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Winning Ugly But Still Winning
E.M. Swift
December 08, 1986
Chicago beat Pittsburgh, but as in many 1986 games, the champions—now minus Jim McMahon—had to struggle
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December 08, 1986

Winning Ugly But Still Winning

Chicago beat Pittsburgh, but as in many 1986 games, the champions—now minus Jim McMahon—had to struggle

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"They're definitely not the same without McMahon," says Tampa Bay linebacker Jeff Davis. "With his cockiness, they look up to him."

McMahon certainly speaks his mind. He has taken potshots this season at everything from Bears president Michael McCaskey's qualifications for running a football team to Ditka's loyalty to his players to Willie Gault's dependability as a receiver. Any forum will do for McMahon: his bestselling autobiography, Oprah Winfrey, his weekday radio program on WYTZ-FM. Where was McMahon on Thanksgiving Day? He was on your living room TV set, lower lip curled, shades down, hair greasy and spiked so that he looked horrifyingly like a buttered, uncooked turkey. The act is wearing thin. But there is no doubt that the team plays better with McMahon at the helm. "We don't back the others [quarterbacks] up the way we back Jim up," says tight end Emory Moorehead. "Nobody can figure out why."

Chicago has won the last 23 games that McMahon has started at quarterback, a streak that extends back to 1984. Unfortunately for the Bears, they have played 43 games during that span, going 13-7 in their charmless lucky charm's absence. "Everybody thinks we definitely can't win without him," says linebacker Otis Wilson. "So I guess we've got to prove them wrong."

Oh-oh. There it is. The Chip. The single greatest weapon in the Bears' arsenal, a state-of-the-art computer-age device that best characterizes the Ditka Bears. The chip on the shoulder. It is the reason—it, and a world-class defense—not to write the Bears off just yet. A lot of McMahon's teammates are tired of his act, too, and they want to prove they can win the Super Bowl without him. And his coach is not an unqualified fan. "I never thought we were a one-player football team," Ditka said last week. "The media did, and some other coaches did. But we're not. In those two shutouts in last year's playoffs, I could have played quarterback."

You remember how the Chip worked in 1985? Us against Them. Win one for Walter and for Buddy and for the City of Chicago, a perennial four-sport also-ran since 1963. Put an overweight bench-riding defensive tackle in the backfield and have a few laughs, while stuffing it to the league behind the antiestablishment punked-out quarterback with that big, refreshing mouth. Make a music video—that was radical stuff last year—shuffle down to the Super Bowl, and, Pete Rozelle, kindly kiss my headband. The Big Bad Bears! They were a team on a mission, ultimately peaking for the playoffs, in which they outscored their three opponents 91-10. They were the best, and everybody told them so.

The problem with the Chip this year is that it is pretty hard to maintain a credible Us against Them posture when practically everyone on the team is chin-deep in radio shows and endorsement contracts. It's more like: Us and Miracle Whip and Taco Bell and Drexel Burnham Lambert and Mr. Big Paper Towel against Them.

Not only that, but the Big Bad Bears are going hoity-toity, appearing in recent months in such tony mags as GQ (Gary Fencik), Ebony Man (Gault) and Town and Country (McMahon) for cripes sake. When the hottest restaurant in town (Ditka's) is owned by the coach, the middle linebacker (Mike Singletary) has a book that's a local bestseller, and the star running back (Payton) has his face on a Wheaties box, it no longer seems quite as urgent to win one for anyone or anything but yourself.

"Several players didn't want the joyride to end," says the Bears' new defensive coordinator, Vince Tobin.

Payton noticed it, too. "A lot of things we did last year, fun things that were a little out of character, guys don't want to do now because they think they're above that," he said recently. "Once you start thinking like that you put yourself in a position to have a lot of problems."

"The freshness is gone," adds Fencik.

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