November 20, 2017

Tires, Tail Pipes, and American Football

It was 1985. Down in the stock room at Sears Automotive, the boy in the black shirt and blue jeans assessed the situation. It was more fun than anything he had studied in four years of high school. Lost in a concrete jungle of tires, mufflers, and tail pipes, he still had the radio and his football magazines.

On this early summer Saturday morning, the phone rang. It was Mr. Robertson: “What are you doing here this early?”

“I was scheduled for this morning, Mr. Robertson. From 9 to 4.”

“I’ve got you down for closing.”

“Uh…no sir. Sammy scheduled me from 9 to 4. Jim comes in at 4.”

There was a silence. Then came Robertson’s voice: “If Jim doesn’t show, you’re staying.” And click. 

If he had to stay, then he had to stay. The boy was equipped and ready. He had the radio, the Beatles, Jeff Beck, and his football magazines.

Throughout the course of the day, he agonized over who would be NFL champs. He knew the Chicago Bears were going to be good. He also knew they were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell. Super Bowl Champions? He had to go with the St. Louis Cardinals.

 

Summer 1985: State of the Bears

He continued to ponder the issue throughout that summer: Who’s going to be the NFL Champion? The Cardinals or the Bears?

He knew the Bears were going to be good, but all was not well in the Windy City. Buddy Ryan was calling first round defensive tackle William “The Refrigerator” Perry “a wasted draft pick.” On the offensive side of the ball, Jim McMahon was returning from a lacerated kidney that ended his season the previous November. The stocker had some uncertainty about McMahon’s ability to play at full speed. 

Above all, the Bears were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell.

Bell was their All-Pro strong safety, and in his fifth season, he was sure to be entering his prime. Al Harris was one of Buddy Ryan’s holdovers from the pre-Mike Ditka days. He was a reliable linebacker and defensive end, playing wherever he was needed. Harris proved to be handy on special teams as well. He once scored a touchdown on a fake field goal.

Granted, Harris had a replacement. His spot would go to Wilber Marshall, the previous year’s number one draft pick and rated by some as the top linebacker in the ‘84 draft. Bell’s absence, however, was sure to be felt. His spot at strong safety was being taken over by an unknown named Dave Duerson.  Even Marshall was no sure thing, at least not yet. He missed much of his rookie training camp in ‘84, and as a result, didn’t see much action during the season.

 

Summer 1985: State of the Cardinals

The Cardinals, on the other hand, made the stock boy nervous. Roy Green scared the daylights out of him. There was considerable debate over who was the best wide receiver in football. He rated his beloved Redskin receivers as the best: Art Monk, followed by Charlie Brown. He put Roy Green right there with them. 

The stocker considered John Stallworth the best receiver on those great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the ‘70’s. He also liked the San Diego Chargers’ speedy Wes Chandler, who was a 1,000 yard receiver in 1982 while playing only eight games. He was a big fan of the man Chandler replaced on the Chargers: the Green Bay Packers’ John Jefferson, an acrobatic receiver whose career had inexplicably nosedived. There was also, of course, the Packers’ James Lofton, who had both size and vertical speed.

The stocker’s thoughts returned to Roy Green. Green scared him. Every year, he terrorized the Redskins. Every year, the Redskins had to face him–twice. Neil Lomax-to-Roy Green was a lethal combination. A combo that was surely headed for the Hall of Fame.

He considered the other weapons on that Big Red offense. Ottis Anderson was a power running back with the speed to go the distance from anywhere on the field. Pat Tilley was a fine possession receiver. Stump Mitchell was an exciting return man who provided an extra threat out of the backfield. 

The Cardinals had the best offense in football, and they scared the stocker. Yes, the Bears had a better defense–but they were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell. On top of that, Buddy Ryan called William “The Refrigerator” Perry a wasted draft pick. There was dissension in the ranks, and the stocker couldn’t pick Chicago.

 

Flashback: December 16, 1984

Sitting in the stock room at Sears Automotive, the boy remembered the last game of the 1984 regular season at RFK Stadium against the Cardinals. He was there. On that overcast December afternoon, the NFC East crown was at stake. The Redskins took a 13-0 lead on two touchdown passes from Joe Theismann to future Hall of Fame wide receiver Art Monk. Theismann also connected with the 6’3’’ receiver for his 100th catch of the season. Art Monk caught 100 passes in an era when players didn’t catch 100 passes.

The Cardinals woke up when cornerback Wayne Smith intercepted a Theismann pass and ran it back to the 1-yard line. On the next play, Lomax scored on a quarterback keeper. The Redskins countered with a 5-yard touchdown run by future Hall of Fame running back John Riggins. At the half, the Redskins led, 23-7.

