1985 Bears Coverage: Payton part, heart of team

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Every day of the 2015 Chicago Bears season, Chicago Sun-Times Sports will revisit its coverage 30 years ago during the 1985 Bears’ run to a Super Bowl title.

Payton part, heart of team

Ray Sons

Originally published Sept. 30, 1985

Walter Payton, seven carries, six yards rushing. Bears 45, Redskins 10. I hope the devil has a pair of ice skates. Hell must be frozen over, the ice a foot thick.

“We didn’t really do anything on offense,” Mike Ditka said,] looking very puzzled. “Except capitalize when the ball was given to us. Very unusual game.”

Unusual for the Bears, that is, the sort of game that would have been more understandable if played under Saturday night’s full moon, rather than yesterday’s shimmering sunshine.

Four games into this football season, the Bears are 4-0 for the first time since their last championship year, 1963, and the all-time leading rusher in the National Football League still is looking for his first touchdown on the ground and has aver aged a sparse (for him) 45 yards rushing per game.

“The thing that really matters to me is 4-0,” Walter said. “It’s a team, not Walter Payton.”

It’s not that the guy had a bum game yesterday. Far from it. He threw a touchdown pass to his quarterback, for heaven’s sake, and caught a pass from the same fellow for his first and only touchdown of this season. And he picked up a blitzing linebacker to permit another touchdown pass.

The message in all of this is not that Payton is over the hill at 31, or anything less than he had been. It is not that he has become unnecessary, only that what he used to do has become less necessary. He is a tank in a missile age. The Bears don’t play conventional warfare these days.

“Finally, we’ve changed the formula,” says Dennis McKinnon. “We’re utilizing all our talents, so nobody can key on him.”

There were two good reasons why yesterday was the sixth worst rushing day of Payton’s magnificent 151-game career – the Washington defense and Jim McMahon. “They were taking away the run by doing a lot of blitzing, and they were vulnerable to the pass,” Payton explained. “Jim did a good job of taking advantage of it.”

With eight men on the line, and only a free safety and two cornerbacks to protect against the pass, the Redskins were daring the Bears to throw. “I could have been stupid and run it, run it, run it and bore everybody, but it’s foolish,” Ditka said. In the past, the Bears have been just that stupid, just that foolish. Now Ditka is smart enough to allow McMahon to audible into the necessary passes, because McMahon is good enough to make it pay. In other seasons, coaches continued to butt Payton’s head into impenetrable walls of beef because they had no faith in quarterbacks that deserved none.

The team’s other running gun, fullback Matt Suhey, said of the switch to the pass: “If they give you something, you might as well take it. But you have to have people who recognize it. We didn’t do anything, really, other than that McMahon recognized things and threw the ball well and his receivers ran precise patterns.” Hallelujah! Precision in the Bear passing game! A generation of coaches had promised that, and Ditka finally has delivered.

Incredibly, the formerly mistake-prone Bears have developed a killer instinct on offense. To make a mistake in front of McMahon is to bleed in front of a shark. Punt off the side of your foot, he’ll hit McKinnon for a touchdown on the next play. Let Richard Dent strip the ball from you, McMahon will audible into a touchdown to Emery Moorehead four plays later. Punt for 22 yards, McMahon will need only five plays to make you regret it, this time making a lunging catch of Payton’s pass in the end zone.

If the play that produced McMahon’s scoring catch looked semi-busted, it was only because Payton was supposed to roll right and throw it. A posse of Redskins ambushed Payton as he headed to his right. “So I reversed my field and was going to try to run it,” he explained. “I saw Jim breaking open, so I laid it up. Luckily, he ran under kind of a bad pass and caught it.”

Yes, the play was sent in from the sidelines. Just a couple weeks ago, McMahon was so banged up he was celebrating victories in the hospital. Now, they send in plays that make him a tackling dummy. (Make that “tackling smartie.” On a field, McMahon is Einstein.)

To make yesterday’s offensive efficiency even less credible, remember the Bears weren’t playing with a full deck, missing two of their best linemen. Tom Thayer, a refugee from the USFL, made his first start in the NFL in place of injured guard Kurt Becker opposite one of the NFL’s most frightening tackles. “I started out fearful, because I’d heard so much about Dave Butz,” Thayer said. “Once the game got underway, I settled down.” He did well, and so did Andy Frederick, who didn’t know until just before kickoff that he, not Jimbo Covert, would play opposite Dexter Manley, the biggest mouth in a city full of politicians. Covert, who had been hospitalized for back spasms during the week, participated in the pre-game warmup, but was given the rest of the afternoon off. “I thought I played pretty good,” said Frederick, “except he Manley beat me for one sack.”

That sack was of Steve Fuller, and it is a measure of the Bears’ progress that the only fault the volatile Ditka could find in his team was the repeated failure to afford his second-string quarterback the same protection and support given McMahon.

Manley, remember, had shot off his mouth about knocking Payton out of the game. Payton said Dexter had phoned him to apologize, and had been told it was “no problem.” Manley’s remark had been made in the backwash of the previous Sunday’s upset by Philadelphia. Payton was understanding: “It was like Larry Holmes after the fight. He said some things out of frustration.”

With Payton playing it cool, the anger on the Bears seethed under McMahon’s close-cropped skull after he had thrown an early interception. “I play a lot better when I’m teed off,” Jim said. “I was so mad at myself for being so dumb.”

The Bears have a tradition of anger, but have used it in other years as a weapon against themselves, resulting in penalties and silly mistakes.

So the Bears’ offense finally has evolved toward modern football. But it would be foolish to conclude they now win without “establishing the run.”

Walter Payton had established the run over 11 seasons. If that were not true, the Redskins would not have exposed their secondary to McMahon’s arrows. Walter is a sheathed sword, but they know he’s there.

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