THE NFC CENTRAL

September 25, 1994

The Bear Truth

After Chicago was trounced 42-14 by the Vikings in front of an angry sellout crowd of 61,073 at Soldier Field on Sunday, Bear coach Dave Wannstedt couldn't hide his pain. As he emerged from the somber Chicago locker room, his face was ashen and his eyes were bloodshot. He had no explanation for the complete breakdown of the once-mighty Bear defense.

"I'm frustrated and embarrassed," said Wannstedt, who is considered one of the top defensive coaches in the NFL. "They ran the ball on us. They 'outphysicaled' us, which really disappoints me. We couldn't tackle anybody. We've got to regroup and somehow get back on track."

That may be easier said than done. For two straight weeks the Chicago defense has looked atrocious. In their 30-22 loss to the Eagles on Monday night of Week 2, the Bears were down 30-0 in the second half. On Sunday the Bears' ineptitude helped quarterback Warren Moon and the sputtering Viking offense finally get going. Minnesota came into the game averaging only 67 yards rushing and 174.5 passing, but against Chicago the Vikings ran for 212 yards and threw for 252. Outphysicaled? Five Chicago defensive linemen recorded only one tackle apiece. Unable to tackle? Four of the top six Bear tacklers were defensive backs.

There is no mistaking what the problem is, even though Wannstedt and most Bear players won't admit it. When the team lost defensive end Richard Dent and defensive tackle Steve McMichael—both potential Hall of Famers—it lost the heart and soul of its defense.

"We've always had leaders," says safety Shaun Gayle, a 10-year veteran who's the oldest member of the defense, at 32. "There has never been a pause in passing the baton. This is tough."

In the second year of a five-year contract, Wannstedt has been rebuilding the Bears slowly, trying to bring his team to its peak at the end of his term. And sooner or later he would have had to replace Dent, 33, and McMichael, 36. Dent was projected to be a third-down pass-rushing specialist this season, and as such he was offered a one-year, $2.3 million contract. Insulted that the Bears hadn't come up with a longer-term package, Dent settled for a 49er offer of a two-year, $3 million deal with incentives. The Bears cut McMichael in April, citing a salary-cap problem, and offered him a one-year deal worth $162,000. Then they took that offer off the table, and McMichael signed with Green Bay.

Now it has become evident that even at their advanced ages, Dent and McMichael were invaluable. Wannstedt's defense begins and ends with physical line play. Without that, it doesn't work. Wannstedt has tried to replace Dent with Alonzo Spellman, a third-year player from Ohio State who is a top-notch physical specimen at 6'4", 285 pounds, with just 6% body fat. But Spellman hasn't developed any pass-rushing moves. The word among the Bear players is that Spellman looks like Tarzan but plays like Jane. Meanwhile, McMichael has been replaced by Carl Simpson, a second-year player from Florida State who reported to training camp out of shape and has yet to come around.

"In Dave's system the defensive linemen tee off at the snap, then read as they move," says one NFL defensive coordinator. "That's difficult for inexperienced guys to do."

So the painful rebuilding figures to continue for a while. "As a coach, you can't say, You're our new McMichael or You're our new Dent," says Bear defensive coordinator Bob Slowik. "That has to be earned on the field, and it has to be somebody on the defensive line because that's where it all starts on our defense."

The Steeler Connection

When free safety Thomas Everett pushed for a trade last spring from the two-time Super Bowl champion Cowboys to lowly Tampa Bay, there were those who thought he needed to have his head examined. The Bucs, after all, had suffered through 11 straight double-digit losing seasons and had a defense that was ranked 22nd in the NFL last season. But Everett, whose wish was granted by Dallas management, had his reasons for wanting to play for Tampa Bay.

First of all, he was scheduled to make $690,000 this season in the final year of his three-year contract with Dallas, and Everett, a seven-year veteran, knew that because of the salary cap, there was no upside to his earning potential on the star-studded Cowboys. Sure enough, he signed a new three-year deal with the Bucs that will pay him $3,275 million. Second, he wanted to play on the grass field at Tampa Stadium to save some wear and tear on his knees. Last but not least, Everett wanted to be reunited with Buc Pro Bowl middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, his roommate when they both played for the Steelers from 1987 to '91.

