured reserve. I try not to even think about it."
2) Tomczak—jackof clubs. The third-year, 6'1", 205-pound free agent from Ohio State couldwork his way up to being the ace of clubs if he continues to progress as he hassince last season. In 1986 he started and won seven games for the Bears. That'sthe good news. The bad is that even though he won those games, his mechanicswere occasionally poor and he threw five times as many interceptions (10) astouchdown passes (2). Ditka brought in Flutie to relieve the tailspinningTomczak down the stretch during the '86 season.
A lesser manmight have folded, and the off-season speculation was that Tomczak would be thefirst quarterback cut this fall, right before Steve Fuller. But he went back toOSU, gained 10 pounds of muscle (he now benches 315 pounds), hit a speed bag toimprove his hand quickness and endlessly practiced his pass drop and weighttransfer. At the same time he finished work on his degree in communications andgraduated in May with 9,000 other students in Ohio Stadium. "I walked thechalk," he says proudly.
His newconfidence and improved form made him a standout in camp. "He feels more incontrol," says Ditka, who named him the starter for the Miami game as soonas it was obvious McMahon could not play. "I think he's got that chip onhis shoulder that Ditka always talks about," says Hilgenberg.
Indeed he does.Tomczak is still annoyed that he was a free agent. "Why wasn't I drafted?You tell me," he says angrily and often. Nor does he like the way Ditkagave up on him last year. "What I thought and what the head coach thoughtwere two different things," he says. He also knows there aren't manyfree-agent quarterbacks who win starting jobs in the NFL, but he doesn't care."I'm ready to take the bull by the horns. To be blunt, the hell with Jim. Ilike him, but he isn't here. I am. Let's see what happens."
3) Flutie—two ofhearts. Twos can be wild cards, or just little cards. Around Chicago people areamazed when they see the 5'9" Flutie in public. "He isn't sosmall," they say incredulously as though they expected Tom Thumb or EddieGaedel. "His height sometimes restricts his vision," says Landry, nowthe Bears' quarterback coach. "But I don't know if that's as serious aproblem as people make it out to be."
People rememberFlutie's failure in last season's playoff game against Washington (11-for-31passing with two interceptions). And some feel that whether it's because of alack of size or a lack of discipline afield or a lack of that old BostonCollege magic (the Robbie Stadium crowd booed him lustily in angry memory ofthe famous Hail Mary pass that beat the University of Miami in 1984), he willnever make it in the NFL. "He really gets a bum deal for the Washingtongame," says Ditka. "I've watched that game over and over, and believeme, we didn't play well as a team."
Ditka still getssome heat for bringing Flutie in at all last year from the USFL. "I justliked his numbers and the kind of person he is," says the coach defiantly."I really thought he was going to take us to the Super Bowl."
Flutie andTomczak are precisely the same age, 24—same day, month and year. "Wediscovered that at the Japan Bowl as seniors," Flutie says. But Flutie wonthe Heisman Trophy, and in a way he is burdened with that glittering load inthe same way that Tomczak is by his low-rent status as a free agent. "Whichone of us seems older?" Tomczak will ask rhetorically. And the answer isFlutie, simply because he seems to have been around forever.
On the wall inthe Bears' weight-training area in Platteville someone taped a photo of a fawnlying on the ground and wrote under it, "Doug Flutie resting in the coolshade." Whether it is because of Ditka's initial favoritism, McMahon'scontinued hostility or some other factor, Flutie still does not seem to be aregular member of the Bears. Of course, he disputes this. "I playedbasketball and golf with a lot of the guys this off-season," he says. Healso bristles when the subject of animosity between Bear quarterbacks comes up."Our camaraderie is fine," he says. "It just kills me that thepress is trying to build the whole thing up. And anyway, you don't competeagainst each other. You compete only against yourself."
4) Harbaugh—aceof diamonds. It all depends on whether you're playing aces high or low. As theBears' 1987 first-round draft choice, Michigan's Harbaugh, 21 years old,6'3", 205 pounds, could be the quarterback of the future or just a wastedhigh pick. Ditka admits he wanted linebacker Alex Gordon as the Bears' firstchoice, but he was overruled by the rest of the club's brain trust. Ditka saysnow that he couldn't be happier with Harbaugh. "I like his control, hisapproach to the game, his wanting to be the leader." Ditka says. Harbaughresponds confidently: "I don't know how to prepare to be a backupquarterback. I want it all now." Ditka also likes the fact that Harbaugh'sarm is stronger than some scouts had believed. "It's not a Terry Bradshawor Bert Jones arm," says Landry, "but it's strong enough to play in theleague." Says Ditka, "A lot of coaches won't start rookies, but I'dhave no problem starting him."
