Tuesday, January 25, 2011

1985 Bears Flashback: Men Against Boys

     Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, on January 26, 1986, the Bears won Super Bowl XX in a most convincing fashion, ending the story of their sensational 1985 season with an exclamation point.

     In the days leading up to Super Bowl XX, the AFC champion New England Patriots were almost forgotten in the general hubbub surrounding the Bears. It wasn’t that the Patriots weren’t deserving (they had won 12 of their last 14 games); it was just that they weren’t the Miami Dolphins—with whom the Bears wished to settle accounts for handing them their only defeat of the season. But the Dolphins hadn’t made it to New Orleans, and the Patriots would have to do.
     In a meeting of the Bears’ defensive coaches and players the night before the Super Bowl, defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan all but confirmed the rumors that he was leaving to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles after the game. “Whatever happens tomorrow,” he told the players, “I want you to know that you’re my heroes.” He then left the room, overcome with emotion. The group began watching some film of the Patriots. After just a few minutes, Dan Hampton concluded that the session had gone on long enough; he kicked the projector off its stand. Steve McMichael then hurled a chair through the chalkboard on which some plays had been diagrammed. “Let’s get the hell out of here!” said Hampton. Without anyone saying another word, the players all got up and walked out of the room. The meeting was over, and the Bears were ready.
     Once the game started, New England had a brief glimmer of hope. On the second play of the game, Walter Payton fumbled at his own 19-yard line and the Patriots recovered. “Here we go again,” thought all the Chicagoans who’d learned from bitter experience not to trust their teams too much. But New England quarterback Tony Eason misfired on three pass attempts, and the Patriots settled for a field goal.
     Although they were behind 3-0 with the game barely a minute old, it was already perfectly plain by now that the Bears would win. The Patriots had no more idea how to move the ball against them than they’d had four months earlier. Convinced by the September 15 game that his team couldn’t run on the Bears, New England coach Raymond Berry felt he had no choice but to come out throwing. Thus Eason felt the full force of the Bears’ merciless pass rush on almost every play. “We knew that if we got them into a passing situation,” Mike Singletary said, “we’d have things wrapped up.”
     The Bears’ next two possessions resulted in field goals by Kevin Butler. Then Richard Dent stripped the ball from Patriot running back Craig James, and Singletary pounced on it at the New England 13. Two plays later, fullback Matt Suhey carried 11 yards for a touchdown.
     At the end of the first quarter, the Bears led 13-3. New England had run 10 plays for minus 19 yards. “It was like trying to beat back the tide with a broom,” said Patriot guard Ron Wooten. The second quarter saw more of the same. “I tried to scramble,” Eason said, “but there was no place to go.” The Patriots simply could not block the Bear defenders. Eason was 0-for-6 passing and had been sacked three times when he was removed from the game, for his own good, five minutes before halftime.
     It was 23-3 at the intermission. By now even the most pessimistic Chicagoan must have known that nothing could stop the Bears. “It’s the men against the boys out there,” said NBC analyst Pete Axthelm.
     Veteran Steve Grogan replaced the shell-shocked Eason and fared somewhat better, but the Bears continued to pour it on. Bears quarterback Jim McMahon hit Willie Gault for 60 yards on their first play of the second half; he concluded the 96-yard drive eight plays later with a quarterback sneak from one yard out. A 28-yard interception return by Reggie Phillips and a one-yard plunge by William “Refrigerator” Perry gave the Bears their last two touchdowns.
     The score was 44-3 when Ditka called off the dogs and replaced his starters early in the fourth quarter. New England finally scored a touchdown on an eight-yard pass from Grogan to Irving Fryar after a 12-play drive against the Bears’ second-team defense. Later, an obscure defensive end named Henry Waechter ended the day’s scoring when he sacked Grogan in the end zone for a safety.
     Bears head coach Mike Ditka was roundly chastised for not trying harder to get the immortal Payton a touchdown at some point, particularly in light of the fact that Perry, the coach’s favorite novelty act, got the chance to score from the one-yard line in the third quarter. Ditka admitted that he should have realized before it was too late that Payton hadn’t scored in the game. But it was difficult to see how a token touchdown in a blowout game, even if it was the Super Bowl, would have added much luster to Payton’s nonpareil career. What really mattered was that he and his teammates were world champions. No one had ever been more deserving of that honor.

     When the game was over, both Ditka and Ryan were carried off the field in triumph. The Bears had been splendid on both sides of the ball, and the final score of 46-10 made it the most lopsided Super Bowl up to that time. Practically any one of a dozen Bears could have taken MVP honors, which ended up going to Richard Dent. McMahon, for example, passed to six different receivers for 256 yards and ran for two touchdowns, while Gault caught four balls for 129 yards. Ryan’s defenders disrupted everything that New England tried to do, limiting the Patriots to a mere 123 yards on offense—seven on the ground.
     “It will be many years,” Paul Zimmerman wrote in Sports Illustrated, “before we see anything approaching the vision of hell that Chicago inflicted on the poor New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. It was near perfect, an exquisite mesh of talent and system, defensive football carried to its highest degree. It was a great roaring wave that swept through the playoffs, gathering force and momentum until it finally crashed home in New Orleans’s Superdome in pro football’s showcase game.”
     After exceeding even the wildest dreams of their fans all season, the Bears outdid themselves when it mattered most. In three postseason games, they scored 91 points and yielded only 10. Their opponents averaged fewer than 145 yards per game and converted three third downs out of 36.
     The 1985 Bears showed football fans a level of excellence that had seldom been attained. They talked big, played bigger, and shuffled into a place in history.

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) by Christopher Tabbert

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