It's a picture that somehow won't come into focus, a pretty girl with one blue eye and one brown one. Quarterback Jim McMahon had just done it again for the Chicago Bears, this time against the Green Bay Packers. He moved Chicago 41 yards with two flicks of his right arm, Kevin Butler kicked a 52-yard field goal with :00 showing on the clock, and the Bears prevailed 26-24.
Three weeks, three fourth-quarter heart-stoppers. Down by 12 points going into the final 15 minutes against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 25, Chicago won by one as McMahon dramatically returned from a shoulder injury that some people thought had ended his career. Trailing the Kansas City Chiefs by 11 with one quarter to go on Nov. 1, he fired two passes to Willie Gault, and the Bears won by three. On Sunday the Packers led by eight as the fourth quarter opened and by one with a minute left. Three possessions for McMahon's crew in the final period, three scores. The magic is back. Or is it?
"I hate to think of what will happen when we run out of miracles," said McMahon, standing by his locker after the game, trying to knot a black leather tie that wouldn't cooperate. A radio guy shoved a mike in his face and said, "Do you think that instead of calling you the Monsters of the Midway, they'll be calling you the Cardiac Cubs?"
At one time, McMahon would have snarled at this display of media flippancy, but this is the new McMahon, lower-keyed, happy to be back among the living. He actually gave the question some thought. Then he said, "We can't continue to play this way. We're not playing well, but we keep winning. It's scary. If I had thrown well, it would have been a different game. The receivers kept getting open, and I kept missing them. As open as they got, I should've had a 400-yard day."
November 16, 1987
Four hundred yards? Do you know how many 300-yard games McMahon has had in his six-year NFL career? Dan Marino and Dan Fouts crank out 300-yarders every 20 minutes. McMahon, who completed 21 of 42 throws for 259 yards and one TD and was intercepted twice by the Pack, has had none—zero. In fact, he never has had to throw as many times as he did on Sunday. It hadn't been necessary. Chicago crushed people with its defense and ran the ball down its opponents' throats. McMahon kept everything running right, and he inspired the Bears. And when they needed him to get the ball to someone, he did that, too.
But they're a different animal now. Sure, the cardiac stuff is great, and the fans love it, but where's the defense? Chicago is using the same people, so how are teams like the Buccaneers, the Chiefs and the Packers piling up those big leads?
Poststrike blahs, says team president Mike McCaskey. A matter of timing, of being too anxious, says middle linebacker Mike Singletary. "You'll see the real Bear defense this Sunday." Singletary said that two days before the game.
Better put it on hold for a while. Among other transgressions, the defense (which must make do for at least a month without end Dan Hampton and linebacker Otis Wilson, who suffered knee injuries on Sunday) let Green Bay move in for the 47-yard field goal that put it ahead with a minute left—neatly setting up the Jim McMahon Show. "You've got to give him credit," said Packer linebacker Brian Noble. "His arm isn't 100 percent. He's not throwing with the zip and accuracy he had. He's getting it done through sheer determination. He could've gone in the tank after the two interceptions [which led to two first-half TDs], but he stood back and let 'em fly."
In the days before the game there was talk that coach Mike Ditka might hold McMahon out of the Green Bay game. McMahon had pulled a groin muscle against Kansas City. Further, the weather forecast called for possible showers at game time. That meant a less than mobile McMahon could be playing on a slippery field against a team known in recent years for its viciousness. To wit: noseguard Charles (Too Mean) Martin body-slamming McMahon out of action for the 1986 season. So why risk the well-being of a vital player when your team is 6-1 and has its usual stranglehold on the division?
"If I were real nervous about it I'd hold him out," said Ditka, "but I always thought that the game's supposed to be played with both teams putting their best players on the field."
McMahon didn't help things when he did a radio show early in the week and mentioned that the Packer organization, including its coach, Forrest Gregg, lacked class. "I do that show two minutes after I get out of bed in the morning," he said a few days later. "I put on the headphones, get the mike.... I'm not really awake, you know. Half the time I don't even remember what I say. It's just the first thing out of my mouth."
Still, Martin did put him out for the year, and he was wearing that nasty towel with the numbers on it, including McMahon's No. 9, that looked so ominously like a hit list. "Well, you never know," McMahon says of that fateful game. "I did hear some things the night before from a guy I know on the Packers. We were having a beer together, and he said, 'Watch yourself tomorrow.' I asked him why. 'Forrest doesn't like you,' he said. Well, a lot of people don't like me, probably because I shoot my mouth off so much."
McMahon's injured shoulder had sidelined him for three games in 1985 and for six of the first 11 games last year. Doctors had told him it was a deteriorating condition and that he probably would need surgery after the season. Martin's cheap shot in Game 12 just sped up the process. "I knew if I kept playing, it would get worse and worse," says McMahon. "The problem was the front part of my arm socket. I'd fractured my shoulder in high school, broken a piece from the top, and over the years the joint got worn down until there was nothing there to hold it. What kept me playing was the strength I'd developed from all the years of lifting weights. The shoulder kept popping in and out. The Bear doctors didn't believe it was as bad as it was, because I was still throwing. I kept telling them, 'I'm a medical marvel.' Hell, I've played in more pain.