The Cardinals flew back with a vengeance. Lomax-to-Roy Green struck not once, but twice. The first touchdown went for 75 yards, and the second one went for 18. The Redskins had enough offense left to produce two Mark Moseley field goals. 

On the last play of the game, the ‘Skins were up, 29-27. The Cardinals’ Neil O’Donohue lined up to attempt a desperation field goal: 53 yards away and the clock ticking downward, with no way to stop. The kick was up, up, and…not up enough.   

The Redskins won, 29-27, and walked away with the division title. The stocker walked out of the stadium with 55,000 other elated fans with hopes of a third straight Super Bowl.  

The Cardinals had nowhere to walk but home.

 

September 1985: The D.C. Football Fiasco

Six months later in the heart of the summer, in a mausoleum of tires, mufflers, and tail pipes, the stock boy believed. The stock boy believed the Cardinals were ready to soar. They scared him–and the Bears were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell.

In September, with the stocker now in college, the 1985 season began. His beloved Redskins were a team to be laughed at early in the season. On September 9th, on Monday Night in Dallas, they were slaughtered, 44-14.

They returned home on September 15th and won a 16-13 squeaker against Houston. The ‘Skins’ performance was so unimpressive that the Oilers deserved to win. In the upper deck, the stock boy and his father stood and yelled for their Mack truck of a running back: “Go Riggo!!!” The people around them cheered, and a man sitting behind the father and son said, “Go somebody.”

After the game, the dad drove through D.C. as the stock boy shouted out the window. He yelled to some people in their front yard, “Red-Skins!!” One guy yelled back, “Deadskins!” The father and son laughed, because the man was right.

On September 22nd, the Redskins faced the Philadelphia Eagles. The offense was more lifeless than ever, and the Eagles won, 19-6. In that game, the Eagles seemed to have found their quarterback of the future. A second-round rookie named Randall Cunningham raised some eyebrows. 

On September 29th, the ‘Skins went to Chicago. In 1937, their first trip to the Windy City resulted in the Redskins’ first World Championship. The stock boy’s grandfather took the train to Chicago to see Sammy Baugh and the ‘Skins beat the Bears, 28-21, for the NFL Championship. Now, in their 32nd meeting, the Skins were carrying a 1-2 record and something to prove.

The Bears had eight NFL Championships between 1921 and 1963. Now, after a twenty-two year famine and a taste of the playoffs again in ‘84, the city was hungry. The Bears were off to a 3-0 start and coming off a dramatic come from behind win over the Vikings.

The ‘Skins marched up the field on their first two possessions for a John Riggins touchdown and a Mark Moseley field goal. They were looking like the Redskins of old, the Redskins of 1981 to 1983, a Redskins team that for one stretch won 36 of 42 games–one of those wins being Super Bowl XVII. 

With the ‘Skins having gone up, 10-0, Jeff Hayes kicked off. The Bears’ world-class speedster Willie Gault received the kick and sprinted 99 yards for the touchdown. The crowd erupted, and so did the team they cheered for. The Bears scored one touchdown after another. At the half, Chicago led, 31-10. In the third quarter, quarterback Jim McMahon scored on a 33-yard touchdown pass from future Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton.

On defense, Wilber Marshall, Steve McMichael, Tyrone Keys, and future Hall of Famer Richard Dent each sacked Joe Theismann. The day was one of those occasions when The Hogs, the Redskins’ famed offensive line, fell short of excellence. The Bears also intercepted Theismann twice, with Ken Taylor and “L.A. Mike” Richardson doing the honors.   

The most noteworthy play wasn’t a touchdown, a sack, or a turnover. Jeff Hayes, the Redskins’ kickoff specialist and punter, was injured on the Gault runback. He was hurt so severely that he wouldn’t play again that season. His immediate replacement was the QB. Theismann punted once, and it became perhaps the most celebrated punt in NFL history. Theismann’s punt traveled one yard.  

Final Score: Bears 45, Redskins 10.

That game sent a message to the football-watching nation: The Monsters of the Midway were on the prowl, even without Al Harris and Todd Bell. As for the Redskins, it was looking like 2-14. To make matters worse, the St. Louis Cardinals were coming to town.   

 

‘Twas the Night of October 7th

The stock boy’s Super Bowl pick was looking good so far. The Cardinals were 3-1, and were second in the league in scoring with 124 points. The Bears were 4-0 and first in scoring with 136, but the stocker wasn’t ready to concede just yet. 

The Cards were coming to town, and the consensus was as unanimous as could be: the ‘Skins were in trouble.  Surely, the Cardinals would raise their record to 4-1 and score some points in the process. Since it was Monday Night Football, the Big Red Birds would be embarrassing the Redskins before an entire nation. 

