Doug Williams sat wordless on a short wooden platform in the center of the Washington Redskins' locker room at Soldier Field. Around him teammates exchanged cheers over the Skins' 21-17 victory over the Chicago Bears in the NFC playoffs. Williams stared straight ahead, looking more relieved than pleased. When someone asked if this was his happiest moment since he came to the NFL as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback out of Grambling 10 years ago, he nodded a simple yes. "Know what else?" he said. "It's already yesterday."
Walter Payton of Chicago is probably the finest running back ever. But that was yesterday. Bears quarterback Jim McMahon is an inspirational leader, a big, strong guy who can butt heads with a tractor trailer and come out with his sense of humor intact. Chicago couldn't be beaten in the polar cold of Soldier Field in the playoffs with big Mac at the helm. That was yesterday, too.
For Williams, beating Chicago meant only that he would have to prove himself once more, against Minnesota for the NFC championship. However, for a while on Sunday it looked as if Payton and McMahon would win that opportunity for Chicago. With just 5½ minutes gone in the first quarter and the thermometer reading 4°—Bear weather—Williams was brutally sacked by Richard Dent and fumbled. Chicago's Steve McMichael recovered at the Washington 30. Two carries by Payton moved the Bears to the eight. Three plays later McMahon, playing with a bad hamstring and a surgically repaired throwing shoulder, handed off inside to Calvin Thomas for the TD. Bedlam erupted in the stands. Then, after the Skins failed on a fourth-and-one at the Chicago 32 late in the first quarter, McMahon took the Bears on a 14-play scoring drive. The payoff came on a 14-yard pass to wide receiver Ron Morris, who beat cornerback Barry Wilburn to the post.
If the Super Bowl-champion Chicago Bears of two seasons ago—the old Bears, the Bears of the famed "46" defense—had still been around, the game would have been all but over at that point. No one overcame a 14-0 deficit against the old Bears. Those Bears blitzed from everywhere and sacked quarterbacks relentlessly. On Sunday, though, they could not get to Williams a second time, and that was the difference.
January 18, 1988
Williams trotted back onto the field without either running backs George Rogers or Kelvin Bryant, who, with game contributions of 13 yards rushing and three dropped passes, respectively, might just as well have taken the day off. But fortunately for the Redskins, they would get outstanding performances from Williams, rookie runner Timmy Smith (66 yards on 16 carries), their endless gallery of receivers and from the offensive line against the Bears' front seven. At one time, that would have been a terrible mismatch. Not today.
"This team never quits," said Washington offensive tackle Joe Jacoby. "After giving up that sack, I got a little more motivated. Dent was yelling the whole first quarter and half of the second quarter. Then he stopped."
Williams promptly took the Redskins on a seven-play, 72-yard touchdown drive, calmly dissecting the Chicago secondary as it attempted to disguise its coverages. But the Bears were an open book to Williams. "Doug was making great plays when things weren't there," said Washington coach Joe Gibbs.
Williams converted a third-and-nine with a 32-yard rope to wide receiver Ricky Sanders and then hooked up with tight end Clint Didier for 14 more. That put the Redskins on the Chicago three. Rogers scored from there to make the score 14-7. Chicago's Kevin Butler missed a 48-yard field goal, and Williams repeated himself. This time he needed only 58 seconds to take Washington 69 yards in seven plays. Williams got the touchdown with an 18-yard strike down the middle to Didier.
"I didn't have anything to lose," said Williams. "You all know me. I'm washed up. I can't play. There was nothing to say in the huddle when we were behind. We've all been there before."
"He caught us playing man, and he just kept doing the job," said Chicago's All-Pro outside linebacker, Wilber Marshall. "The man throws bullets. We couldn't get to him. That big body. That quick release."
And the vaunted "46"?
"Oh, we haven't played that since the second game of the season," said Marshall. The "46" was, of course, the brainchild of former Chicago defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who's now head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. "We have a new coaching staff," continued Marshall. "The attitude here was, Hey, we can trash that '46.' We can win without that."
But wasn't that rather like cutting off one's nose to spite one's face?
"I ain't going to touch that one," said Marshall.
Which brings us to Mike Ditka, the Bears coach. Early in the week, Ditka had said that his team "wouldn't have a little guy to blame this time." He was alluding to Doug Flutie and last year's 27-13 playoff loss to Washington. McMahon was sidelined with a shoulder injury, and Flutie, who had joined the Bears in midseason, took over. But Flutie, since departed, had been Ditka's bright idea.
It had also been the coach's idea to bench, for this regular season's final game, defensive tackle William Perry, safety Todd Bell and cornerback Mike Richardson. None of them started on Sunday, either, and there was dissension in the ranks. Said linebacker Otis Wilson, who was benched for Sunday's game: "I did anything the man [Ditka] asked me to, and then he changed to something else. I'll probably be the first one gone." Last month, Bears president Mike McCaskey was quoted as saying that the players had lost confidence in Ditka, though he later said his words had been taken out of context.
Ditka fanned the Redskins' fires when he was quoted as saying that defensive end Dexter Manley had the "IQ of a grapefruit." In fairness to Ditka, he was responding to Manley, who allegedly had called Ditka a "bum." Manley denied saying that. Later, on his pregame TV show, Ditka was told that Manley wanted to send him a case of grapefruit. "How many grapefruit are in a case? Twelve?" Ditka asked. "Then that's his IQ. Twelve." He was not finished. Of McMahon's bum wheel, Ditka said, "He can outrun Sunkist, I know that."
