THE GAME WAS LOST IN THE FOG

In the mists of Soldier Field the mistake-prone Eagles were beaten by the Bears—as best as anyone could see
January 09, 1989

N.F.C

Philadelphia quarterback Randall Cunningham said he couldn't read the coverages because he couldn't see the safetymen. The Eagles' kicker, Luis Zendejas, said he kicked a field goal without knowing where the goalposts were. In the fourth quarter of Chicago's 20-12 victory over Philadelphia in Soup Bowl I, Bears defensive tackle Dan Hampton turned to offensive guard Tom Thayer on the sideline and said, "What's the score?" Thayer told him 20-12. "Gee, I thought we were ahead by more," said Hampton.

He had to ask because he couldn't see the scoreboard in Chicago's fogbound Soldier Field on Saturday. From either sideline, any action beyond the center of the field disappeared. Occasionally, when the fog thinned just a bit, the hazy outlines of the near goalposts would emerge—and then disappear again.

CBS-TV cameramen ran out to the hash marks to take ground-level shots with their hand-held units, which got the only pictures that would show up on television at all. The public address announcer worked with a man on the field, communicating by walkie-talkie, and did play-by-play to let the people in the stands know what was going on. Chicago coach Mike Ditka said he had never seen anything like it—high school, college, player, coach—never.

The first 28 minutes were played in ideal conditions—sunshine and a balmy 30°. Then, with two minutes to go in the first half, a huge ball of fog rolled in from Lake Michigan with such suddenness that everyone thought a smoke bomb had gone off. The fog never lifted.

You couldn't see nuttin' nowhere. Only referee Jim Tunney, with the eyes of an eagle, could see what others could not. He claimed that he could see "both goalposts most of the time through the entire second half and that "we had no less than 50 to 75 yards visibility."

"Well, Tunney's the only one who could," said Eagles boss Norman Braman, who left the owners' box and went down to the sidelines in the third quarter. "I was right there and, believe me, those officials wouldn't have known if there were 22 players on the field or 16."

Braman thought the game "definitely should have been suspended." That's what he told Jim Noel, assistant to the president of the NFC, who had previously alerted him that "conditions might lead to the game being suspended."

"Then he read us the guidelines governing those conditions," said Braman, "and if anything fit the definition perfectly, that was it. But let's face it, the NFL would never suspend a game. Oh, I'll make some inquiries to the league, and they won't get answered."

Tunney explained that he was in touch with the NFL's executive director, Don Weiss, and that it was his job to advise Weiss as to whether the game was playable. If he had told Weiss it wasn't, the league would have had to decide whether to suspend it. But Tunney told Weiss the game was playable, and that was that.

So, what about the fans who paid money for a game they couldn't see? How about the people who paid a bundle for their skyboxes, or the people watching the pseudogame on TV? When a pass was thrown into the fog, if the guys came out of it still running in the same direction, it was a completion. If they were running the other way, it was an interception. Was any decision considered with the fans in mind?

"That wasn't up to me," Tunney said. "I was merely supplying information."

Now let's be realistic. How do you suspend an NFL game? When would you replay it—the next morning, when the players are sore and aching? "It would have been tough, real tough." said Bears lineman Steve McMichael.

Maybe the NFL could have pushed the game back a week and played it while the AFC was having its title game, and then played the NFC Championship match during the open weekend before the Super Bowl. But that would have given the AFC champion an extra week off going into Super Bowl XXIII and put the NFC representative at what the league likes to call "a competitive disadvantage."

When Joe Browne, the NFL's director of communications, was asked about these considerations, he answered patiently, as one would handle a question like "How does Santa really know if I've been a good boy or a bad boy?"

"What do you think the fans would have preferred?" said Browne. "Do you think they'd have liked sitting there for a couple of hours while we waited for the fog to lift so we could pass down a decision? And if the game was suspended, then they'd have to cancel plans and come back again. And what could we have told them? You couldn't decide right there when the replay date would be. No, I really don't think it would have been fair to them." (Twenty-four hours later, after discussions with commissioner Pete Rozelle, Browne said that if the game had been suspended, it would have been played the next day, Sunday.)

And what was the mood in the stands? "It was party time," said Sally Ranft, a Chicago physical therapist who sat in Section 125, Row 2, of the mezzanine, from where the game was invisible. "We listened to the play-by-play announcements from the field, and when they announced something good, we cheered. We crowded around anybody with a little Watchman TV. It was kind of like being somewhere when all the lights go out."