The stock boy had a paper due the next day, but that wasn’t about to stop him from going. It would be his first Monday Night game in person. He and his father expected the worst, but they still looked forward to being there–something only a diehard can understand. 

On that night of October 7th, the Redskins surprised a nation. They came to play football. Joe Theismann ran for a touchdown in the first quarter, and he later threw touchdowns to rookie wide receiver Gary Clark and veteran tight end Clint Didier. Clark’s touchdown was his first in the NFL. Roy Green caught 4 passes for 65 yards. It was a solid effort, but on this night, the Cardinals needed more.

John Riggins and George Rogers rushed for 100 yards each, and the Redskins dominated from start to finish. The stocker told his roommate the next day: “It was incredible.” 

Final score: Redskins 27, Cardinals 10.

 

1985: The Aftermath

The Redskins turned what looked like a two-win season into a pretty good campaign. They finished 10-6. The Redskins proved to be a turning point for both the Bears and the Cardinals. With their 45-10 demolition of the ‘Skins on September 29th, the Bears established themselves as a team to be feared. The rest of the league had a reason to be afraid. The Bears went on to have one of the greatest seasons in football history.          

After being stunned by the Redskins on October 7th, the Cardinals never recovered. They won just two games the rest of the season.

The Bears went 18-1 and won the Super Bowl–without Al Harris and Todd Bell. The Cardinals finished 5-11.

 

Author’s note: Yes, I was the stock boy. Yes, my Grandfather Haddad took the train to Chicago in 1937 to watch the Redskins beat the Bears for the NFL Championship.

Enter Dent

Richard Dent was the Pontiac of football players: a little flashy, very reliable and capable of coolness along with handfuls of greatness.

Dent was not a Cadillac like Dan Hampton or a Hummer like Reggie White or a likely-stolen Porsche like Lawrence Taylor. Pontiacs normally don’t make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  However, when Oldsmobiles like Andre Tippett, Fred Dean and Rickey Jackson start getting in, then you hop in the Sunfire, Trans-Am, or GTO and drive to Canton, Ohio wearing your #95 jersey and welcome in “The Colonel.”

Dent became the fourth player from those great Chicago Bears teams of the 1980s to be enshrined at Canton; joining Hampton, Walter Payton and Mike Singletary.  The coach of that Bears team, Mike Ditka, is also in the Hall, but as a player.

Payton was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  He was likely the best all-around running back, and perhaps the most gracious gentleman, in NFL history.  It’s still wounding that he’s gone.

Like Dent, Hampton didn’t get in until several years after first eligible; as he seemed to be overshadowed by other players and personalities from those Bears teams.  But Hampton was the best player on those Bears defenses and probably the NFL’s best overall defensive lineman of the 1980s.  It’s not all about sacks.  It’s also about knocking down passes, chasing guys downfield and treating every play like it’s your last with love, death, wealth and happiness riding on the outcome.  How often do you see defensive linemen make tackles in the secondary?  Dan Hampton did that.

Hampton got in the Hall four years after Singletary, who was the most overrated player on those Bears teams and possibly Chicago’s third best linebacker in 1985.  Singletary was great and the Bears wouldn’t have been as good without him.  But at their peak, Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson were better.  Also, Dent, Hampton, Steve McMichael and Gary Fencik were always better than Singletary, who was fortunate enough to be the platoon leader of a gang of balls-out, blood-seeking maniacs.  Singletary was good, but not as good as everyone, especially in Chicago, likes to think.

Dent admirably said one of the many people who deserve credit for his great career is Jimbo Covert, the Bears’ left tackle from 1983 to 1990 who sparred with Dent at practice.  I agree with Dent when he says Covert also belongs in Canton as he surely was one of the best tackles to ever play as evidenced by his seven Pro Bowl appearances…but wait.  My Bear-loving memory is fading.  A reference check rudely informed me that Jimbo actually only made the Pro Bowl twice and and was All-Pro twice, as well.  I could have sworn Covert was a Honolulu regular for nearly all the Reagan years.  I was wrong.

Does anyone else from those 1985 Bears deserve to be in the Hall?  Seven-time Pro Bowl center Jay Hilgenberg?  Maybe.  And if Fencik, Marshall, McMichael and Wilson were better than Singletary, then certainly they should all….nah.  It’s tough to put in a bunch of guys from a team that only won one Super Bowl.  Everyone on Earth knows those Bears teams of the 1980s should have won more.  They didn’t.  And Canton owes them nothing.

