SACKED IN CHICAGO
There have been plenty of moments this season when Bear quarterback Jim Harbaugh has felt like the loneliest man in Chicago. Starting with the first preseason game, Harbaugh, who signed a four-year, $13 million contract in March that pays him $5 million this season, has been loudly booed by the sellout crowds at Soldier Field. In the regular-season home opener, the verbal barrage began right after the national anthem. On radio talk shows in Chicago, caller after caller has crucified him, and the local sports columnists have questioned everything from his ability to inspire his teammates to his instincts, arm strength and guts.
"Jim Harbaugh is not fit to quarterback any pro team south of the Canadian border," wrote Jay Mariotti of the Sun-Times after the Bears started the season 0-2. "Bench him. Forever." About a week ago Harbaugh, a 29-year-old bachelor who subsists on microwaved frozen cheese pizza, tried to have a relaxing dinner downtown for a change, but an irate fan put a damper on the evening by approaching the quarterback and snarling, "Harbaugh, you——!"
Through all of the humiliation, Harbaugh has somehow maintained a stoic front. In fact, he showed little emotion until Sunday's 47-17 victory over the lowly Buccaneers. With 4:51 remaining in the second quarter, Harbaugh took the snap at the Buc one, faked left and bolted to the right, straight through the front corner of the end zone. Then he powerfully slammed the football to the turf.
He added two touchdown passes before halftime and finished the afternoon 17 of 22 for 192 yards as the Bears put up the highest point total of any team in the NFL this season. The victory, which was the first for rookie coach Dave Wannstedt, made Harbaugh downright giddy.
"There was a lot of pressure on the whole team," replied Harbaugh when asked if he felt as though a gorilla had been lifted off his back. "Everybody needed this win. Not to take anything away from Tampa Bay, but if we'd lost to that team, I don't know what people would've said."
But how could life have gotten any worse for Harbaugh? He had entered the game with a quarterback rating (61.2) that put him 25th in the league, had thrown for only 261 yards and one touchdown, and had been sacked eight times and pulverized countless times more after releasing the ball. In Harbaugh's defense, the players are still learning Wannstedt's new offensive system, a 49er-style controlled passing game, and the Bear offense, ranked 26th in the NFL through Sunday, has been crippled by injuries. None of that, however, seems to matter to Harbaugh's critics.
"Chicago thrives on two things—quarterback controversies and complaining about property taxes," explained WLUP's Chet Coppock, who hosts one of the city's most popular radio talk shows. "First of all, he's too damn good-looking for his own good. Secondly, people have attached his salary figure to a built-in guarantee that he'll throw 425 yards every game. There'll be brief flirtations, but the fans will never have a love affair with Harbaugh."
"Actually, there've been times when the booing pumps me up," Harbaugh said. "Whether people are booing or cheering me—that's not why I play the game. I play it because I love it. I've never played so I can pick up the paper and see how many great things writers say about me. I've never played so that people like me or so I can date the prettiest girl. That's so superficial, so temporary. one day, you're The Man, and the next, you're a piece of crap.
"I don't hold anything against the fans or the media. We can reel off the next five wins and things will be different. Everybody will be writing about how great we are, and the fans won't stop cheering."
Just as they couldn't contain themselves late Sunday afternoon, calling out to Harbaugh as he walked off the field toward the locker room. Did Sunday's win really change any of their attitudes toward him? "No," Harbaugh said. "But I'm not going to spend any time trying to figure it out. Why should I expend the energy? That's not going to help me win. I believe in myself. I don't take anybody else's word for what I can do."
The Juggling Act of the Week award goes to Packer defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes. After the devastating injury to Brian Noble's right knee—a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a ruptured patellar tendon—in the 20-17 loss to Philadelphia on Sept. 12, Rhodes spent most of his time during the bye week reorganizing his already-suspect inside run defense, overhauling his linebacking corps and saying his prayers.
"I still don't feel comfortable without Brian," says Rhodes, who relied heavily on Noble's toughness and competitiveness as well as his steadying influence on his teammates. "Just his presence was a positive for me. Brian was one of the most physical linebackers in the league. He'd step up and stone guys. He made all our calls, all our checks. I'll miss him dearly."
In the new Packer lineup, left outside linebacker George Koonce moved to Noble's spot at left inside linebacker, a position he hadn't played before. Rookie Wayne Simmons, the highly touted No. 1 pick from Clemson who had been sidelined since late July when he underwent arthroscopic surgery for torn cartilage in his right knee, started at left outside linebacker. Right inside linebacker Johnny Holland took over Noble's responsibility for calling the defensive signals while right outside linebacker Bryce Paup continued to sub for Tony Bennett, who is holding out in a contract dispute.