Some fans started leaving in the third quarter; others made signs, such as WHAT THE FOG IS GOING ON? But the prevailing sense was that these folks would take the Chicago win, even though they hadn't seen half of it. "Oh, definitely," said Janice Nelson, an airline programmer who sat in Section 125. "We're willing to sacrifice for our Bears."

The underlying reason that the game wasn't suspended, of course, was TV. The idea of the network rearranging its programming schedule was just too awful to consider. As it happened, most of the people on the field agreed. Neither coach wanted the game suspended. "The fog didn't beat us, the Bears did," said Philly coach Buddy Ryan. The players didn't want it stopped, either, although Cunningham said his occasional long passes were pure guesswork. "He put 'em up there, and the good Lord took them into the fog," said Chicago quarterback Mike Tomczak, who admitted that his visibility was "no more than 20 yards."

Down 17-9 at the half, Cunningham had to play catch-up against a Chicago defense that played zone in the first half and then shifted to man-to-man, crowding the short receivers and taking its chances with anything deep into the fog. Cunningham did complete one deep fogger, a 65-yarder to tight end Keith Jackson. "Then I looked for him again," said Cunningham, "and he'd completely disappeared."

"Hey, we beat 'em in the sunlight, too," said Thayer. "Personally, I loved the fog. It meant less passing for us. A lineman's dream—just keep running the ball."

"The weirdest," said Chicago defensive end Al Harris, who knocked down three passes. "One time on the sideline I watched a sweep start, then both teams disappeared. I expected to see Sherlock Holmes come out of the fog with his pipe and trench coat: 'Watson, was that a hound I heard?' "

The San Francisco 49ers, who will play Chicago for the NFC title on Sunday, must have liked what they saw—if they saw it. The Bears didn't show the attacking defense that got them the No. 2 ranking in the NFL. Instead, they looked like one of those bend-but-don't-break outfits, a defense that kept giving up yards before getting it together near the goal line. By working mostly intermediate routes, Cunningham put up some remarkable numbers; he completed 27 of 54 passes for 407 yards.

Philadelphia was within 25 yards of the Chicago goal line 10 times, the result of drives or turnovers (a fumble and three Tomczak interceptions) but the Eagles got only four field goals, those coming after they had first downs on Chicago's 11, 14, 5 and 17. Worse, Philly had first downs on the Chicago 11, 17 and 16 and came away with zero. And in the second quarter, the Eagles were stopped on downs at the Bear four after what looked like, a bungled job of spotting the ball by the officials.

How did Philadelphia fail? Let us count the ways: three interceptions, a dropped pass in the end zone in the second quarter by Jackson, back-to-back touchdown catches in the first quarter that were wiped out by penalties. The point is, most of the action was supplied by the Eagles.

The Bears were worried about Cunningham's ability to scramble, but several times, when he had a soft corner and could have taken off, he pulled up and threw. "It seemed," said Bob Hollway, the Minnesota Vikings' director of pro personnel, who was scouting the game, "that he was saying, 'See, I don't have to scramble to beat you.' "

Meanwhile, the Bear offense showed little consistency but produced some big plays—with help from the Eagles. People had wondered how a Philly defense that had forced the second-most turnovers in the league could finish next to last in the league in yards allowed. In short, the Eagles have a big-play, big-screw-up defense. The Bears got their first touchdown—a 64-yard pass from Tomczak to wideout Dennis McKinnon—on a mixup between cornerback Roynell Young and strong safety Andre Waters. And, just before the fog hit late in the second quarter, Chicago was back on its seven, but Thomas Sanders broke a sweep for 58 yards to set up a field goal. Three Eagles overpursued on the play. Chicago's second touchdown was set up by a pass from Tomczak to wide receiver Ron Morris, who broke a six-yard hook pattern into a 27-yard gain because the Eagle nickelback, Izel Jenkins, was late covering.

It was a day on which the Bears seemed like mere witnesses to the Eagles' self-destruction. And yes, at times they played as if they were in a fog.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERPhiladelphia's Zendejas kicked a third-quarter field goal, even though he could not see the goalposts. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAIn the bright sunshine of the first quarter, McKinnon celebrated his 64-yard TD catch. PHOTOBILL SMITHCunningham ran for only 12 yards and never got the ball into the end zone. PHOTOBILL SMITHChicago cornerback Vestee Jackson broke up a pass intended for Mike Quick (top), but he was a step too late to stop Cris Carter. PHOTORONALD C. MODRA[See caption above.] PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERThough it wasn't a happy homecoming for Ryan, he didn't blame the result on the fog. TWO PHOTOSBILL SMITH[See caption above.] PHOTORONALD C. MODRACunningham passed for 407 yards, but his stats were obscured by the bizarre weather.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)