Reporters spent the week before the NFC Championship asking San Francisco 49er coach Bill Walsh if his offensive wizardry had finally met its match in the Chicago Bears' defense, the best in pro football. They bounced the question off Joe Montana, the Niners' Pro Bowl quarterback, and Dwight Clark, the wideout who had pulled the '82 NFC Championship out of the sky against Dallas, and then they asked the tight ends, and the running backs and even the linemen.
It was The Angle on the game, and one day, late in the week, the 49ers' Eric Wright, the best cornerback who's not going to the Pro Bowl, passed by the interview area and noted the frenzy of journalism and shook his head. "It's not the main question of this game," he said. "The question is: How are the Bears going to score on us?"
On Sunday in San Francisco the question was unanswered. They didn't. The final score was 23-0, Niners, and the closest Chicago came to putting something on the board was a missed 41-yard field goal at the end of its first possession of the day. And now the 49ers are in Super Bowl XIX, and the angle you will be reading all week is how will the Niners stop that point machine from Miami.
The Bears didn't pose that kind of problem. They deal in lumps, not points. Their running game is: Let's see you try to stop Walter Payton. Their passing game is: We'll try not to screw it up. Steve Fuller, the quarterback who took over when Jim McMahon sustained a lacerated kidney on Nov. 4 against the Raiders, is courageous, but he also operates with the utmost caution. Going into this game, he had thrown no interceptions in 78 regular season attempts and had a repeat zip on 15 postseason attempts. Those are both negative and positive stats. They mean Fuller won't give away anything, but neither will he dazzle you.
The big gunners throw interceptions because they take chances. The Dolphins' Dan Marino has thrown three in this postseason. Joe Namath threw his share, so did Terry Bradshaw and John Unitas. But with Fuller it's a case of no errors, no runs, no hits. Against San Francisco he ran a passing game that avoided mistakes, interceptions—and yards.
In the first half Fuller threw a grand total of seven passes. Net result: zero yards—16 gained on four tiny completions, 16 lost on three of the 49ers' nine sacks on the day. He went to his wideouts two times, once to Willie Gault, who had broken a 75-yarder against Washington the previous week, once to Dennis McKinnon. Both passes were dropped. Gault's miscue resulting in an interception—a bad call by the officials, because the ball actually bounced off the turf and into the hands of San Francisco free safety Dwight Hicks—and that was the last pass aimed at Gault all day. The former world-class high hurdler and sprinter spent the rest of Sunday afternoon as an ornament.
" Gault kept his head on a swivel, looking for the guy who was going to take a shot at him," Wright said. "He's like a lot of those fly-boy receivers. He doesn't want to come in the middle. On film we saw that every time he came inside he short-armed the ball, looking for someone to hit him.
"McKinnon's different. He's kind of a roughneck. He likes to crack back on linebackers. He looks them up. But you've got to treat him the same way, keep bugging him. Every time you get a chance to take a shot, do it."
McKinnon was the only Chicago wideout who caught any passes, three for 48 yards, all of them bunched into a four-play span in the third quarter, when the Bears launched their second and final drive of the day. The first one had been built around the running of Payton and Matt Suhey, and had fizzled out with the missed field goal. This second was a passing drive, but the result was the same—zero. Two 49er sacks took Chicago out of field goal range, after it had reached the Niners' 21-yard line. Between the two drives there was nothing but frustration, four straight series of three-downs-and-punt, one two-play series that ended with the Hicks' interception, and one mini-thrust that produced two first downs but never got out of Bears territory. Chicago's total offensive output for the day was 186 yards, 37 passing (13 for 22 for 87 yards for Fuller, minus 50 in sacks), 149 on the ground (22 for 92 for Payton) and, of course, no points. That gave the 49ers a streak of 10 straight quarters in which their defensive unit had not allowed a touchdown.
The Bear defense was predictably impressive—it held San Francisco to two field goals in the first half—but midway through the third quarter the overworked Chicago defenders finally cracked. The 49ers drove for TDs on two straight possessions, and that was the old ball game. "They've got a fine defensive team, but they can only take so much," 49er tight end Russ Francis said afterward. "They can only be put in the hole so many times."