Who among the current crop of Bears might one day be bronzed?  Brian Urlacher is a shoo-in.  He has made the Pro Bowl seven times, first team All-Pro four times and — listen up kids! — he’s Brian Urlacher!  Urlacher is one of those guys who’s so overrated he actually has become underrated.  Playing linebacker for the Chicago Bears is like playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, centerfield for the New York Yankees or James Bond.  You get far more attention than you deserve and everyone expects to you to be damn good and really cool.  Among contemporaries, Urlacher is nothing close to Ray Lewis and probably wasn’t even as good as Zach Thomas.  But Urlacher is good. Very good.  He’s a better athlete than either of those other guys. If he had played with Dent and Hampton in front of him and Wilson and Marshall beside him, he’d be illegal.

What about Lance Briggs?  He’s in Urlacher territory with six Pro Bowl nods and one All-Pro selection and he’s a very, very good football player.  But Hall of Fame?  Let’s watch him decapitate Aaron Rodgers in this season’s NFC title game and then intercept a pass and bring it into the end zone in a Super Bowl win over the Patriots.  Then, yes, Lance gets in.

Devin Hester is the most exciting NFL player since Deion Sanders, who was among those who went into the Hall along with Dent this past weekend.  Hester holds the NFL record for most career kick and punt returns for touchdowns with a total of 14 and is a serviceable receiver.  But has his career been one for the Bronze Age?  Hester has those 14 TDs (not including one from Super Bowl XLI and a returned missed field goal from the 2006 season) on 291 career returns.  The man whose return record he broke, Brian Mitchell, had 13 career scores on 1,070 returns.  So Hester takes about one of every 20 returns to the house whereas Mitchell took back only about one of every 80.  Mitchell also scored 12 TDs rushing and ran for 1,967 career yards with four TDs and 2,336 yard receiving.  But Hester already has more receiving TDs – 12 – and nearly as much receiving yardage – 2,196 –  and has only played five seasons.  Mitchell played 14.

Certainly Hester’s top return years are behind him, therefore his eye-popping TD-per-return ratio will likely diminish significantly.  But it’s not crazy to project he will retire with 15 career return scores, 25 TD receptions and maybe more exciting moments than any other player in NFL history.  He won’t be a first ballot guy because some will say special teamers should wait in line.  But sometime around 2022 or 2023 his phone will ring.  And the Bears will have another trophy.

The Bears lead the NFL with 27 Hall of Famers and, especially with Dent’s enshrinement this year, it’s only fitting that Chicago was to be playing in the Hall of Fame Game.   That game was cancelled a few weeks ago because the lockout wasn’t over.  Then on Friday, the Bears were to be holding their annual Family Night at Soldier Field, but it was cancelled because the grass was falling apart.  Then on Wednesday night, the lights went out on the Bears’ practice field in Bourbonnais, Illinois.  So the Bears have yet to be seen by the public at large and we hope that’s a bad thing.  It’s a bit of an embarrassment that the Bears play at Soldier Field, which is run by the Chicago Park District, and seems to be treated like any of the other random softball diamonds or tennis courts in the city.  Do things like this happen in other cities?  Bears players, including Urlacher, say Soldier Field should use FieldTurf which is not real grass but far closer to it than artificial turf’s green concrete ancestors.  The Bears would be better on a synthetic surface because they’re a team built on speed and far, far less maintenance would be needed on the fake stuff.

However, many want Soldier Field to remain au naturel.  Fine.  The greatest green grass guy in the world works just a few miles away for the Chicago White Sox.  His name is Roger Bossard, “The Sodfather” and his innovative drainage and irrigation system has been used by the  Sox since the 1960s.  He has also overseen the installation of fields at Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, Busch Stadium and at several other major league ballparks.  The man knows his grass. He even has his own bobblehead.  The White Sox, likely, won’t be playing in October and the Bears will be away from Soldier Field for three weeks, so give the Sodfather the keys.  Give the NFL’s charter franchise a respectable field.  We won’t care what the field is made of in January when it’s covered in snow and the Bears are taking apart other members of the NFC on their way to the Super Bowl (Oh, yes..).  But for now, let’s make it pretty.  Let’s keep it safe.  All Bears deserve a pristine playground upon which to do their savagery.

Ed Sabol is now in the Hall of Fame and thank goodness football did the right thing by getting him there.  Sabol is 94, a World War II veteran and is the one who started NFL Films.  One of the many reasons the NFL is America’s favorite sport is that Sabol built such drama around it.  He and his son Steve have spent decades turning the league’s great games into timeless dramas.  NFL Films could make the assembly of a bologna sandwich feel like Superman conquering the dinosaurs.  It’s just a shame that the original voice of NFL Films, John Facenda, is no longer around.  He died in 1984 but his stentorian narrations live on and, thanks to Ed Sabol, every NFL game will always, at least in retrospect, have the look and feel of a timeless struggle between angry men embedded in mud and blood.