Harbaugh haslooked good in training camp, even though, as Ditka drily notes, "He tendsto introduce part of the Michigan offense to ours occasionally."
Two things aboutthe youngster can't be denied. Number one, he has spunk. He came to Chicago tomeet the press after the NFL draft even though he was suffering from chickenpox and looked like a speckled trout. "I'll never be self-conscious aboutanything again," he says. And on one of his first days at camp, he held hisown in a small dustup with All-Pro defenders Dan Hampton and Richard Dent. SaysHarbaugh, "I scrambled, and they came after me, and when I was getting upthey shoved me, and Hampton said, 'We wouldn't have to do that if you'd stayput.' Well, I didn't want to tell them how they should play defense, so what Ibasically said was,'——you.' "
He also has had alot of solid preparation for dealing with the notoriously hot-and-coldDitka—Mr. Flexible, as Ditka has taken to calling himself. "I played for BoSchembechler," says Harbaugh. "They're the same person. I don't thinkanybody has had better training than me for Ditka's kind of thing. Bo yelled atme and didn't stop until I graduated. It got to be fun after a while. You justcan't take anything personally."
Harbaugh pausesthoughtfully for a moment, then says, "You know, I played golf with Bo afew weeks ago. He was wearing yellow checked pants and a striped shirt—helooked like a guy who'd lost a bet. Plus he shot 108. I gave him a little backthat day."
5) Fuller—king ofspades, a.k.a. the dead king. As a starter, he guided the team to the 1984 NFCChampionship Game after McMahon went down with a kidney injury in Game 10, andhis overall record for the Bears was 7-4. This is a stat that belies Fuller'sbasically low-key on-field demeanor. But then almost anyone seems low-keycompared with the head-butting, snuff-dipping McMahon. It matters not a whit,because Fuller, 30, had surgery on his right shoulder on Aug. 13 and is out forthe season, and possibly forever. Ironically, he injured that shoulder, not ina game or even in a scrimmage, but while lifting weights to get himself inshape for training camp.
"It was thelast rep I was going to do on the last day I was going to lift," he sayswithout anger. He had already figured out his possibilities in the quarterbackcontest. "If Mac came back healthy, I probably was going to play somewhereelse. The reason I think the Bears didn't try to deal me is that the otherthree guys are young, and without Jim they might have wanted a veteran. Jim andI are pretty good friends, and I know he's going to give it everything he's gotto come back."
Fuller waxesphilosophical for a moment, no doubt pondering injuries like those suffered byMcMahon and himself. "A lot of the time football players don't get muchsympathy, because we only work seven, eight months a year and it's a glamorouslife and we make a lot of money. But then you see old-timers, guys 50 yearsold, who can't get around. You can't put a price on something likethat."
No you can't. Andthe Bears won't because the 1987 season looks pretty much like business asusual for this lunatic team. "Once again it's 'All My Bears,' " sayslinebacker Otis Wilson. Walter Payton is still dancing about at age 33, theFridge is up to 327 pounds. Mugs Halas has been exhumed, the defense isimpenetrable and motor scooters have not yet ruined any team members (thoughHarbaugh's legs are painted with Merthiolate from a crash that occurred just 20feet from takeoff on his maiden journey aboard a Honda Elite).
In the Miamigame. Harbaugh went 4 for 4 in his fourth-quarter stint and threw his first NFLtouchdown pass, a beautiful 65-yarder to the speedy rookie receiver Ron Morrisfrom Southern Methodist, the team's second-round draft choice. "I suggestedthe play to Ditka, and then he called it," marveled Harbaugh afterward."I'd try that in college and Bo would say, 'Shut up and quarterback!'"
Tomczak (9 for 17for 68 yards and two interceptions) and Flutie (3 for 8 for 19 yards) were eachhurt by dropped passes. Both showed similarly quick feet and relaxed demeanors,although Flutie had the best line in the locker room. Of his errant sidelinepass that sailed directly into the arms of the smiling Miami coach Don Shula,he said, "I believe he was more open than the tight end."
But as always,most of Chicago's concern still focuses on McMahon, a defiant and obnoxioussort whose increased vulnerability has had the odd effect of making himsympathetic.
At thePlatteville Pig Roast last week, a rowdy civic event at which the Bears andsome 1,700 residents of southwestern Wisconsin ate pork and praised each otherfor jobs well done, Ditka told the rapt audience, "You're all my guests atthe Super Bowl!" He let that sink in and waited for the murmuring to stop."Your tickets will be paid for by Jim McMahon, a very generousman."
Indeed, the coachis right—McMahon is a generous man. He has given generously of his body to thegame of football. But this time he may have given too much.