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.
A balancing act new Bears tact
Originally published Sept. 8, 1985
This wasn’t the way Jim McMahon planned it. He’s already in his fourth NFL season, and he’s still a promising quarterback.
He was supposed to be spectacular by now. A star. The star at quarterback. People already should be touting bright, young rookies as the next Jim McMahon.
“I just want to play a whole season,” McMahon says. “I think if I played a whole season, everything else would take care of itself.”
By everything, McMahon means everything. The Super Bowl championship. All-Pro status. Diet cola commercials.
Maybe not those. McMahon isn’t a diet cola kind of guy. Sunglasses maybe, or chainsaws. Better yet, “My favorite Super Bowl rings are the ones that were made by. . . .” He doesn’t plan to stop at one.
McMahon’s confidence is as unlimited as his potential is unrealized. Just give him the ball.
It’s in his court as the Bears open their season noon today against Tampa Bay. Their running game led the league last year. So did their defense.
The key to their season is the man charged with unlocking their passing game. He means to take it from the storage closet to the display window.
“You’ve got to be able to throw to win in this league,” McMahon says. “Walter Payton is not going to go on forever. When a defense gets into an eight-man front, you’ve got to be able to get them out of it.”
Coach Mike Ditka plans to have the Bears pass as much as they run. For that to happen, they have to pass as well as they run.
Through the exhibition season, Ditka has expressed concern about the pass blocking and the receivers’ running their routes reliably. He has expressed only confidence in McMahon. His practice games were typically uninspiring, but he never did care for practice. Practice is for players who need it.
Pass blocking and reliable receivers aren’t unimportant, but they’re not center stage, either. That’s McMahon’s spot.
The Bears are at the point where a quarterback can make or break them. The difference between McMahon’s promise and his production can be the difference between the Super Bowl and going home for Christmas.
“This is a big year for Jim,” Ditka says. “He wants to put big production numbers on the board and I think he will. A lot remains to be seen.”
Last year, McMahon was the NFL’s third-rated quarterback before his season ended with kidney lacerations in the 10th game. In four of his nine starts, his broken hand had to be shot with painkiller. “Maybe I ought to break it again,” he says.
The year before, McMahon was benched for three games in mid-season. Ditka thought he needed to apply himself more. His stats tailed off from his rookie year.
He was NFC Rookie of the Year in 1982. He started all but two games, but the strike cost him seven more.
How good could he be in a whole season? “Who knows?” he says. Just give him the ball.
The kidney is healthy. The hand feels fine.
“Bob Thomas told me I was throwing too many spirals in practice,” McMahon says, aware his passes never have sent artists scrambling for easels.
Pressure? Ha! All the Bears are asking him to do is throw often and well. “That’s not pressure,” he says. “That’s what I’ve always done. Throw the ball. That’s what I like to do.
“The more we do it, the better we’re going to get at it. My first three years here, we didn’t work on the passing game much. Not as much as now.”
During training camp, the Bears emphasized the quicker developing pass plays that are staples at San Francisco and San Diego, where passing is the route to the end zone instead of a road to disaster. They made it easier for the quarterback to change plays after lining up. They drilled the passing game inside an opponent’s 20-yard line.
Passing was more a diversion than a weapon last year, especially near the goal line. Of the Bears’ 14 TD passes, only seven were shorter than 20 yards, and Payton threw two of those. Altogether, their TD passes ranked next-to-last in the league.
“We moved the ball up and down the field,” McMahon says. “When you get down there, you’ve got to come away with something.”
If the Bears do that often enough, their defense might not be the only unit people think of as intimidating. Offenses can intimidate, too. McMahon likes to think he can intimidate an opponent.
“You’ve got to score points,” he says. “Take the ball right down and score on the first series, like we did so often last year, that’ll open some eyes. You put 21 points a half up there, that’s all the intimidation you need.”
The Bears may need points more than last year because their defense may not be as spectacular, even if they sign Todd Bell and Al Harris soon.
“I’d like to score at least 28 to 31 a game,” McMahon says. “I’d like to score more. But I think 28 a game is a realistic goal.”
The defense’s goal, meanwhile, is 17. Last year, it held 10 teams to 14 or less.
“If they get 28 points, we should win a lot of ballgames,” says Dave Duerson, Bell’s replacement at strong safety. “If a team gets 28 on us, we’ve definitely had some breakdowns.
“That’s the one thing we’ve tried to eliminate this year in camp. The big play. Last year, we totally dominated the line of scrimmage, but we gave up some big plays.”
Only two teams averaged 28 points last year. They went to the Super Bowl and ranked first and fourth in passing.
“We’ve got the players,” McMahon says. “The receivers can get open. They’ve got good speed. It’s up to the guys upfront.”
Ditka was encouraged by 45 points against Buffalo last weekend, but said “it could have been 65” if there hadn’t been five turn overs. He was encouraged by pre-season penalties, down from 32 last year to 18. Payton ran 117 yards in two halves.
“We have the capabilities,” he says. “It’s just a matter of doing it.” Mostly, he says, it’s a matter of the pass blockers and wide receivers doing it better than they’ve been doing it.
The linemen like the quicker pass plays. They call for more aggressive blocking, almost like run blocking.
“You can get your hands into a guy before he knows whether it’s run or pass,” center Jay Hilgenberg says. “You can take his initial move away.”
The technique is still new to the linemen, though. McMahon is sure they’ll master it soon enough. When they do, he says, there won’t be any more questions about whether he can stay healthy.
But there will be. McMahon gets hurt by running into trouble.
“It was a macho thing for a while,” Ditka says. Ditka has told him to be more selective, to throw the ball away, to settle for a bad play when the alternative could be worse.
“I’m sure he hears me,” Ditka says, “and I’m sure if he would stop and think about all the pain and all the anguish he had going through the 1984 season, he would hear me very well.”
“I think he’s going to learn. But I’m not saying he’s going to learn immediately.”
Receivers have something to do with McMahon’s health, too. If they get open, he doesn’t have to run.
In the shorter passing game, they have to get open earlier. “What we’re trying to do is keep the ball in the quarterback’s hands less,” says Steve Fuller, McMahon’s backup.
“It’s all timing routes,” says Ken Margerum, whose college offense resembled San Francisco’s. “If you’re supposed to go 10 yards deep, you have to go 10 yards deep because he has to throw it before you make your cut.”
That has been a weakness of Bear receivers, mainly because they get bottled up at the line. “They get pushed out of their routes, so they change them,” McMahon says.
The Bears’ best wideout at escaping the line is Dennis McKinnon, who played just one half in the exhibitions after arthroscopic knee surgery. He’s not 100 percent. “We need him a lot,” McMahon says.
On the other side, Willie Gault is fast and improving, but these passing game intricacies are new to him. He always has played for running teams. McMahon says Gault has been taught about as much about passing as a Brigham Young sophomore.
“You have to just keep working at it,” McMahon says. That sounds like practice.
“We’ve had enough practice,” he says. “Let’s start the season. We’re all looking forward to playing the games that count. That’s this week and hopefully the next 19.”
Just give him the ball.