Even before Mount Ditka erupted on Sunday night, after the Washington Redskins had dismantled his Chicago Bears 38-14 at RFK Stadium, the woes of his embattled team were evident. You could see them and hear them last week in the suburb of Lake Forest, Ill., a 30-minute drive north of Chicago, where the Bears train between games.
On the second floor of the Bears' practice complex, in defensive coordinator Vince Tobin's office, hang four large rectangular picture frames, one for each of his four seasons as Chicago's defensive boss. Inside each frame is a chart made up of a series of squares. The charts are a week-by-week statistical summary of the 10 categories Tobin considers significant, such as not allowing opponents more than 17 points or 275 yards of offense in a game. When the Bears meet Tobin's goal in a particular category, he colors in the corresponding square with an orange marker. If they don't meet the goal, he leaves the square white.
Not surprisingly, an awful lot of white squares can be found on this season's chart, and in one important category—holding opponents without a pass play of more than 25 yards—the row was white for the eight games leading up to Sunday's meeting with the Redskins. This is the big-play category, and the Bears are getting straight F's in it. So far this year, Chicago has given up 22 passes of more than 25 yards. In each of the three previous seasons under Tobin, the Bears hadn't allowed more than 24. "It hasn't been any one thing," says Tobin. "We just haven't made the plays."
O.K., we have accounted for Chicago's No. 1 weakness—giving up big plays. Its No. 2 flaw, as center Jay Hilgenberg puts it, is that "we're a member of the pack. We don't intimidate anybody anymore. People have no fear of us. You can see it."
December 4, 1989
Hilgenberg saw it in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who beat Chicago 32-31 on Nov. 19 to sweep a season series with the Bears for the first time since the Bucs entered the NFL in 1976. And the Bucs saw a definite change in the Bears. Says Tampa Bay linebacker Kevin Murphy, "They're still a really good team, but they're having a changing of the guard. People are putting the image of the big, bad Bears out of their minds."
Indeed, the Bears themselves must be wondering whether anything can be salvaged from the wreckage. True, even after the loss to Washington, they're 6-6 and only a game behind the first-place Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Central, and they play in Minnesota on Sunday night. It isn't over yet, is it? Not exactly, but the fat lady is warming up.
Before Sunday, the Bears had never in the franchise's 70-season history allowed an opponent more than 30 first downs in a game. Against the Skins they yielded 35. Mark Rypien, the starting quarterback for the mercurial Redskins, who also are 6-6, had the game of his life—30 completions in 47 attempts for 401 yards, with four touchdown passes and only one interception. Chicago defensive end Richard Dent, who's supposed to be a dominant player in big games like Sunday's, responded with zero tackles. If any one game can be said to signal the end of an era in football, this one signaled the end of the Bears as we have known them. These Bears may not be in hibernation—they may be extinct.
After the game, Mike Ditka, a coach who screams first and asks questions later, was livid. "This is absolutely the worst exhibition of football I've ever seen," he said. "We stink. We are an absolutely atrocious football team at this point. We have to play the rest of our games, but there's no question in my mind that we will be fortunate to win one game."
Then he added, "We had no pressure. We can't play man-to-man. Our pass coverage was terrible. We just can't play. There's nothing we can do this year about it. I think it's over."
The next day, on his morning radio show in Chicago, Ditka softened some, saying the pass coverage he had ripped the night before wasn't as bad as he had thought. But he said, "Maybe it's time for this organization to evaluate Mike Ditka. Maybe it's time for them to tell Mike Ditka to hit the road."
Before we go dumping Ditka into Lake Michigan, let's give him a Valium and sift through the debris from Sunday's debacle. From 1985 through '87, Chicago was a great defensive team with a good offense. Defense wins in the NFL, so the Bears won, picking up three NFC Central titles and one Super Bowl championship in that span.
More specifically, Chicago won because of the fearsome pressure its defensive front seven, one of the best ever to play the game, exerted on opposing teams. Last year, injuries and age began to catch up with that front seven, and All-Pros Dan Hampton, Otis Wilson and Wilber Marshall have been replaced by Trace Armstrong, John Roper and Ron Rivera, who are hardly All-Pro material at this point in their careers. The pressure Chicago has put on quarterbacks this fall has been slightly above average, no better. Given the sophistication of aerial attacks these days, intense pressure on the quarterback is the only way to thwart them. "The pass-rush factor is what disturbs me," says Ditka. "If you don't have that pass-rush fear, they're going to have time to throw and time to beat you. That's what we haven't had."
