But now here we are in December, and the Bears are still waiting for Sauerbrun to hit his stride, not to mention a few booming punts. Going into Monday night's game against the Lions, Sauerbrun was averaging a league-low 38.8 yards per punt, almost 10 yards less than what he averaged as a senior with the Mountaineers. His kickoffs have rarely reached the end zone.
What's going on here? Isn't punting a skill that should translate from college to the pros more easily than most? Could the Bears have been dreadfully wrong about Sauerbrun?
"He has the ability to get off some ungodly kicks," says Bear special teams coach Danny Abramowicz. "He kicks so well in practice, and then he goes out and shanks 'em in games. The difference between a kicker and other players is that you can't bring him along slowly. You don't have anybody else. Plus, in Todd's case, he's hardheaded. I told him if he wanted me to help him, he had to start listening."
Sauerbrun's downward spiral began with a few poor kicks in the early going, which led the Soldier Field crowd to begin booing, which only led to more poor kicks. "He got in a funk and didn't know how to pull himself out of it," Abramowicz says. "Instead of just kicking the ball, he put pressure on himself to punt it 60 yards or kick it out of the end zone every time."
Bear coach Dave Wannstedt became so exasperated with Sauerbrun's punting that he brought in Pat O'Neill, who had been waived earlier in the season by the Patriots. But when O'Neill proved to be just as shaky in his first game, against the Lions on Nov. 19, Sauerbrun got his job back and averaged 42 yards on three punts against the Giants. Says Abramowicz, "He improved against the Giants, but he's got to show me more. We're not asking him to win games for us with his kicking, the way he had to do at West Virginia. Just his normal stuff would be fine."
Finally Being Heard
Lion wideout Brett Perriman is having a career year, but most of the publicity still goes to fellow receiver Herman Moore, who's having an even bigger year, and running star Barry Sanders, who's having, well, another Barry Sanders year. Yet Perriman is unperturbed. "Ever since I got here," he says, "I had to yell and scream for the football to come my way. It was always a struggle. But it's not like that anymore, and I'm happy."
Perriman, who was acquired in 1991 from the Saints for a fifth-round draft pick, had 87 catches for 1,142 yards, both career highs, before Monday night's game against Chicago and was coming off club-record-tying, 12-catch games against the Bears on Nov. 19 and the Vikings on Nov. 23. He has already shattered the Lions' record for receptions in a season—Moore also has 87 this year—and with 313 catches he needs only 24 more to surpass Charlie Sanders as the club's career leader.
The difference this year, says Perriman, is that Scott Mitchell, one of six quarterbacks to take a snap in Detroit since Perriman's arrival in '91, finally considers him to be an option on the same level as Sanders and Moore. The proof of his upgraded status is that 61 of his receptions have produced first downs. Quarterbacks who need first downs always go to their meal ticket.
"I never wanted to be the star on this team," Perriman says. "I don't mind being the man behind the man behind the man. I'm the same player I was four years ago. They're just using me more now."