Clearly, the spotlight is on the 24-year-old Koonce, who has some big shoes to fill. A free agent from East Carolina by way of the World League's Ohio Glory, Koonce led the WLAF in tackles (91) in 1992. At 6'1", 238 pounds, he's not as big or as strong as Noble, which could make it more difficult for him to take on guards, but he seems to have a real nose for the ball. Although he's playing a new position, Koonce prides himself on being a quick study. For extra help he spent an evening last week at Noble's home, picking his brain about the Vikings. Against Minnesota on Sunday, Koonce had a solid game, making nine tackles.
"Things move a lot faster inside," Koonce says. "I have to read different blocking combinations, get the right gap responsibility, take shorter angles to get to the ball and use my pads to bounce the play to unblocked players. Sometimes I'm not supposed to make the tackle."
Says Rhodes, "He has to make quicker reads. There'll be 300-pound guards ready to pound on him. He'll have to step up and take on linemen right away, with a running back right behind them. He has to be ready to attack."
The Tampa Bay Bucs have a Workman compensation problem. Running back Vince Workman, who signed as a free agent from Green Bay in April, is making $1.025 million this season, or $85,416 for each time he has touched the ball. The joke making the rounds in town: Not even the Pentagon pays this much for subs.
Although he's the fourth-highest-paid player on the team—and the Bucs have the worst rushing offense in the NFL—Workman hasn't been able to crack the lineup. In a 47-17 loss to the Bears on Sunday, he had one carry for eight yards and caught two passes for 14 more.
Workman's situation is definitely not what the Tampa Bay marketing department had in mind when it created this slogan for 1993: More bang for the Bucs.
KICKING UP A STORM
Lost in all the commotion over the accuracy of kickers this season have been the contributions of Lion ace Jason Hanson. The second-year kicker from Washington State, where he was the best long-range booter in NCAA history, with 20 field goals of 50 or more yards, has been the most important offensive and defensive force for Detroit in '93. In four games he has scored 42 points, including a 38-yard game-winning field goal in overtime to beat New England, and 16 of his 22 kick-offs have led to touchbacks. Because of his outstanding performance in the season opener against Atlanta—he was three for three in both field goals and PATs, and all seven of his kickoffs produced touchbacks—the NFL created a new awards category: the Special Teams Player of the Week.
In his rookie season Hanson was 21 for 26 in field goals, and he was the only NFL kicker not to miss from inside the 45. So, how good can Hanson be? Well, the sky's the limit. First of all, Hanson has the advantage of playing a minimum of nine games each season in optimum conditions (eight home games in the Pontiac Silverdome and one in the Metrodome). Second, he has fanatical special teams coach-kicking guru Frank Gansz as his mentor. And last but not least, Hanson is levelheaded and mature, a far cry from the typical head-case kicker. "I don't want to be the 'flaky kicker,' " he says. "I don't want to miss and then come over and have to play with my teddy bear because of the pressure."
A clean-cut boy scout type with a zoology degree (3.68 GPA) who hopes to become a doctor, Hanson approaches kicking as a science, dissecting each nuance of his mechanics and spending hours sharpening his mental focus. Because his balance while kicking depends on strong stomach muscles, Hanson, who kicks with his right foot, makes it a point to do hundreds of different kinds of sit-ups each week, with an emphasis on the left side of his torso. "I do everything else with my right side," he says, "so I try to keep a good balance."
In the locker room following pregame warmups Hanson always tightens the laces on his right shoe because he has found that practice kicks and body heat stretch the leather ever so slightly. "I don't want a shoe with any give," Hanson says. "I want to slam the ball off a solid surface, something that's superhard."
Right now, super is an apt word for Hanson.
A BACKFIELD NOT IN MOTION
The Packers' high-profile free-agent signings—Reggie White, Mark Clayton, Bill Maas, Harry Galbreath and Tunch Ilkin—raised expectations in Green Bay but failed to address the team's weakness at running back. Green Bay's backfield includes Edgar Bennett (below), who gained 214 yards last year; John Stephens, whose 75-yard game in the Packers' opener this year was his best since 1990; and Darrell Thompson, a former No. 1 draft pick who has never rushed for 100 yards in an NFL game. So far in '93 the Pack has averaged 98.7 yards rushing per game and ranks 16th in the league.
At that pace, if Green Bay makes the playoffs and wins a game, it could become the seventh team in NFL history to win a postseason game despite averaging fewer than 100 yards per game rushing. Here are the six who have accomplished that.
Team Leader, Yd.
Clarence Peaks, 465
Wray Carlton, 592
Norm Bulaich, 426
Sammie Smith, 831
Allen Pinkett, 720
Mark Higgs, 915
—Peter Hirdt, ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU