Writing about the Bears can be difficult, because of the thick media veneer that covers the entire organization, from the lowest defensive back to Mike Ditka and on up through the ownership. They are, after all, the Bears, and this is--as painful as it is to admit--a Bears town. While the Cubs and White Sox and Bulls and Blackhawks are worshiped in (progressively diminishing) circles, they remain human beings. But there is something about the Bears that makes them not exactly larger than life, not exactly phony, but superreal. Perhaps it's the gladiatorlike game they play, perhaps it's the candy-ass treatment they receive in the media (especially television), but the Bears always seem to walk a little taller, talk a little bolder, and act a little more as a man should act than any of us normal people do. It's the same sort of treatment John Wayne received from John Ford--a sort of instant mythification--and it's best seen when it's taken away--as when Willie Gault and Doug Flutie became suddenly human after being traded, or when William Perry and Jim McMahon were brought low this year.
In examining the Bears' loss to the San Francisco 49ers in last week's NFL championship game, the first stage of the postmortem is not the mere analysis of strategy, but rather the stripping off of this high-gloss media finish. First we make them human, then we look for faults.
This line of thinking first raised its ugly head with this painful realization: great as the Bears have been this decade and as well as individual players have performed--with a few clearly destined for the Hall of Fame--this is nevertheless not a great Bears team. The great Bears of the early 30s won championships in 1932 and 1933 and then went undefeated in 1934 before losing to the New York Giants in one of the most famous of the pre-Super Bowl title games, the one in which the Bears led at the half before the Giants switched to tennis shoes and scored 27 second-half points to win on an icy field. The great Bears of the early 40s--the Monsters of the Midway--peaked at the end of an eight-and-three 1940 season to whip the Washington Redskins 73-0, then repeated in 1941, and then went undefeated in 1942 before losing the title game shortly after George Halas entered the Navy. No doubt the Bears of the 80s, with their added speed and strength, would thrash these teams soundly if placed on the same field, but the fact remains that they did not dominate their era as previous Bears teams had. They didn't get the job done. In a cursory glance through the Bears' history, we do not see anyplace else where the Bears lost three out of four home play-off games; we don't even see anyplace else where they lost back-to-back home play-off games.
We went to the Lincoln Park apartment of Dr. W late last week for the official postmortem. Dr. W appeared to be watching a soap opera as we entered, but, appearances aside, he was prepared to be hostly, with diet soda, a case of beer, a frozen pizza in the refrigerator, and the game tape already inserted in the VCR. We settled in.
One impression we'd got while watching the live broadcast the previous Sunday was that Jim McMahon had had a bad day, and surely his poor statistics don't lie. Yet it should also be remembered--as was obvious on a second and more even-tempered viewing--that he had a number of passes dropped. His arm also appeared to be in good shape. If he was rusty from inaction--which he himself denied--the manifestation was that his passes lacked their usual touch. They zinged on a beeline to the receiver and--more than once--right through or off of his hands.
McMahon in no way had a good game, but he should not be the scapegoat either. If he can be blamed for anything, it's for not improvising off the Bears' dull game plan, for not sticking to a running game that appeared to be there, between the tackles, whenever it was called upon, and for not overruling a second-quarter roll-out pass after the Bears had run the ball up to midfield; they went to the air on second down with three yards to go, and the pass was intercepted.
...And the Niners drove for a touchdown to go up 14-0. Championship teams exploit whatever errors the other team commits, and the Niners played the role of a championship team all game long. Let's be clear: that interception should have been harmful only in that it deprived the Bears of field position and possibly points. The Niners took that slight shift in momentum and drove it home, with the key plays being a trap on third and ten, in which fullback Tony Rathman bounced off three Bears to make a first down, and of course the excellent, off-balance Joe Montana peg--like a shortstop throwing out of the hole behind third base--to Jerry Rice on a quick post pattern for Rice's second touchdown.
Dr. M, the Boomer, has been fixated all year long on the cliche that a game shifts on three plays. If that's the case, the three plays in this game were: (1) Mo Douglass's 15-yard penalty in the first quarter, after the Bears' defense had snuffed the Niners on their first possession: it deprived the Bears of field position on the 50-yard line after the Niners' punt. (2) Rice's first touchdown catch, a seemingly innocent down-and-out in which he burned Mike Richardson with a quick shimmy for a 61-yard score. (3) Rice's wide-open catch down the sideline during the Niners' critical drive to open the second half, which put the Niners inside the Bears' ten and set up their third touchdown.
That drive is what crushed the Bears, and to be sure there were several plays critical to the march. Montana did not allow a third-down pass to fall incomplete until later in the third quarter, with no fewer than three third-down completions coming in this possession: on the fourth play of the half, he hit Rice on a slant-in on third and six for a first down; at midfield on third and three he slipped, steadied himself with his left hand on the ground (!), and hit Rathman out of the backfield for a first down; and he threw a touchdown pass to a secondary receiver, tight end John Frank, on a third down. The pass to Rice, however, was the killer, because Rice is the Niners' primary weapon, and the Bears knew it, and still he was wide open. How he got open illustrates how the Niners won and why the Bears lost.
Rice and the Niners' other wide receiver were lined up on the same side of the field, with Rice on the outside about a yard behind the line of scrimmage. The Bears lined Vestee Jackson up opposite Rice, with Richardson covering the other man. Rice, however, went in motion, crossing behind his teammate, back toward the center of the field. The Bears were in a zone defense, not a man-to-man, and they tipped this off when Jackson and Richardson switched men instead of crossing over, with Richardson now guarding Rice and Jackson taking the other receiver. Rice hopped around Richardson's inept bump-and-run, went downfield, and cut outside to an utterly vacant area of the Bears' zone defense. What this shows--besides the fact that the Niners had a weapon, the Bears knew they had a weapon, and yet the Niners managed to use their weapon anyway--was that Niners coach Bill Walsh had noticed predictable tendencies on the part of the Bears' defense, and he exploited those tendencies.
Or, to put it in layman's terms, the Bears got outcoached.
Mike Ditka is the glowing symbol of the Bears on the television screen, and this, it is commonly said, has been his finest year. He took a team said to be on the decline, a team decimated by injuries, and while overcoming his own woes, in the form of a mild heart attack, he led them to the best record in the NFC, home-field advantage in the play-offs, and the conference title game. It's difficult to look at Ditka--so smooth, these days, in front of the cameras, chiding stupid questions, using all forms of the media to motivate (read "embarrass") his players, and in the process entertaining these cynical and often unentertainable reporters, who snigger and guffaw over his ludicrous, facetious statements--it's difficult to look at this man's image and not believe that here is a person good at his job, skillful in its applications, adept at its fine points. He trains his tiny button eyes on some questioner, his mouth drops ever so slightly open, and he says, with only the slightest hint of sarcasm, "Oh, I'm very concerned that we haven't scored in the third quarter this year. I'm concerned because reporters say I'm supposed to be concerned, and I know reporters know everything" or some such drivel.
Look, Ditka, we're going to put this in a way that might get across to you: You're right, it's not important, in itself, to score in the third quarter of football games; but when you consistently fail to move the ball after halftime, that's not a disease in itself, but maybe it's the symptom of some greater ill. Maybe, just maybe, it shows that you're not adjusting to what the other team is doing as well as they're adjusting to what's become predictable in you. When you lose three out of four home play-off games, and you're outscored in the second half of each of those losses, maybe it's not that you're overconfident one year, and not that you're simply not good enough another year, and not that injuries finally caught up with you in another year; maybe--just maybe--it's because you're being outcoached down on the field.