Forget all the summer speculation. We won't know for sure until Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon takes the field—or does not take the field—in the opener against the Giants on Monday night. Has it been a smoke screen, this talk about how he has come all the way back from his shoulder injury? Or could he really be the old McMahon who instills a feeling of invincibility in everyone around him?
His stats were miserable while he was battling injuries last year. His 61.4 rating was the worst of his career. Since the Bears first became a playoff team in 1984, he has missed 25 of 54 starts, counting postseason games. But here's another statistic to think about: No matter how McMahon has played, the Bears have won every one of the last 23 games he has started.
If he's well, he's guaranteed No. 1. Behind him in camp was a mad four-way QB scramble. Eight-year pro Steve Fuller went down early with a shoulder. Mike Tomczak, who got the call when McMahon was first hurt last year, subsequently went through an ego-crusher when Doug Flutie was pulled in off the street to replace him. Everyone remembers those bananas Flutie threw when the Bears were trying to catch up against Washington in the playoffs, but the fact is, he finished with the highest ranking of any Chicago quarterback. He was also the only one who threw more TD passes than interceptions.
The knock on little Doug was that the team seemed to take on a hangdog look when he was in command. No. 1 draft choice Jim Harbaugh, on the other hand, exudes take-charge energy. He has that eagle-eyed, can-do, bring-on-them-terrorists look. Plus a major league arm. All this will be academic if McMahon has an injury-free season.
There's also the matter of the keynote running back. The Bears have relied for so long on Walter Payton to perform the phenomenal that they don't know how to live with just another ordinary good back. And that's all Payton was at the end of 1986. He ended the season with seven straight sub-100-yard games. Neal Anderson, the No. 1 draft choice in '86, will spell Payton at times and play alongside him at times. Either way, he's no replacement for Walter. Watch this sleeper: Anthony Mosley, a free agent from Fresno State.
Chicago's defense was the best in the NFL again; it even allowed five fewer yards than Buddy Ryan's bunch had in '85. At a trimmed-down 320 pounds, William Perry murdered 'em in the one-on-one drills in camp this summer, and end Dan Hampton, who was inconsistent last season after two consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, had his best camp in years. Todd Bell, the former All-Pro safety, is back in shape.
The schedule is not the cream puff it has been in recent years. The opener against the Giants could set the Bears up for an early letdown, but they don't play another team that finished better than .500 last fall until the fifth game. However, their final four opponents—Minnesota, San Francisco, Seattle and the Raiders—are all potential killers. Then again, maybe they will serve as a launching pad to the Super Bowl.
Last season was the Year of the Defensive Coach. Five of the six rookie head coaches who started the season were former defensive leaders. Alas, not one of them had a winning record. The sixth rookie and lone winner was Jerry Burns, who had run the Minnesota Vikings offense for 18 years. Ironically, under Burns the Minnesota defense finished in the top half of the league's stats for the first time since Bud Grant's old Purple Gang back in '78. O.K., defensive coordinator Floyd Peters gets credit for that. But Burns hired Peters and let him put in his old-style 4-3.
Quarterback Tommy Kramer rubbed his eyes, saw that the men in purple were stopping people for a change and proceeded to produce the finest season of his 10-year career. His 92.6 rating led the league. But his sterling ways did not extend beyond the field. He missed the first three weeks of camp undergoing alcohol rehabilitation. Burns says he isn't worried because Kramer has won bouts with the bottle in the past. Burns figures that since the Vikings are a serious threat to make the playoffs for the first time in seven years (unless you count that tournament thing in the '82 strike year), Kramer will find a way to pull himself together again and have another big season.
Last year Minnesota made a couple of trades to get former USFL left tackle Gary Zimmerman, and he did such a thorough job sealing off the backside pressure on Kramer that the offense came alive. It should be even better this season, with No. 1 draft choice D.J. Dozier splitting time at running back with Darrin Nelson. However, what I like best about Minnesota is the defensive front four. They are, from left to right, Doug Martin, Tim Newton, Keith Millard and Chris Doleman. They will be relieved by last year's top draft pick, Gerald Robinson, and by this season's No. 3, Henry Thomas.
Call this the Unsettled Quarterbacks Division. McMahon and Kramer are each undergoing their own particular brand of rehab. Randy Wright is unsettled in Green Bay. Steve DeBerg and Vinny Testaverde are fighting for the job in Tampa. And the Detroit Lions' Chuck Long, whose entire NFL record totals two undistinguished starts, was yanked in the second half of last season's finale against Atlanta. This year, Long became the official starter again on Aug. 3—but only because Eric Hippie broke his thumb in practice. Coach Darryl Rogers could have played it safe and stuck with veteran Joe Ferguson while Long languished learning the intricacies of headphone communications. But Rogers had drafted the kid No. 1 in '86, and he figured it was time to find out what Long could do.
Clearly, Rogers is not afraid to gamble. He's got two years left on his contract, and to those who whisper that he might be in trouble, may we point out that the Lions are still paying Monte Clark, whom they fired after the '84 season. They don't want to eat two salaries.
Rogers also took a chance by drafting defensive end Reggie Rogers in the first round this year. The scouts said he was a bad actor. Sure enough, in May he got a summons from a Seattle court that had to do with a gross misdemeanor assault charge involving his girlfriend. Rogers worked out a deal whereby the charge would be dropped if he stayed away from the woman and attended an anger-management class. Rogers is also mired in a million-dollar lawsuit filed by the famous firm of Walters and Bloom. Rogers is countersuing for $2.7 million. But Reggie impressed the Lions by coming to town a month early to work out—before he was signed.
Despite his willingness to throw dice to make things happen, coach Rogers's options are limited. The offensive line has two guards who are former tackles. That means it can drive-block, but it's not mobile. The best performer is 6'4" left tackle Lomas Brown, who has hardly missed a down in his two seasons as a pro. The defense has some topflight performers—including outside linebackers Mike Cofer and Jimmy Williams and rookie noseguard Jerry Ball, an athletic 6-foot, 288-pounder who can dunk a basketball—but it doesn't have enough of them. Detroit is still in the blahs of the post-Billy Sims era.
There's a curious side to last year's demise of the Green Bay Packers. Even though they racked up their worst record in 28 years, the Packers rose to their best performances against the best teams. They beat Cleveland. In their two games against the Bears, they led in the fourth quarter. They gave the Giants all they could handle. But Green Bay also suffered humiliating losses.
What's this a sign of? Emotional immaturity? Psychological instability? Can't run fast enough? It's tough to tell.
In April the Pack traded to the Raiders its only blue-ribbon All-Pro of the last decade, wide receiver James Lofton. The Green Bay faithful moaned. Yeah, we know, the guy had a trial for second-degree sexual assault hanging over him—he was acquitted of the charges in May—and coach Forrest Gregg had had it with distractions. But still....
All the Packers's bad vibes could evaporate if Brent Fullwood can do what Sims did for the Lions. Or Curt Warner for the Seahawks. Or Eric Dickerson for the Rams. The highest-rated running back in the draft, Fullwood averaged 8.3 yards a carry last season at Auburn. He has the potential to be the most exciting Packer runner in history. The great ones of the past—Hinkle, Canadeo, Hornung, Taylor, Brockington—were all either slip-and-sliders or head-on power guys. Fullwood could be the Packers' first great breakaway back. It's a lot to ask of a rookie, but Green Bay is betting the mortgage on Fullwood.
Believe it or not, the defense actually improved last year, thanks largely to the addition of linebacker Tim Harris, a fourth-round pick who led the club in sacks with seven. Running back Kenneth Davis (4.6-yard average) added some zip to the offense, but nobody had a 100-yard game all season. Well, at least with Fullwood the Packers might not put people to sleep.
History lesson: Some quarterbacks have come into the league and performed magic feats right out of the box—Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, for example. Others have become basket cases. Just ask Jim Plunkett. He took a decade to recover from the beating he got in New England. Give Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Ray Perkins credit for knowing quarterbacks. The Giants' Phil Simms still talks with wonder about the head sessions he used to have with Perk. So Testaverde is in the hands of a master. He will be brought along carefully—maybe too carefully, the fans will say if the record looks like last year's, which it probably will.
DeBerg will probably keep the spot warm for Testaverde for a while, and in 20 years he might be the answer to a terrific trivia question: Name the man who started ahead of three Hall of Fame quarterbacks? And which three? Why, Joe Montana, John Elway and Vinny Testaverde. All right, we're pushing it. Testaverde is about 30,000 passes away from Canton. But here is the book on him for the moment: He can beat a team physically. He did this to Oklahoma last year; he broke too many tackles and ran too many pursuers into the ground before firing those darts, and the Sooners wore out. But a cerebral opponent, Penn State, stopped him with those crazy linebacker drops.
Perkins is expecting great things from his No. 2 pick, linebacker Winston Moss, who was a teammate of Testaverde's at Miami. The offensive line has a few good teeth-gritting types—right tackle Ron Heller and left guard George Yarno—but it's still not big league. Last year the mileage started to show on tailback James Wilder, who was overused far too long. After running for 1,544 yards in '84 and 1,300 in '85, he slipped to 704 last season. It will be a slow process down there by the bay, and the record might not show much improvement. But Vinnie T is in good hands.
HOW THEY'LL FINISH
4. GREEN BAY
5. TAMPA BAY