The Bears had taken to calling Manley Sunkist, but aren't coaches supposed to be above that sort of stuff? "I didn't start it. I ain't gonna stop it," said Ditka. "Not even when the game's over."
Manley sacked McMahon only once, but defensive end Charles Mann got to him three times. In addition, McMahon pinched a nerve in his left shoulder when he was hit by middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz after throwing the scoring pass to Morris. After that he threw on nothing but guts and sheer will. "Jim hung in there and played," said Ditka. "He's tough. I've got nothing but praise for the guy."
The score was still tied 14-14 a minute and a half into the third quarter when rookie cornerback Brian Davis intercepted a McMahon pass and returned it 23 yards to the Chicago six. But the Bears got a reprieve. Two plays later, a Williams pass was deflected by McMichael and intercepted by Richardson at the Chicago five. The Bears were content to punt after three harmless downs, figuring all they would surrender was field position. They were not prepared for the play of the day.
Tommy Barnhardt's 44-yard boot floated to the right of cornerback Darrell Green, near the Redskins' sideline. He gathered in the ball at the Washington 48 and was off. Before the game, Green, who in 1986 won the NFL's Fastest Man competition, had worried about the weather. "I'm going to be cold," he said. "We are all human. We just can't be human on game day. I just hope they have some heat on the sideline."
Green provided his own heat along the sideline. He streaked fearlessly along it past his first two pursuers, carried by a remarkably elongated (Green is only 5'8") stride. Then, in a move that somehow combined a hurdle, a high jump and a half-twist, he bounded over Chicago tight end Cap Boso and changed direction in midair. It was a gold-medal move that defied belief as well as Green's own body. The contortion strained the cartilage in his rib cage, but suddenly Green had the entire field to himself. He coasted in with the 52-yard touchdown, holding his side in pain.
The Skins sensed then that they were one game from the Super Bowl. At least 10 teammates surrounded Green behind the end zone. "We're a team," Green said. "All the Bears hate each other, don't they?"
Before the game, Chicago offensive coordinator Ed Hughes had said that Green would be "scared" of Bears wide receiver Willie Gault. Green laughed off Hughes's remark. "[The Bears] would lock me in my car if they could," he said.
The punt return was pivotal for two reasons: It gave Washington seven points, and it took Green out of the game. Reenter Davis, a backup corner-back and a white one at that. As arresting as the sight of Williams, a black quarterback, might be, Davis, as a white cornerback, is of an even rarer breed. Davis had been seeing spot duty when he made that interception early in the second half. Wilburn, the other corner, would stop the Bears' last serious threat with an interception in the end zone with 9:20 remaining.
"We just aren't good enough with the people we have," said Ditka. "We have to make changes."
McMahon disagreed. "Oh, we're good enough. I just threw the ball into [Wilburn's] chest. That was the game."
Wilburn, who had nine interceptions this season, and Davis were nearly flawless in the second half, although Davis did allow a 44-yard completion to Gault late in the third quarter. Davis had Gault covered, but Willie managed to snatch the ball and spin away. It could have been a disaster for Washington, but there was Wilburn, five yards deeper than Gault. Wilburn locked on to him, and they danced, but Gault could not get away. Wilburn made the biggest tackle of his life, at the Redskins' 13-yard line. The Bears settled for a field goal. That made the score 21-17, and that's where it stayed. The Minnesota Vikings' incandescent Anthony Carter will meet a worthy challenger next week, whether it's Green, recovered from his injury, or Wilburn or Davis.
Thanks to McMahon, who was indefatigable even in defeat, Chicago maintained a glimmer of hope until the very end. On fourth-and-eight from his own 36 and with the clock losing its last 41 seconds, McMahon swung the ball out to Payton. The first-down markers were in Sweetness's sights. But there were Davis and Wilburn again. Wilburn drove the great back out of bounds a yard short of the first down. One gigantic yard was denied the man who rushed for more than 16,000 in his 13-year career.
"All my life, I've wanted to be on the same field with Walter Payton, with the legend," said the 24-year-old Davis. "Just to touch him used to be a dream of mine. But Barry and I had him. I hated for it to end like that for Walter, but I said, 'We've got to go on.' "
Payton was still in full dress an hour after the game. "The game of football doesn't owe me a thing," he said. "I'm glad it allowed me the courtesy to play." What else is there to say?
"Barry, Darrell, Brian, Charles Mann, the offensive line, everybody played great," said Redskins general manager and talent guru Bobby Beathard. "But the guy who won this ball game for us was Doug. He read the field wonderfully."
Williams would have little of it. "I like having these guys on my side," he said, sweeping his right arm across the locker room. He had completed 14 of 29 throws for 207 yards and, more important, had converted 7 of 14 third downs against a rugged defense.
Beathard says the 32-year-old Williams will be back in Washington next season, to cross throwing arms with Jay Schroeder, who started most of this season, again. Williams says he's going to play three more years. But that's way off. First, there's tomorrow. On Sunday, Williams will take to the RFK Stadium turf on which he had labored one day, nearly four years ago, before a sparse crowd in the rain for the USFL Oklahoma Outlaws against the misbegotten Washington Federals. He will meet a Minnesota team that Beathard says is "playing better than anybody."
The last team that beat the Vikings? Washington, on the final weekend of the regular season. The Redskins were trailing 24-14 late in the game when Williams rallied them to a 27-24 overtime victory. Of course, as Williams well knows, that was yesterday.