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This is the year we'll find out how much the CHICAGO BEARS like their coach, Mike Ditka. The Bears were 3-6 in 1982, the first year of his three-year contract, 8-8 last year. Seems that they're moving in the proper direction, right? Well, somebody must have had second thoughts because Ditka's contract wasn't extended this season.
"We all know Mike's job is on the line," says quarterback Jim McMahon.
Under George Halas, there wouldn't have been a problem; Halas had great fondness for his former tight end. Mike McCaskey, Halas's grandson and the new president, says he expects Ditka to be the Bears' coach "for years to come," but he wouldn't offer him a new contract. "I have a lifetime contract with God; who needs anything else?" was all Ditka would say on the subject. Mysterious, eh?
Maybe McCaskey is nervous about a coach who breaks his hand against a locker after a loss. Maybe he doesn't want to rush into anything his first year. But the operation will get a long look this season, and if the players want Ditka back they'd better produce.
The theme for '84 has been togetherness. Jerry Vainisi, the new G.M., has been aggressive about signing players, including the club's top draft pick, linebacker Wilber Marshall, who went later than expected in the first round because his price (he asked for a million a year, got about half that) was too high. Training camp was moved to the cloistered environs of Platteville, Wis. Insiders say the big reason Ditka got rid of veteran guard Noah Jackson was not so much his superfluous weight but his predilection for pointing the finger at fellow linemen who erred.
A brief flare-up occurred between Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, when Ryan publicly questioned the speed of rookie linebacker Ron Rivera, the second-round choice. And Ryan's complex system is making it tough for Marshall to break in, even though Ditka wants him to see action. "He shows up, and he shows up with a thud," Ditka says. One answer would be to move Al Harris, the right linebacker, to the left side or back to his old position, defensive end, thus making room for Marshall. But Ditka should keep the peace with Ryan, whose system has been a plus, not a minus, in his five Chicago years. Corner-backs with speed are needed, and the Bears might have gotten lucky with their 10th-round choice, Shaun Gayle, who's swifter than expected.
The Bears' offense is strange. It led the NFL in rushing last year, and now with Walter Payton going for Jim Brown's rushing mark, it probably will "again. But the Bears had trouble scoring from inside the 20. They were sixth in the league in total offense but only 20th in scoring. World-class hurdler Willie Gault has the giddyaps at wide receiver to put more points on the board, but last year he didn't always know where he was going. Sixty-six NFL receivers caught more balls than he did.
The offensive line is young and improving, and in Stefan Humphries, a rookie guard who is aggressive, agile and intelligent, the Bears got the steal of the draft's third round.
Forrest Gregg will turn it around for the GREEN BAY PACKERS, but he needs one more year, one more draft. Last year's defense was too dismal to rescue overnight. How bad was it? Well, it made the NFL record book—right there on page 276—second-most yards allowed in history.
The D was so bad that not even the high-powered air game of Lynn Dickey throwing to James Lofton, J.J. Jefferson and Paul Coffman could bail it out. The Packers had almost a point-a-minute offense—27 minutes and a tick of possession time per game, 26.81 points scored. But the key figure there is the 27:01. It was the worst in the league. That lovely offense sat on the bench and watched the defense getting overrun.