SI Vault
Rick Telander
August 24, 1987
Jim McMahon's slow-healing shoulder means quarterback trouble for the Bears
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August 24, 1987

Chicago's Weighty Issue

Jim McMahon's slow-healing shoulder means quarterback trouble for the Bears

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The Chicago bears have been dealt five cards in their 1987 quarterback poker game: To get to Super Bowl XXII they will have to discard a pair, hold two, draw none, lay down one and call the bets.

On Sunday against the Miami Dolphins in the first game at Joe Robbie Stadium—somewhere out near the Broward County line and built on land repossessed from swamp animals—the Bears played showdown with Mike Tomczak for one half and with Doug Flutie and Jim Harbaugh for one quarter each. The Bears won 10-3 and nobody called their bluff. All three of the young guys did O.K. against one of the NFL's weaker defenses, and coach Mike Ditka even managed a half-smile in the postgame locker room. Earlier he had said, "We don't necessarily have to live and die with a quarterback. It's not all gonna come down to the starting quarterback."

Yes it is. It really is.

And exactly how did the mighty Bears get into such an insecure position? As we all remember, Chicago beat the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX, the most lopsided Super Bowl ever. Jim McMahon, he of the billboard headbands and ostentatious punkness, led the team that day with 2 rushing touchdowns and 12 completions in 20 passing attempts for 256 yards, proving in no uncertain terms that he was the Man in charge of this very talented group. Under McMahon, the theory went, the Bears could become pro football's dynasty of the decade, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the "80s. The team seemed to lack nothing.

But McMahon proved to be as fragile as he is charismatic. Last season he missed 10 games plus the 27-13 playoff loss to Washington because of a damaged right shoulder. He had rotator cuff surgery on the shoulder in December. All he has been able to prove since January 1986 is that no man can be the Man from a hospital bed.

Indeed, the McMahon era has been almost as ironic and unsettling for the Bears as it has been glorious. McMahon has missed 25 games because of injuries since mid-1982, when he became the full-time starter. The Bears have had to use seven quarterbacks to fill in for him. Remember Rusty Lisch? Greg Landry? Walter Payton working from the shotgun? Every play with McMahon is a crapshoot. Every new season is a desperate spin of the wheel. And the uncertainty drains his teammates.

"I would hate to see what happened last year happen again this year," says center Jay Hilgenberg. "We didn't know until the pregame huddle who was going to be our quarterback. Always a big mystery."

And so the Bears hold a poker hand from which must come either a dazzling winner or a dismal loser. With good quarterbacking the Bears are a royal flush, without it they're a four-card straight. The cards:

1) McMahon—joker. You either make this the winning wild card or you throw it out. McMahon's right shoulder is in approximately the same condition as that of a pitcher who has thrown too many sliders. The surgery, performed by Dr. Frank Jobe, could give the 28-year-old McMahon the ability to throw the way he used to. That is, with maximum cunning if not magnum force.

The problem is that McMahon has not yet loosened up—or at least the Bears hope that is the problem. He threw some passes at the beginning of training camp, but recently his shoulder has been too sore for him to throw at all. McMahon's rehabilitation specialist. Bob Gajda, insists that the pain is from "muscle soreness" and not a warning signal of some major structural defect. "It's the same soreness anybody would feel if they went to spring training with the White Sox or Cubs," he says. But as McMahon notes, " Dr. Jobe said it would take a year at least for the reconstruction area to be healed." Only eight months have passed since the surgery.

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