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1985 Bears Coverage: Bears are going to great pains to improve passing

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.

Bears are going to great pains to improve passing

Sun-Times Staff

Originally published Nov. 5, 1985

Jim McMahon had a severe attack of the mumbles yesterday, limiting him to barely audible one-word answers to reporters inquiring about the health of himself and the Bear passing game.

“Nope,” the quarterback murmured, none of his body parts had been displaced by Packers who had piled on three-deep and pummeled him Sunday in Green Bay. He was “fine.”

He broke off further interrogation by pursuing his baby-sitting obligations, chasing cute little daughter Ashley into the far reaches of the Bears’ Lake Forest lair.

So others had to explain what was eating the quarterback of the only undefeated team in the National Football League, who seemed to have been struck dumb. His only public utterance after Sunday’s victory in Green Bay had been: “Nine-and-0 and away we go,” a Jackie Gleason throwaway line.

“He’s ticked off at himself for his performance,” said Ed Hughes, the team’s offensive coordinator. “He’s riled at himself for throwing the ball short or over a guy’s head. He cusses himself out on the field constantly.”

And why has he been less than his best in recent games, having hit 9-of-20 passes for a sparse 91 yards against a Green Bay secondary depleted by injuries and the ejection of Mark Lee?

For one thing, his physical condition isn’t really “fine.” Coach Mike Ditka disclosed: “Jim is really bruised up.”

For another thing, says Hughes, “Teams have been blitzing a lot and haven’t given Jim time to get receivers into routes. He’s been throwing too early or too late.”

What’s more, says Hughes, some receivers didn’t hear McMahon’s audibles in Green Bay. That messed up plays and made Jim look bad when it wasn’t his fault.

Still another thing, Ditka spotted a fundamental flaw on films yesterday. McMahon was having trouble throwing over the clutter of enemy ruffians, and it was partly his own fault. “We’re not dropping back deep enough on play-action passes,” Ditka explained. “He’s getting pressure. He’s getting people at his feet and the ball’s flying on him because he’s throwing off the back foot when going backwards.” At times, McMahon has resorted to jump passes to get the ball over the rush.

But it’s not just McMahon, says Ditka. “It’s the receivers’ routes. It’s the blocking. It’s everything. . .I’m unhappy about the execution on offense.”

The Bears have let some of their fundamentals slip, and the perfectionist Ditka, aware they aren’t playing well enough to win a championship, despite their perfect record, intends to work on them this week before facing Detroit in Soldier Field.

McMahon suffered four sacks Sunday, 28 percent of his total for the whole season.

Ditka laid the blame for the biggest sack loss, 14 yards, on tight end Emery Moorehead, saying McMahon “tried to stay with the tight end, and the tight end did not run a good route.”

But Moorehead, who had one bad knee, now has banged up the other. The diminished practice time of damaged receivers has become a problem in the timing of the passing game, says Hughes. McMahon himself missed practices two weeks ago.

“We’ve had some mental errors because of people missing practice,” Hughes says. Dennis McKinnon, the team’s No. 2 receiver behind the incomparable Walter Payton, sometimes practices only once a week, to prevent a buildup of fluid in his chronically sore knee. “He had a little problem Sunday in his blocking assignments, as well as the
passing game,” Hughes said, because he wasn’t sure of what he was supposed to do.

Yesterday’s good passing news was Willie Gault’s passing his X-ray exam. His chest was bruised and pain had cost him a night’s sleep, but there were no ribs cracked.

“I couldn’t breathe without pain yesterday, but now it’s much better,” Willie said.

Gault’s world-class speed has a lot to do with stretching opposing defenses to the paining point. But he left the Green Bay game in the second quarter, after he had landed atop a ball and a Packer had landed atop him, squashing the ball into ribs that had been hurting since a wrenching tackle on a kickoff return in San Francisco three weeks earlier. Last week, playful teammate Otis Wilson gave him some shock therapy that didn’t help, sneaking up behind him and applying a Bear hug.

One part of the Bear passing game worked marvelously Sunday, a touchdown pass from McMahon to an open Refrigerator. Critics may sniff nobody could miss a 308-pound target at short range. But it was the memory of William Perry’s crushing blocks for Payton touchdowns and his own touchdown wallow in the previous game with the Packers that caused Green Bay to leave him free for this scoring catch.

When Perry entered the offensive lineup this time, the Packers ran out six linemen and four linebackers with only one defensive back. “They were expecting the run,” Hughes says. When Perry went in motion from his wingback spot, Hughes explains, “the people on the side he was moving to were expecting to get hit with a big block. The guy linebacker George Cumby braced himself, and Perry side stepped him and was wide-open.” Poor Cumby had reason to brace himself, for he had been squashed twice by Perry in the previous game.

The answer to the slump of the Bear passing game may be a week’s rest to allow the bruised McMahon to heal. His replacement? Perry, of course.

“He can throw the football,” Ditka said, a sly gleam in his eye.

This Refrigerator does everything but ice cubes.