Monday, February 4, 2013

The Miracle of Great Neck

I don’t intend to write exhaustively about the 1985 Bears, but this game was so remarkable – and famous – that it is worth a review. For one thing, it aired on a special Thursday night edition of Monday Night Football, which they did a bit of back then. Aside from the Thanksgiving games, there was another Thursday nighter in 1985, the week prior to this one, plus a Friday night game in December between the Broncos and Seahwaks, for some reason.

The game used ABC’s regular Monday Night Football team, which for this season was Frank Gifford flanked by Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson – a couple of real ladykillers there. This would be Broadway Joe’s only season in the Monday Night booth. He wasn’t too bad, although he seemed reluctant to talk, and usually contributed only when Gifford asked him to directly.

Bears quarterback Jim McMahon had pinched a nerve in his neck the previous week in the latter stages of a destruction of the Patriots, and was considered for this game to be only the emergency quarterback. The emergency came in the third quarter, with the Bears down 17-9 and backup Steve Fuller unable to put the ball into the end zone. McMahon took over on the Bear 30, then stepped back and threw a 70-yard bomb on the first play to Willie Gault.

While this play has become a key element in the Legend of Jim McMahon, it ought to also have been a key part of the Legend of Walter Payton. The Vikings middle linebacker was not only blitzing but had timed McMahon’s snap count to the point that he was crossing the line of scrimmage as the ball was snapped. Payton, lined up to next to McMahon in the shotgun, saw this happening and cleared the linebacker out with a beautiful block. Without that block, McMahon would have been sacked easily rather than hitting Gault in stride 40 yards downfield.

After the touchdown and a Wilber Marshall interception, the Bears took over again, this time on the Vikings’ 25. On the first play from scrimmage, McMahon rolled out and hit Dennis McKinnon crossing into the end zone, into a window of opportunity that couldn’t have been more than about a foot. It was a more difficult throw even than the Gault bomb. McMahon had now been in the game for two plays and had thrown two touchdowns. Bears 23, Vikings 17.

Namath told a cute story about going to talk to Jim McMahon during the week, and having McMahon show up in an enormous neck brace that made it look like he’d never play football again. At the end of the interview, McMahon said the brace was just a joke and took it off, and everyone had a big laugh. Gifford, meanwhile, was just loopy. At one point, he said, “Jim McMahon has really fired this crowd up,” then realized the game was in the Metrodome, so just continued on with “or rather he has really quieted this crowd, partisan Vikings fans, of course.” ABC used to do this weird thing where, at the end of the third quarter, they’d show the first half stats, then dissolve into the third quarter stats. As soon as the first half numbers appeared, Gifford started talking about them as if they were up to the minute.  He didn’t even try to cover up that mistake.

McMahon picked up a third TD pass in that third quarter, and almost had a fourth when he connected with Dennis McKinnon down the sideline in the fourth quarter for a 45-yarder, but Vikings safety Joey Browner came over to save the touchdown. The Bears ended up coasting to a 33-24 win. Steve Fuller would go on to start four more games for the Bears that season, including the infamous Monday night loss to the Dolphins. McMahon would come on at the end of that one, too, but he was all out of miracles. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Snake Eyes

Oilers vs. Steelers, September 7, 1980, Three Rivers Stadium

The 1979 Houston Oilers finished their season by losing to the eventual Super Bowl champs, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the AFC Championship Game, for the second year in a row. This was apparently too much for Oilers owner Bud Adams to take, because before the start of the 1980 season, he traded longtime Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini to the Oakland Raiders for their own longtime starting quarterback, Kenny Stabler. (The Raiders also traded, in a separate deal, Jack "the Assassin" Tatum to the Oilers for Kenny King and some draft picks.)

The 1980 Oilers opened the season, as luck would have it, against those same Steelers in Pittsburgh, with the Snake at the controls. And it was a disaster. Stabler's first pass was dropped by Earl Campbell, whom the Oilers were trying to make into more of a pass-catching threat. (According to Dick Enberg, in about the most interesting thing I ever heard him say, Pastorini claimed that Campbell couldn't catch a cold, and based on this game, Dante appears to have been correct.) Stabler's second pass attempt was intercepted. Stabler's third pass attempt was intercepted. Stabler's sixth pass attempt was intercepted.

At that point, I lost count of the number of Stabler's pass attempts, but he threw one more pick before halftime. Stabler finally completed more passes to Oilers than to Steelers sometime late in the second quarter, with a ratio of five to four. The score at that point was 17-0 Steelers. To be fair to Stabler, his best receiver, Kenny Burrough, was on the sideline in a Bum Phillips-style cowboy hat, blue jeans, and some kind of protective leg brace.

Although Stabler eventually stopped throwing picks, Phillips figured out a better use for Earl Campbell than catching passes in the second half: Earl threw a 57-yard bomb downfield to Billy "White Shoes" Johnson in the third quarter to close the deficit to 17-10. Steeler Theo Bell fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and the Oilers were in position to tie the game. Down by the goal line, new QB Stabler bumped into Earl Campbell on the handoff and the ball bounced into the end zone, then backward into the arms of a Houston lineman at the one. It sure was weird to see the ball land in the end zone on a non-scoring play, but there you go. Campbell took it in on the next play to tie it up at 17.

The Steelers added two fourth-quarter touchdowns to build up another lead. One of them featured Terry Bradshaw scrambling around before throwing a desperation heave down to John Stallworth at the goal line. NBC's cameras completely lost sight of where the ball went; they bobbed around the field after Bradshaw's throw, then finally found Stallworth after he had danced into the end zone.

Stabler iced it with yet another interception in the fourth quarter. The Snake finished 24 of 42 for 196 yards with five interceptions and no touchdowns.  Pastorini, for his part, didn't make it through the season as the Raiders starter.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Hot and Bothered

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, September 8, 1985

Games at Soldier Field are famous for their brutal, unforgiving weather conditions, and this one was no exception. The Bucs arrived in Chicago to face 92-degree heat, which rose - according to a pregame graphic - to 121 degrees on the artificial turf. The stands looked more like the bleachers at Wrigley Field, with approximately 40 percent of the male customers (but approximately 0 percent of the female customers) going shirtless. (Meanwhile, across town, Pete Rose was garnering the 4,191st hit of his career, tying Ty Cobb's all-time mark, as Brent Musburger helpfully told us.)

The warm weather also pointed up how Coach Ditka had not yet established his iconic look. He couldn't really wear one of his sweaters, so he went with a short-sleeved shirt and tie, dark slacks and white sneakers. He looked like the newly promoted manager of a struggling lumberyard. To illustrate just how far removed we were from the mythology of Coach Ditka, CBS didn't even see fit to show a picture of him until seven minutes into game time (which is even longer into the broadcast, since the tape I was watching had no commercials). We had already seen several shots of Buccaneers coach Leeman Bennett by that point.

There were many questions about the Bear defense heading into this game. They had the best defense in the NFL in 1984, when they advanced to the NFC Championship Game, but two of their stars were holding out (as they would do all season). Safety Todd Bell would be replaced by Dave Duerson, and linebacker Al Harris would be replaced by rookie Wilber Marshall, and Tim Ryan and Johnny Morris harped on how this might hurt the Bears.

And for a long time, it looked bad. Tampa Bay marched all the way down the field on its opening drive for a touchdown. Then they took a kickoff back into Bears territory, and threw a 44-yard TD bomb on the first play of the drive. The Bear defense finally forced a punt on the Bucs' third drive, but rookie punt returner Ken Taylor let the bouncing ball hit him, and Tampa recovered. Again, they needed just one play to score. With a minute to go in the first half, they scored a fourth touchdown to go up 28-17. Rookie Kevin Butler, in his first NFL game, missed a 63-yard field goal - it was way short - as the half expired.

But in the second half, the Bears defense asserted itself. Leslie Frazier took a Steve DeBergh pass back for a Chicago touchdown. Shaun Gayle blocked a punt, which the Bears converted into another quick TD. Walter Payton had to come out of the game a couple of times, woozy from the heat, but he was marvelous: elusive, shifty, quick, possessed of incredible balance. He held the ball out away from him, in one hand, which other Bears picked up on; a couple of receivers did the same thing, as did Jim McMahon on a bootleg.

In the end, the defense was the 1985 Bears defense that has gone down into legend. Very early in the fourth quarter, the Bears went up 38-28, and the game was clearly over. Not only had the Bucs stopped moving the ball, but they were frustrated and angry, just as every other Bears opponent would be that year. It can't have been much fun to have an untouched Richard Dent swooping down on you.

After allowing 28 points in the first half of the first game of the year, the Bears wouldn't allow that many points in an entire game until week 13 in the infamous Monday Nighter against the Dolphins. I'm not savvy enough to read the defensive formations on the TV screen, but I did notice that in the first half, the Bears occasionally had nickel back Shaun Gayle on the field, which means they weren't running a strict 46 defense at that point. I wonder if Buddy Ryan decided at halftime that it was time to go full-out into the 46 - and the rest was history.