"I got painkiller shots for all six games I played in last year. Yeah, I know, it was stupid, but I felt I had something to prove. Practices didn't help. There were only so many throws I had in the arm. Maybe if I could have gone without practicing.... But Mike had a rule—no practice, no play. I know there were coaches and players on the team who questioned how badly injured I really was. Then after I had surgery, they figured, Yeah, maybe the guy really was hurt. Hell, in 1984 I played seven weeks with a broken hand, and I stayed in the Raider game for 15 minutes with a lacerated kidney. I guess some guys just forgot all that. I know Mike came over to me one time and told me he didn't think I was hurt."
The memory of those days haunts Ditka. "I never questioned his courage," he says. "I thought he was being lazy. I was wrong. I admit it. It was the only time we've had a real bad relationship. I can't listen to 16 people. Our doctor said one thing; other people said another. He'd throw well before the games. I didn't know. Now I know. I was wrong."
Nineteen days after Martin put him down, McMahon flew to Los Angeles to have major reconstructive work done by Dr. Frank Jobe. "He said I was lucky I even had a chance to try to come back and play," McMahon says. "He said the tear in the rotator cuff was the least of my problems. The reason I got the tear was that the shoulder kept coming out of the socket, and I could have shredded the whole thing."
In the preseason Ditka spoke guardedly about McMahon's chances of playing again. Privately he had almost written him off. "When the season started I wouldn't have given very good odds about him playing effectively this year," says Ditka. "He had no endurance, no strength. He couldn't throw two days in a row. In a way, the strike helped him because it gave him extra time to do a lot of strength-building work."
McMahon made his first appearance against Tampa Bay, after the Bucs had run up a 23-14 halftime lead. Taking just one quarter to get rid of the rust, he then completed 12 of 14 passes on the Bears' last two scoring drives. He called his own plays at the end. Ditto the entire second half of the Kansas City game. He mixed in some hurry-up offense. The guys around him loved it. No. 9 was in command again.
Back when all NFL quarterbacks called their own games, John Unitas said, "A quarterback hasn't really arrived until he can tell the coach to go to hell." In giving McMahon the freedom to run his own show, if only in spots, including at the end of last week's game, Ditka is allowing him to do just that—kind of. "People ask me if I'd go to a system where McMahon can call the entire game himself," says Ditka. "Hey, what's the difference? He'll check off and change the stuff I send in anyway. He'll say, 'Gee, I thought it was a blitz, Coach,' or something like that. Sometimes we fight, but I'll tell you this, the Bears have another dimension when he's the quarterback."
Nothing much has changed in McMahon's approach to football. He still believes that film study is a waste of time. You learn by what you see in front of you on the field. Then your instincts take over. Problem is, how many quarterbacks have the right instincts?
"I sit in the room and watch films because I have to," McMahon says. "I get carried away and start looking at them like a fan. I watch the ball. I look at guys I know to see how they're doing. That's probably one thing about me that upsets Mike so much. I don't believe in the almighty film. Looking at a press-box view isn't half as good as lining up and going by what your eyes tell you. For me that's never been hard. Maybe it's a gift, but I never even watched much film in college. I trusted my instincts."
"I know it sounds weird," says offensive tackle Jimbo Covert, "but he's an amazing student of the game. He just has a feel for it, an on-the-field awareness of how to attack a defense. That rubs off on us. You feel that something special's going to happen. You need to score this quarter or this drive, he does it. If you had a guy who couldn't produce, you might feel kind of shaky, but he produces, over and over. It's just business as usual."
Well, not quite. Take the last drive against the Packers. With 56 seconds to play and Chicago still with all three of its timeouts, McMahon took the Bears from their own 24 to the Packers' 35 on two completions. Then came three straight flirtations with disaster in the next 40 seconds. He missed Gault, and Green Bay cornerback Dave Brown almost intercepted the pass. Nickelback Tiger Greene blitzed on the next play, and McMahon threw the ball to no one, escaping without a grounding call. "I asked the ref, 'What's the deal, there's no one standing here but us?' " said safety Ken Stills of the Pack. "He said, 'It's not my call.' "
With 10 seconds to go, McMahon overthrew Gault, and Stills came within an inch of making a diving interception. "I rolled over real quick and held the ball up, like we're taught," Stills said. "Then I started running with it. One official bought the act. One didn't."
Now it was up to Butler, who merely had to match his personal-best kick of 52 yards. He was 1 for 12 in the NFL on boots of 50 yards or more, but this one just made it. There was maybe a foot to spare. And Chicago won its 25th game in a row in which McMahon has started.
The Bears are 7-1 by the seat of their pants, with a running game that has fizzled—Walter Payton & Co. rushed for only 104 yards on Sunday—and a defense that's scratching its head. But McMahon is back, and so is the magic. At least for now.