February 21, 2018

Remembering Mike’s Mistake

As we all know by now, the Green Bay Packers are spending the rest of January ice fishing and curling instead of playing football after getting dinged by the New York Giants last weekend.  The surprising and ignominious early playoff exit by the 15-1 defending Super Bowl champs spoils Green Bay’s opportunity to be considered one of the greatest teams in NFL history and also frees up Lambeau Field for arctic cheese rolling through Valentine’s Day.

If the Packers had figured out how to rush Eli Manning and catch the ball – things they normally excel at – they would likely be headed for a second straight Super Bowl crown, putting them in the same historic huddle with the New England Patriots of 2003 and 2004, the Denver Broncos of 1997 and 1998, the Dallas Cowboys of 1992 and 1993, the San Francisco 49ers of 1988 and 1989, the Pittsburgh Steelers of 1978 and 1979, the Pittsburgh Steelers of 1974 and 1975, the Miami Dolphins of 1972 and 1973 and the Green Bay Packers of 1966 and 1967 as the only NFL teams to repeat as Super Bowl champs.  Come to think of it, it’s a rather crowded huddle but still a very impressive one.

This season’s Packers have been compared to many of those great teams and others of yesteryear. If the Pack had won it all this year, they would have been in place to do something no NFL team has ever done which is win the league’s final game three straight times.  Between the first NFL title game in 1933 to the final one before the Super Bowl era in 1965, the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts all enjoyed back-to-back title runs but no team ever reached the threepeat.

Right now a 102-year-old man in Green Bay is pushing the biker girl off his lap and yelling “Wait a second there, fella!”  OK, OK, Grandpa, I’m gettin’ there.  Before the NFL started playing championship games, teams were voted league champions and Boise State didn’t have a chance back then either.  The Akron Pros (Lebron James’ high school team) were the first people’s choice as NFL champs in 1920. The league’s first dynasty was the Canton Bulldogs who won it all in 1922 and 1923 and then moved to Cleveland and won it all in 1924, but the NFL doesn’t officially recognize that 1924 team as the same franchise as the ’22 and ’23 teams.  But a few years later an indisputable back-to-back-to-back occurred when the Packers won it all, by vote, in 1929, 1930 and 1931.

There you go, old guy!  Now chow down a Werther’s and give your gal a kiss.

It will likely be a long time before any team ever wins three straight Super Bowls as it’s just too dang tough.  But every December or January that a defending champion gets knocked out of its repeat quest about ten million of us sad souls in NFL land of a certain age think back to the team that, we believe more than any other one-and-done, really should have been the list of repeat winners – the 1985 and 1986 Chicago Bears.

There is little dissension among NFL historians that the 1985 Bears team that throat-crunched the rest of the NFL en route to winning Super Bowl XX was one of the greatest teams of any single season.  The Bears had maybe the best defense ever seen that year, had Walter Payton and Jim McMahon on offense and had one of the most colorful coaches of all time, Mike Ditka, on the sidelines.  Those Bears were great, they were fun and they were also eternally infuriating.

With all that talent – Payton, McMahon, Jimbo Covert, Jay Hilgenberg, Willie Gault, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, Otis Wilson, Dave Duerson, Gary Fencik and on and on – the Bears were expected to win three Super Bowls, maybe four.  Maybe more?  That’s a tough call but they should have won at least two.  So why didn’t they?  We’ve heard a million explanations: they got too complacent, Ditka got too cool, McMahon couldn’t stay healthy, the ionosphere was acting oddly.  And all of those might be true.  But, like Green Bay’s disappointment this year, the Bears’ blunder might come down to simply this: they had a bad afternoon.

Twenty-five years ago this month the ’86 Bears opened the playoffs in defense of their Super Bowl title having polished off a 14-2 regular season (and are still the only team to ever win 29 regular season games in back-to-back years) by welcoming the Washington Redskins to town for a divisional playoff game.  McMahon, the starting quarterback, was hurt but the Bears had his capable backup, Steve Fuller, ready to go.  Fuller was a good player, knew the system, and actually started in a playoff game two years earlier when the Bears beat the Redskins in Washington.

But then came Mike’s Mistake.

Mike Ditka was not the greatest coach in NFL history.  He was probably not even one of the greatest.  He was good though, and likely the most famous, colorful and recognizable man to ever prowl a sideline.  Late in the 1986 season the Bears had signed quarterback Doug Flutie, the former Heisman Trophy winner who had become a refugee of the defunct USFL.  Flutie saw action in a few games and Ditka (gulp) chose to go with him against the Redskins in the playoffs.  Washington countered by putting five guys on the defensive line to stop Payton and dared Flutie to throw.  He couldn’t.  The 5-8 Flutie finished 11/31 for 134 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions as the Bears lost, 27-13.

