Mike Ditka gets the award as the best handicapper of this NFL season. An hour after his Chicago Bears crushed the Miami Dolphins in Week 1, and people were already starting to call the Bears the monster team of 1988, Ditka said, "I'll give you the buzzwords for this season: no single dominating team."
What Ditka didn't foresee was that he would have the most trying season of his career. He would endure a heart attack, the loss of two quarterbacks to injuries and, with the playoffs on the horizon, a border war between two of his premier players, quarterback Jim McMahon and defensive end Dan Hampton. The battle was fought along modern lines—radio show versus radio show—and included accusations of exaggerated injuries and of bitterness over failing to win Pro Bowl recognition. What a way to set the tone for postseason play.
Every other team had its trials, too. For the first time, neither of the previous season's Super Bowl teams made the playoffs. In fact, the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos didn't even have winning records. The Minnesota Vikings seemed to be the league's dominant team for a while, but a loss to the Green Bay Packers two weeks ago calmed people down.
The Houston Oilers were 7-1 in the House of Pain but were a very ordinary 3-5 on the road. On Sunday they lost any chance of playing a postseason game at home when they were beaten 28-23 by the Browns in frigid Cleveland. Houston has to go back there this weekend. The Bills, who were 8-0 in Buffalo, were also a different customer (4-4) once they left the home ice. The New Orleans Saints rose up in the first half of the season, but they went down in a heap. With a quarterback situation no one could figure out, the San Francisco 49ers were left for dead at 6-5, but then they put on a sprint.
The Browns, who were almost everyone's choice to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, lost quarterback Bernie Kosar twice, first to an injured arm and then to an injured knee. Two other Cleveland signal callers were sidelined for the year. The Philadelphia Eagles made the playoffs with—statistically speaking—the next to worst defense in the NFL. The once mighty AFC West was a mess; only the Seattle Seahawks finished with a winning record. It has been a strange season, all right.
Once again the league's drafting order and weighted scheduling, which matches bad versus bad and good versus good, have been blamed for creating the gray mess. But those procedures aren't the problem. Teams have still gone 2-14 or 14-2 under the current system. Besides, why shouldn't good teams be put to the test to prove themselves?
The schedule doesn't cause teams to come together or fall apart. Many other reasons are apparent when we look at what happened to last year's Super Bowlers. The Redskins seemed to be a good bet to repeat as champions after they acquired a pair of All-Pros, linebacker Wilber Marshall from Chicago and offensive tackle Jim Lachey from the L.A. Raiders. Lachey didn't have much of a year. He was just another guy in a line that started six different combinations. Marshall was out of his element in Washington. On the Bears he covered receivers downfield and blitzed a lot from the weak side. With the Redskins he had to play closer to the line and was lost in the crunch.
In Washington's toughest loss of the year, the 17-13 defeat by the Browns on Nov. 27, which all but eliminated the Redskins from the playoffs, Cleveland won the game on a third-and-five trap that Earnest Byner broke for 27 yards and a TD. Marshall was the guy who should have made the play, but he didn't.
It's difficult to measure the psychological effect of bringing in two ballyhooed stars to a team, paying them big money and waiting in vain for them to do big things on the field. But it can't be good. Last season the Skins won ugly, pulling out games they should have lost. This year they lost those games. The offense struggled. Quarterback Doug Williams played hurt part of the season. Coach Joe Gibbs's search for that one ingredient his offense must have—the relentlessly pounding tailback for his one-back set—took him along some strange paths.
George Rogers, who took over for John Riggins a few years ago, was replaced by Timmy Smith, who ran for 204 yards against the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Smith got into Gibbs's doghouse early this year, and Kelvin Bryant, normally a third-down back, became the starter. The book on Bryant was that he wasn't durable enough to hold up in the tailback role. He wasn't. He went down in Week 10. Smith returned briefly before being benched for rookie Jamie Morris.