In a little less than three hours on a cloudy, drizzly Chicago Sunday afternoon, the Bears went from a question mark to an exclamation point, from a team that had its fans scratching their heads—how can you lose all those great stars and still survive?—to one that had them bursting with pride and talking Super Bowl. That's what a 34-7 victory will do, especially when it's over the Miami Dolphins, a team Chicago had never beaten.
Going into the game, the best anyone, including Chicago coach Mike Ditka, would say about this puzzling Bears team was that it was interesting. "We're like we were in 1984, the year before we won the Super Bowl—a team trying to find itself," said Ditka. "If we do find ourselves, we could raise hell. If not, then we're just a group of guys going out and playing hard on Sunday."
Jim McMahon was more positive. Two days before he quarterbacked the Bears to their opening-day victory, he said, "In my seven years here this is the best offense I've ever played on."
A put-on, right? Walter Payton is gone. So is Willie Gault, perhaps the fastest wideout in the game. All-Pro left tackle Jimbo Covert is down until at least this Sunday with a bad back; his spot was taken by John Wojciechowski, a strike replacement player from last season. The best? C'mon now.
September 11, 1988
"It's the deepest and most balanced," McMahon said, "and when Jimbo comes back, the line will be the best because it'll be the most experienced. Walter was great, but the offense was lopsided in those days. Willie Gault? When he was traded to the Raiders, I knew we'd be a better team. He always wanted to go out to the West Coast and be an actor. Well, for five years he was an actor playing a football player. Now he's out there with the real actors. Believe me, our group of receivers is better now."
Depth? Balance? Those are coaches' words. Yes, we all know that those qualities are important, but the Bears used to send chills up your spine because they were wild and erratic. The defense blitzed like mad and attacked from all those crazy formations. Now it's disciplined—another coaches' word.
Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino wasn't sacked on Sunday, and he felt a lot less pressure than he did three years ago when he beat Chicago in a 38-24 shootout that was the Bears' only defeat of the season. But this time he was held to nine completions (of 22 attempts), the fewest in his NFL career, and his lowest yardage (113) as a starter. Chicago didn't blitz. It relied on coverages and the overall scheme, which is very un-Bearlike. Both standout blitzing linebackers are absent. Wilber Marshall went to Washington, and Otis Wilson is out with a knee injury.
Neal Anderson is a nifty runner, but those furious gallops of Payton's are a thing of the past. So is the deep streak pattern to Gault. McMahon completed none of the three long throws he tried against Miami. The only pass plays of real length—35 yards to Dennis McKinnon, 22 to Dennis Gentry—came on a crossing pattern and a dump-off, respectively. In each case the receiver took the ball and then outran the secondary.
How about McMahon himself? For a while he was the ultimate run-and-fling quarterback. Remember that game against the Vikings three years ago? He let it all go: took on those linebackers, banged helmets with his own linemen, stuck it to the league office, his coach, the writers, anybody. Who the hell cared? What added to his mystique was that, given the way he threw his body around, the shadow of doom was always there, the threat of the crippling injury. And he has had his share of injuries—more than his share—involving practically every part of his anatomy.
At 29, McMahon is an older and wiser quarterback. He moves in the pocket to buy time; his rollouts are precise and calculated. With a left shoulder that could go out at any moment, he's not about to challenge any defenders with 50's on their jerseys.
"All I'm asking of Jim is that he stay healthy and do the things he does best," says Ditka. "He's learning now that it's best not to try to make a play when it's not there. Sometimes you've got to go down, take the sack. He will run some, but not like he used to."
As his game has softened, so has McMahon's personality. Sure, he's still feisty, but he has a mellow side, too. Last week he was on a phone hookup to the Miami writers. By his side was Eddie White, the Dolphins' p.r. man. As each question came in, White would whisper the name of the guy asking it, and McMahon would respond, "Well, Craig, I'm not really sure," or, "Gary, I think that's something we have to consider." The Miami-beat guys knew some kind of shtick was involved; they just weren't sure what it was.
What McMahon has going for him on the field is an offensive line that ranks right up there with Washington's, plus a never-ending supply of fresh legs to run with the ball. The Bears had 11 rookies on their 45-man roster on Sunday, tying Tampa Bay for the most in the league. A team like the Bucs, who are looking to the future, figures to have a bunch of youngsters, but on a playoff-caliber club like Chicago, it's a rarity. At times the Bears brought in a whole set of runners and receivers. Chicago attacked in waves, and that was when the game was still close. Wideout Wendell Davis, a No. 1 draft pick from LSU, was in the second wave. So was the Bears' other No. 1, fullback Brad Muster from Stanford. Actually he was the third fullback in the game. Chicago is deep all right.
What this onslaught produced was an offense that controlled the ball forever. The Bears ran off 78 plays to Miami's 36. They scored on drives of 59, 72 and 78 yards in the first half and on a 48-yarder in the second. They also had 57-and 44-yard drives that ended in missed field goals. They rushed for 262 yards and five touchdowns, passed for 165 yards and ate up 45:32 of the clock to Miami's 14:28, probably the worst time-of-possession ratio in Dolphin coach Don Shula's career.
"Is this the offense we'll see all year?" someone asked Ditka afterward.
"I hope so," he said. "Run the ball and throw a little. Go back to old-fashioned Bear football."
Chicago's defensive performance was equally impressive. In addition to Marino's meager stats, the Dolphins rushed for only 45 yards. They crossed midfield just once under their own power, and they have one of the NFL's big league offenses. "Even when we were down 28-7 at the half, I felt we'd get something going," said Shula. "A big play, a break, anything. It never came."
Miami did some weird things—for them. On the Bears' first drive, which ended in a touchdown, the Dolphins twice gave Chicago first downs with penalties. That's very uncharacteristic for a team that almost always leads the league in fewest infractions. Then came the drops. Wideout James Pruitt dropped a deep pass on Miami's first offensive series and later botched another one. Mark Clayton dropped one. Mark Duper dropped one and should have caught another. Duper, who missed most of the preseason because of a contract dispute, didn't look as if he were ready for the season to begin. Marino completed only two of nine passes to his wideouts, a 12-yarder to Duper and a 28-yarder to Clayton for a touchdown.
"We knew we wouldn't blitz much and we'd have to rely on coverages," said Chicago's All-Pro safety, Dave Duerson. "Our cornerbacks played an aggressive bump-and-run. We disguised things. Dan came up to me after the game and said, 'Dave, this is the first time in a year and a half you actually disguised your coverages.' I think he got a little confused. He went with audibles a lot. Sometimes he'd yell at his teammates or the officials. A couple of times after the ball was blown dead, he flung it at the sidelines. He was frustrated."
On Saturday, Duerson had called a special meeting of the eight Chicago defensive backs. "Just like everybody else, I entered the game wondering, Where is this team headed?" he said. "I told the DBs to drop by my room at the hotel that night, just to discuss things. So we watched the Florida State-Miami game for a while, then I turned the sound off, and we talked. It was an opportunity for each guy to express himself. For me, as the oldest guy in the secondary, it was a chance to get a reading on what each guy's goals were for the season. You could say we kind of challenged each other at that meeting. Even in our Super Bowl year our secondary wasn't highly regarded. The pass rush was the thing people talked about."
Duerson was asked if the Saturday night meeting would be a regular thing. "I'm superstitious," he said, "so I guess it will be, except that next week my old school, Notre Dame, is playing Michigan on TV. So I might have to keep the sound on a little longer."
The big question about Chicago's defense was how the outside linebackers, Ron Rivera and Jim Morrissey, would hold up in place of Wilson and Marshall. They did just fine. Defensive coach Vince To-bin flops them—Rivera, the bigger of the two, playing the strong, or tight end, side, and Morrissey going weak. The defensive ends flop, too; at least they did against the Dolphins. William Perry went strongside, and Richard Dent played the open side. The 320-pound Perry was no factor—no tackles, no assists, minimal pressure on the quarterback. The Bears hope that he will at least be a force to contend with against teams that like to run to the strong side, as this Sunday's opponents, the Indianapolis Colts, like to do. Dent was more active than Perry, but what pressure Marino felt came more from the inside rushers, Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael, who are the best pair of defensive tackles in the business.
In the wake of this crushing opening-day victory, the NFL is impressed, but it still wonders what to expect from a team whose personality has changed so dramatically on both sides of the ball. Chicago isn't explosive. It's not thrilling, but it's very sound—so far. Against Miami, they did everything right—well, almost everything. They went into the 1988 season as the underdog in the NFC Central, behind Minnesota. Now they're on top. "It's going to be interesting," said Ditka.
"In my seven years with the Bears, this is the best offense that I have ever played on."