No repeat.  No dynasty.

No one knows what would have happened if Ditka had gone with Fuller at quarterback instead of Flutie.  No one, that is, except me.  Fuller was no Roger Staubach but he knew the offense, had the support of his teammates and was a solid passer.  If Fuller had started that game the Bears would have won, then would have beaten the Giants the next weekend in New York and steamrolled the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI.  There’s no guarantee they would have won three or four Super Bowls but they would have, should have, won two.

Analyze, reanalyze, overanalyze, drive yourself crazy.  Go ahead, it’s January.  Have a drink and a Werther’s while you’re at it.  There are a million reasons the 1980s Bears didn’t become a dynasty but the biggest reason, most obvious reason, is a very specific one: It should have been Fuller, not Flutie.  If so, the Bears would have repeated and would be on the earlier list that this year’s Packers wanted so badly to be included upon.

The 1985 Chicago Bears were so fun, colorful and damn good that maybe one Lombardi Trophy was enough.  But two would have been nice.

Get over it, right?

Nope.  Not yet.



Book Review: The Catch

The play shouldn’t have worked. Every time Joe Montana and Dwight Clark ran the Sprint Wide Option  in practice, they could not convert. But it only needed to work one time. That one time became one of the most famous plays in NFL history. In an instant, the 49ers changed their fortunes forever. The Cowboys had to wait a decade to rediscover theirs.

Read “The Catch” by Gary Myers because:

1. Not too long before Montana threw the ball up in the sky, nobody believed he or Clark would make any sort of impact on the football field. Today “The Catch” is one of the first football highlights that comes to mind.

Dallas could have had Joe Montana in 1979. Months before the draft, Montana toppled Houston by leading a 22-point, 4th quarter comeback in the Cotton Bowl. Tom Landry liked him, but he didn’t really like him. “If we take him, I’ll probably cut him in training camp,” the Hall of Fame coach said. Nevermind that Montana was the highest player on the ‘Boys board, and since when did Dallas not take the best available? (10, Catch)

The phone call Dwight Clark got wasn’t even for him. Bill Walsh called to see Clark’s roommate work out. It just so happened that Steve Fuller wasn’t ready, and Walsh did not want to be kept waiting. He watched Clark work out instead. Leading up to the draft, Walsh kept hearing that Clark would go undrafted. Selecting him would be a waste. Walsh listened for a while, but he eventually went against his advisors. Montana and Clark, the two afterthoughts, were destined to be forever remembered together.

2. You might as well be in the backfield during the fateful drive, thanks to Myers’ narration.

Montana’s end zone heave to Clark was exactly what every boy thinks about before he goes to bed. In San Francisco’s version, the Niners found themselves trailing by one point on the six-yard line with 58 seconds on the clock. “[Montana] was the calmest in the huddle when he should have been the most nervous,” Clark said. “The moment was not too big for him.” (216)

The Sprint Wide Option play call from Walsh never worked in practice. Heck, Clark wasn’t even Montana’s first choice. The ball was supposed to go to Freddie Solomon. That’s how it was supposed to go in the 1982 NFC Championship Game too. Instead, as the make-or-break play unfolded, Solomon slipped. Montana was well aware of Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Larry Bethea and D.D. Lewis coming fast and furious toward him. Clark couldn’t see Montana, but the QB kept his eye on the receiver the whole time. All he could do was throw it up, wait for the beating and leave it to the crowd to tell him whether Clark made the grab.

3. Bill Walsh and Tom Landry are two legends in their own right and central to this story.

Bill Walsh was 47 when Eddie DeBartolo Jr. hired him. Walsh looked like he was 57, so he was all-too aware that the pressure was on. He didn’t start well (8-24 first two seasons.) Initially Walsh didn’t know whether to yell, bully or plead. Apparently he learned, as he’s been likened to Vince Lombardi.

Walsh became a players’ favorite. Landry didn’t allow himself to have those sorts of relationships, though the Cowboys head man made sure to let his players know he cared about them. Landry was stoic and didn’t need words to get his point across. He was old-school, Myers wrote. That, and “The Catch” were two significant reasons why Landry was relieved of his duties. Landry went from feared to misunderstood by new-school players.

Sadly, both Landry and Walsh died of leukemia. What a legacy they left, forever linked by “The Catch.”

Sam Miller is the founder of Sam’s Dream Blog.  A graduate of the University of Illinois, he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. At the University of Illinois, Miller regularly wrote feature stories about the football team. He has also served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.