Coach Mike Ditka, whose 9-4 Bears have clinched the NFC Central Division title, should feel secure in his job. But instead, Ditka, who's in the final year of his contract, finds himself in a precarious position. "You've got to understand that I didn't come here hired by the people who own the ball club now," said Ditka on his Nov. 19 radio call-in show. "And there probably is a good chance that I probably won't be back next year."
Team president Michael McCaskey, who took over last fall after the death of his grandfather, George Halas, has a Harvard M.B.A. approach to running the team. Even though the Bears are winning, McCaskey says he won't review Ditka's contract until the end of the season. He has reservations about Ditka, a headstrong man given to fiery, self-destructive outbursts. As one player says, "Maybe there are other factors besides winning games. Let's face it. Ditka makes an ass out of himself sometimes. That might have something to do with it." Ditka, meanwhile, has reservations of his own about McCaskey, whom he views as a non-football man.
"It's premature to say he won't be head coach next year," McCaskey says. "I hope this issue doesn't turn into a bonfire."
Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan's contract also expires at the end of the season. Although it's hard to imagine that McCaskey would fire the coordinator of the league's top defense, Ryan is even less of a McCaskey-type spit-and-polish team man than Ditka.
Most recently, Ditka has tried to dampen the controversy. On a Nov. 24 radio show he said, "I probably shouldn't have said anything about the possibility of being dismissed because it gave the impression I would not be back. I'd say it's about a 50-50 proposition right now. As far as wanting to stay, I do."
Last year, Houston's Tim Smith led all NFL wide receivers with 83 catches. But when AFC players and coaches marked their Pro Bowl ballots, they chose four other players. This season Smith is turning it on again—he leads the Oilers with 49 catches for 797 yards (a 16.3-yard average). But a recent NFL press release referred to him as John Smith. Says Smith, who's resigned to his lack of recognition, "I guess Tim is too hard to spell."
Dick Vermeil is saying thanks but no thanks to rumors that he wants to coach again. "So far this year, I'm supposed to be going to Florida, Louisville, Tampa Bay and now Notre Dame," says the former Eagles coach. "I'm not going to state I'll never go back, because then if I did, I'd have told a lie. But now, I have no intention of going back."
The fact is, Vermeil may not have the stomach for coaching anymore. After watching his former team lose to Miami 24-23 on a blocked extra point with 1:52 seconds remaining on Nov. 11, Vermeil said to his wife, "Can you imagine how we'd feel if we were there?"
Cowboys linebacker Bob Breunig has a motorized hospital bed in his bedroom because of painful back spasms that may force him to retire. "I lie in a comfortable position, put myself in traction, and I feel like a new person," he says.
Breunig, a 10-year veteran, hurt his back in training camp, jumping over hurdles. He missed two games and returned with the help of weekly painkilling injections. Then, three weeks ago, he further aggravated his back, bending over to tie his shoe. "Now it hurts to breathe," Breunig says. "Sneezing is deadly, and nobody tells good jokes around me because laughing is a killer."