The Bears had no pass rush against Washington, and when you add that to average pass coverage, you begin to see why Rypien had a career day. To make matters worse for Chicago, in the middle of last week Redskins coach Joe Gibbs met with wide receivers Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders and Art Monk and told them that the only way the team could win its last five games—which is what Washington must do to have a realistic chance of making the playoffs—would be for them to lead the attack. "Here's your shot," Gibbs told them. "You guys are going to have to make the plays. If you don't, we're finished."
Gibbs started Clark, Sanders and Monk, with one man in the backfield, H-back-running back Earnest Byner. "We wanted to put their cornerbacks on an island," said Gibbs. Clark & Co. went after the Bears secondary immediately. In the first 20 minutes, Rypien threw at Chicago cornerback Donnell Woolford 11 times. Woolford, the 11th player picked in last spring's draft, is learning the hard way in the NFL. In four of the last five weeks, he has had to cover Clark, Henry Ellard of the L.A. Rams, Sterling Sharpe of the Packers and Mark Carrier of the Bucs. They all rank among the NFC's top 10 receivers in yards gained. Says Tobin of Woolford, "What we're asking him to do is a tremendous load."
On Sunday night Ditka said that Woolford evidently can't cover anybody. Wrong. On probably 70% of the balls thrown at him in the game, he was on top of the receiver. Rypien was just unbelievably accurate; as he put it, "I threw the ball as well as I ever have in any game." Every time Clark (who finished with eight catches for 124 yards), Sanders (six for 67 yards) or Monk (nine for 152 yards) turned around for the ball, it was right on his numbers. (Monk's performance moved him up to fourth on the alltime reception list, with 636, behind Steve Largent, Charlie Joyner and Charley Taylor.) In single coverage no defensive back in the league has much of a chance when a quarterback has time to throw, is on target and has excellent receivers.
"Woolford's going to have a good long career," said Clark afterward. "Don't make him the bad guy. He's not. His coverage was good; I couldn't turn him around. We just feel like anytime we're manned-up [man-on-man with a defensive back], we can make the play."
They did. With 9:41 left in the third quarter, the score was tied, 14-14. The Redskins took over on their own nine-yard line. On four of the next eight plays, Rypien hooked up with, in order, Monk (who streaked by safety Dave Duerson for a 42-yard gain), Sanders, Clark, and Sanders again to put Washington on the Chicago 11. On third-and-10 from there, Woolford stuck with Clark in the end zone and broke up a pass in the right corner. The Skins settled for a Chip Lohmiller field goal to make it 17-14.
On the ensuing kickoff Chicago's Lorenzo Lynch wasn't watching for an onside kick and began retreating as Lohmiller dinked a perfect squibbler 14 yards up the left sideline. Washington jumped on the ball at midfield. So unexpected, so perfect. On first down Duerson was hurt tackling Byner after a 21-yard completion. Three plays later, Rypien threw a perfect rainbow to Monk over Maurice Douglass, who had replaced Duerson, to give Monk a three-yard cushion. Touchdown. Ball game.
On those two drives Rypien was seriously pressured on only two of eight attempts. "If the ball's caught, you don't blame just the secondary," said Woolford. "Maybe pressure could have been put on the quarterback."
Bingo. Not many relentless pass rushers are out there, but Chicago had better find one in next April's draft. Roper showed some terrific outside bursts of speed, but that's the only flash the Bears got from their young pass rushers on Sunday. All may not be lost, however, because Bill Tobin, the Bears' vice-president for player personnel, has a superb track record in the draft (page 68). And Chicago will have five picks in the first three rounds in 1990.
The Bears are not a bad team. They are just in need of retooling. The question now is whether Ditka will do the retooling. Before Sunday's game he said he definitely wants to coach in 1990, the final year of his contract. Beyond that, he says, it's up in the air. One of his closest friends says, "The thing that gets Mike is that some of his players don't take the game as seriously as he does."
Says Ditka, "Sometimes I wonder, 'How do you get the importance of the moment across?' That's a never-ending struggle. How do you make them aware that there might not be another time, that there might not be another chance? Who knows? You might be out in the yard the next year."
Or, in the Bears' strange case, this year.