These days Everett and Nickerson, both 29, are the keys to Tampa Bay's 4-2-5 defense, which is designed to better contend with today's pass-happy offenses by deploying three safeties and two corner-backs. After two games the Buc defense was ranked 11th overall in the NFL.

Part of Everett's job is to motivate and teach his young teammates. To illustrate Everett's impact on the defense, Buccaneer defensive coordinator Floyd Peters points to a play in the Bucs' opener against the Bears. On a third-and-four in the third quarter, Tampa Bay was guessing that Chicago would pass. "Suddenly Thomas yells, 'It's a run!' " says Peters. "Hardy immediately calls the right stunt, and Thomas nails Merril Hoge in the backfield for a loss. There are just so many things that you have to be alert for, a young guy can't sort it all out."

On the Chopping Block

Even though he has never started a game, Viking right guard John Gerak has already earned a reputation in the NFL—one that offensive linemen absolutely dread. He has been cited twice for chop-blocking, the outlawed practice of hitting a defender in the legs when he has already been engaged by another blocker. The first offense, which was the more flagrant, earned him a $7,500 fine.

Gerak is a second-year player out of Penn State, where he started his career as a fullback. He later moved to guard and played well enough to be taken by the Vikes in the '93 draft's third round. His chop blocks—one in each of the Vikings' first two games—caused Viking coach Dennis Green to moan, "He's hurting us." Gerak is hurting himself, too. The $7,500 fine he got for his first offense ate up most of his take-home pay from his estimated $14,000-per-game salary. The sympathetic Viking press corps jokingly started a food drive to case his financial burden.

Gerak's first victim was the Packers' Reggie White. Near the end of Minnesota's season-opening 16-10 loss to Green Bay, Gerak blocked White at the knees, an illegal move since Viking center Jeff Christy was already blocking Reggie. "It was pretty bad," White says. "I'd say the fine was sufficient, but if I had blown out my knee, then no, it wasn't."

Lion linebacker Tracy Scroggins was Gerak's second victim. Scroggins was working against Viking right tackle Chris Hinton when Gerak chop-blocked him, drawing a 15-yard penalty. "That was dirty," Scroggins says. "By the grace of God, I didn't have my leg planted. Otherwise I could have had a serious injury."

The league decided that the block wasn't flagrant, but Gerak got a phone call from Gene Washington, director of football development for the NFL, who warned him that another flagrant block could result in a suspension. In his own defense Gerak says, "I've been a running back all my life, and running backs learn to block low. It's instinctive, not malicious."

There's a twist to the story. Gerak sat out Sunday's game against the Bears, and he may miss this week's game against Miami. He injured a knee in Week 2 against the Lions when teammate Christy accidentally fell into Gerak's legs while Gerak was blocking a defender. In effect, the chop blocker was chop-blocked.

A Quiet Lion

Part of the challenge facing any coach coming to a new team is figuring out how to get the respect of his players. That has been a particularly daunting task for Steve Kazor, the Lions' new special teams coach. He has to prove he can fill the shoes of legendary special teams guru Frank Gansz, who left Detroit in the off-season to become the assistant head coach of the Falcons' offense. It didn't help Kazor that his punt-coverage team broke down in the second preseason game and gave up a 75-yard touchdown to Cleveland rookie Derrick Alexander in a 16-7 Lion defeat.

"There was a lot of concern," admits Detroit's Pro Bowl returner Mel Gray. "We looked really bad, and we'd had a reputation for having great special teams. I'd never seen a breakdown like the one against Cleveland. We were just going through the motions—every one of us."

Gansz, 55, is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a former military pilot who strides up and down the practice field like a drill sergeant, barking out instructions and encouragement. Kazor, 46, is a wallflower by comparison. Quiet and laid-back, he views himself as a teacher. The Lion special-teamers were continually comparing the two men. "We kept questioning the two different styles." Gray says. "Frank motivated with sayings. He told war stories. Steve is a teacher. We had to feel him out."

The poor play against the Browns seemed to wake up Kazor's players, who have become more aggressive in recent weeks. They went into Monday night's game against Dallas fresh from a strong performance against Minnesota, having forced a fumble on the opening kickoff and blocked a field goal attempt. Still, the jury is out on whether Kazor can successfully replace the charismatic Gansz.

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOWhen the Bear defense wasn't yielding Viking TDs, the offense was. Witness this DeWayne Washington interception return.

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)