The Chicago Bears had been regrouping for two weeks, ever since their NFC Central rivals, the Minnesota Vikings, blew them out 31-7 on Sept. 18. After that defeat Chicago coach Mike Ditka said it was "almost a foregone conclusion" that the only way the Bears, who were 2-1, could make the playoffs would be as a wild-card team, and Ed Hughes, the offensive coordinator, ripped the offensive line. That's a no-no in coaching circles. You don't go after someone else's department, which in this case was Dick Stanfel's.
The next weekend Chicago beat the Green Bay Packers 24-6, but so what? And even that one had nasty overtones. Green Bay coach Lindy Infante called a couple of meaningless timeouts at the end, and Ditka responded by having his reserve quarterback, Mike Tomczak, throw a bomb, which sailed over the head of Packer cornerback Mark Lee, who yelled, "Do it again, Ditka!" At the end of the game, Infante waved at Ditka, who walked to the locker room without acknowledging him.
So the Bears were in a nasty mood as they prepared for Sunday's opponent, the 4-0 Buffalo Bills. Fueling their resolve were newspaper stories pointing out that despite Chicago's gaudy record the last two years—14-2 in 1986, 11-4 in '87—the Bears had gone 1-7 in their last eight nonstrike games against teams that finished with winning records, and 0-1 against the only winning team (Minnesota) they had faced this year. The implication was that the Bears could beat up on dog teams, but tough teams beat up on them.
So here came the Bills, who caught the full weight of the Bears' wrath. Chicago versus Buffalo hardly qualified as a rivalry; the teams hadn't faced each other for nine years. That all changed on Sunday. The Bears came away with a convincing 24-3 win, but one play set the tone for future meetings. It established Chicago-Buffalo, at least in the minds of the Bills, as a "We'll get even, just wait" kind of rivalry.
October 9, 1988
The play came with 3½ minutes remaining and Chicago running out the clock. On second and 12, quarterback Jim McMahon threw a 14-yard pass to rookie tight end James Thornton on a crossing pattern. Shane Conlan, Buffalo's talented second-year inside linebacker, was trailing the play. Flanker Dennis McKinnon peeled back and caught him from the blind side, driving his shoulder into Conlan's right leg. The block caught Conlan below the knee. He didn't get up. They took him away in a cart and put a splint on his leg. Word came up to the press box: X-rays for probable fractured fibula.
The block was within the rules, which are ambivalent about cut blocking. It's illegal for a wideout to crack back on sweeps, and for a player to cut block on kickoffs and punts. Ditto interceptions. But downfield on plays from scrimmage, cut blocking is O.K. 'That really makes sense, doesn't it?" said Buffalo linebacker Scott Radecic after the game. "We [defensive players] can't do it to them in the open field, but they [offensive players] can do it to us."
One of the unwritten rules of pro football is that when the issue is decided, you don't indulge in dangerous practices, like cut blocking in the open field. "It's the cheapest thing I've seen in five years of playing in the league," said Radecic.
"Did you try to get even?" someone asked him.
"They took him [McKinnon] out right after the play," Radecic said, "but there'll be another time."
"I don't know when we'll play them again," said Bills noseguard Fred Smerlas, "but when we do, you know who we'll all be going after."
The X-rays proved negative. Conlan wound up with only a severe bone bruise. In the trainer's room he winced in pain as the leg was wrapped and shook his head in disgust as someone asked about the play. "What an ass," he said, referring to McKinnon. "I never saw him coming. I was in pursuit. I thought for sure the leg was broken."
"The first thing they told me was that it was broken in two places," said Bills coach Marv Levy, who was still shaken over the incident half an hour later. "Sure I was disturbed about it. The player really came back to try to take him out. After the game Mike Ditka told me, 'Marv, I feel awful about it.' "
Ditka, who's usually feisty after games, win or lose, was subdued when asked about the play. "It was a bad thing," he said. "It will catch up with him. People don't forget in this league."
"I went over to Conlan when he was lying there on the ground," said Chicago middle linebacker Mike Singletary. "I told him, 'Hang in there, I'll be praying for you.' As far as Dennis's block was concerned, if he was just out there hustling, doing his job, that's one thing. If he wanted to hurt him, that's another. Dennis plays hard. He's the kind of guy who, if someone's standing around a pileup, he's going to get him. I know if it happened to any of our guys, I'd be screaming bloody murder."
All right, we've heard the evidence for the prosecution. Let's hear what the defense has to say for itself. McKinnon's prime asset is his toughness. A five-year pro out of Florida State who entered the league as a free agent, he was thought to be washed up after a knee injury sidelined him for all of 1986. He came back and beat out Ron Morris, a second-round draft choice in 1987, and Wendell Davis, a first-rounder this year, to regain his starting spot. McKinnon had an excellent game against the Bills—seven catches for 97 yards—and on one punt return he took a full, straight-up shot, bounced off the defender and made 13 yards. He's known to speak his mind and to make enemies. He certainly made plenty of them on Sunday.
"I've been taught to give 100 percent on every play," he said. "End of game, beginning, it doesn't make any difference. That's the only reason I'm still around. I was protecting the receiver. A lot of All-Pro receivers don't block at all. I don't get many balls thrown my way, so I have to do something. Con Ian just never saw me coming. He was running full speed, and I was going full speed. The block was legal. I've never been a cheap-shot artist."
"Why didn't you take him on up high?" someone asked him.
"Hit a 235-pound linebacker high?" McKinnon said. "I only weigh 177. Give me a break."
You've heard both sides. You decide. The incident was an ugly footnote to an impressive Chicago victory and to an outstanding performance by McMahon. Sure he got terrific protection, but when he had to make things happen himself, he did, scrambling for 24 yards. He was involved in some freak plays as well. The longest, a 63-yard TD pass to Morris early in the second quarter, was intended for wideout Dennis Gentry, who was crossing from right to left. Morris, who was crossing the other way, was in the same area but slightly deeper. The pass missed Gentry but found Morris, and corner-back Nate Odomes was picked off.
The Bears put the game away late in the second quarter, when Gentry scored from 58 yards out on a reverse to make the score 24-3. McMahon threw the key block, on outside linebacker Cornelius Bennett, and this wasn't one of those wimpy brush blocks quarterbacks usually come up with on a play like that. This one was a head-and-shoulders dive that upended Bennett. "I guarantee you that a Marino or an Elway doesn't make a block like that," said McKinnon.
"I just wanted to get him down," said McMahon. "I knocked the hell out of my nose making that block."
Facing a formidable Buffalo defense, which had All-Pro end Bruce Smith back after his 30-day drug suspension and which featured the best set of linebackers in the AFC, the Bears, who like to run the ball, didn't figure to have much success on the ground. "Running wasn't in our game plan," said center Jay Hilgenberg. "By Wednesday we knew we were going to throw it." McMahon ended up completing 20 of 27 passes for 260 yards and two TDs. He was particularly effective on crossing patterns through the Buffalo zones.
The Bills didn't figure to run much, either, and that's what's been bugging Levy—reared in the George Allen school of ball control—about his team. It's why he remained low-key as people congratulated him for getting off to such an impressive start. On Sunday, Buffalo had zero net yards on the ground: 24 gained on nine attempts and 24 lost on one ill-fated reverse, which Singletary chased down. Rookie Thurman Thomas has been impressive, but overall the Bills' running game lacks punch.
Their passing lacks a deep threat, which is why their personnel department is scouring NFL rosters in hopes of finding one before the Oct. 11 trading deadline. Jim Kelly has been an effective midrange passer, but for two years he has been unable to stretch defenses. Last season he finished last in the league in yards per completion (11.19), and his top yards-per-catch regular receiver, Chris Burkett, averaged only 13.7. Every team in the NFL had a wideout who averaged more.
The Bills will beat teams with their defense. Smith was impressive in his return, and Smerlas and end Art Still, whom Buffalo got in an off-season trade with the Kansas City Chiefs, are old pros who are playing well. The Bills will win with special teams: Kicker Scott Norwood had made 13 straight field goals before missing a 46-yarder on Sunday. But swarming defenses give them trouble. Chicago sacked Kelly six times.
And now Buffalo has a score to settle. "We're not going to go to sleep thinking about it every night," said Smith. "But it'll be in the back of our minds."
There's only one place that the Bills and Bears can meet again this season—the Super Bowl—but sensible people shouldn't even consider such a thing. Or should they?
"It's the cheapest thing that I have seen in five years of playing in the league."