It wasn't a happy off-season for the Detroit Lions or the Chicago Bears, but it sure was a fun season opener they played on Sunday at Soldier Field. "It was incredible," said Lion running back Barry Sanders, the Human Highlight Bite, whose 109 yards rushing included a 43-yard touchdown run you had to see to believe. "The fans got their money's worth." Make that double their money's worth.
With the score tied 10-10 and 10 minutes left in the game, the two teams suddenly exploded for 286 yards and 31 points, producing three lead changes, the last of them coming on a six-yard touchdown pass from Bear quarterback Jim Harbaugh to wide receiver Tom Waddle with one second left. That nailed down Chicago's NFL-best ninth straight season-opening win, 27-24.
Detroit has been snake-bit for a while. The off-season deaths of guard Eric Andolsek (auto accident) and assistant coach Len Fontes (heart attack), coming in the wake of the injury that paralyzed guard Mike Utley in a game last November, cast a pall on what should have been an upbeat few months for the team. The Lions won a club-record 12 games last season, captured the NFC Central title for the first time in eight years and advanced to the NFC Championship Game, but they never got the chance to swagger.
The opening of the 1992 season did nothing to lift their spirits. "I'd rather get beat 45-0," Detroit wideout Willie Green said sadly in the locker room, recalling the score by which the Washington Redskins beat the Lions in last year's opener. "I'd feel better about myself and the team."
Green should have felt fine after catching five passes for 114 yards, including a 27-yarder for the touchdown that put Detroit ahead 24-20 with just over a minute to play. But when the game, which for three quarters had been a fairly quiet staredown, turned into a gunfight at the end, the Lions ran out of bullets. "There is something about the Bears," Lion coach Wayne Fontes said at midweek. "They don't always look pretty, but they win. They just seem to get it done."
But hardly ever in the manner they did on Sunday. Not with a 74-yard drive as time was running out, not with a quarterback standing back there looking as cool and sharp as—dare we say it?—a John Elway or a healthy Joe Montana. No, the Bears usually win by getting a lead and sitting on it. But it had been a turbulent off-season for Chicago, too, portending new attitudes, new outlooks. Coach Mike Ditka feuded with running back Neal Anderson (slowed last season by an injured hamstring, which Ditka felt he hadn't worked hard enough to rehabilitate), with defensive tackle William Perry (slowed last season by an excessive accumulation of lard) and with the world in general (slowed by not marching to Ditka's beat).
Then there was the dispiriting trade of popular seven-time Pro Bowl center Jay Hilgenberg to the Cleveland Browns a week before the season started, followed by the publication of a book entitled Ditka: Monster of the Midway that painted the coach as a volatile, mean-spirited, selfish...well, monster. Ditka responded to the print attack with words worthy of Dr. Seuss: "Perfection is not something I espouse to be. I espouse to be me, and I espouse to be the best me I can be."
We see. But in the first half the Bears did not look like the best they could be. Though they leaped to a 10-0 lead on Harbaugh's 11-yard TD pass to Anderson and a 34-yard Kevin Butler field goal, the Bears allowed Detroit right back into the game on a 40-yard scoring pass from quarterback Rodney Peete to wideout Brett Perriman and a 38-yard field goal by rookie Jason Hanson just before halftime. Chicago's defense was docile and un-Bear-like, allowing the Lions 211 net yards, even while holding Sanders to just 23 on eight carries.
The third quarter was marked only by the Bears' cranking it up a notch on defense. They began blitzing Peete regularly and picked up sacks from defensive end Trace Armstrong, linebacker Jim Morrissey and defensive tackle Steve Mc-Michael, who had two in the second half.
Despite a lack of experience along its offensive line, Detroit sucked it up and struck first in the final 10 minutes, breaking into the lead when Sanders turned your basic five-yard gainer into a 43-yard I-don't-believe-he-did-that scoring run. Both Morrissey and linebacker John Roper seemed to have Sanders tackled, but he spun and...please, check the film.