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.

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