The New England Patriots can beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX, but it will take an almost complete change in philosophy to do it. Is Raymond Berry capable of this, of going against the kind of football that has moved New England further along than any other Patriot team in history? Can he pull the plug on the type of game the Patriots have been playing for the last month, producing the greatest overbalance of running to passing since the old leather-helmet days, a style of offense that has even had the Patriot players smiling? Can he say, O.K., these are the Bears we're playing; they can't be pounded, so we'll throw a little dazzle into our attack? We'll give our quarterback, Tony Eason, the whole package. We'll roll him out, we'll let him throw off a quick setup, we'll go deep on short-yardage situations and hit them with the run on third-and-long. Can Berry put in all that in a week and a half of practice? Does he want to? Or is it just a case of good ol' boy philosophy...dance with what brung ya, etc.? We'll see.
Berry is the uncharted element in this Super Bowl. He's in his first full year as a head coach. His contributions to the Patriots' success have gone deeper than the Xs and Os. He took a team of brooding superstars, disillusioned with life and the NFL and especially the standard of coaching on the Patriots, and brought them together. He gave them extra days off from practice and made sure they stayed fresh for the stretch run.
"He wants us to come out like tigers," says center Pete Brock, a 10-year veteran, "so he makes sure we're physically ready for that. He's setting a trend. Some coaches feel that a long practice is their security blanket. They'll say, 'Whew, I got 'em to look at everything.' What good is it if you don't have the tools left to go out and perform?"
Berry's approach is risky; the wrong kind of a team could take the easy slide under such lenient treatment. But there's a solid nucleus on the Patriots, hard-working, blue-collar types. Six of them are playing for their fourth head coach at New England. They know that they had better take care of this guy, because the next one they get could be a whole lot worse. That's another thing the Patriots have going for them—they're a very together team.
But now we'll find out about Berry, whether there's any risk in him, whether he's willing to give Eason the kind of responsibility he hasn't had in the playoffs. Eason has averaged 14 passes a game, while in the same stretch the team has averaged 49 running plays, including 67 carries by workhorse Craig James for 258 yards. Eason hasn't been intercepted in those three games. The passes he has thrown have been of the safe variety. Even the deep ones have been low risk—quick ups, sideline stuff, with little chance of mishap. The final interception in the Dec. 16 Monday night Miami loss (on a post pattern to the tight end) haunts Berry. Eason has thrown practically nothing deep down the middle since then. The wide receivers have gotten very little work—16 passes aimed their way in the playoffs, compared with 26 to the tight ends and running backs. Of the five playoff TDs Eason has thrown, only one has been to a wideout.
Is this so bad? Just look at his numbers. Eason has completed 29 of those 42 passes, 69%. His rating for those three games is a dazzling 135.6, the kind of number you can achieve when the pass is a surprise rather than a necessity. Operating within the framework of that constrained offense, he's been near perfect.
The strength of the Patriots' offense is their line, reading, from left to right, Brian Holloway, John Hannah, Brock, Ron Wooten and Steve Moore. Average weight: 277. They're honest drive blockers, guys who roll up their sleeves and go to work. There's little screening or influence-blocking in their scheme, although Hannah and Holloway are nifty enough to pull to the right side on traps and lead plays.
They came out pounding against the Jets in the playoffs and went nowhere, and it wasn't until the second quarter when Eason threw two long passes on running downs (third-and-short, first-and-10) that New England got anything going. Then the turnovers started coming the Patriots' way and the hunt was over. They started the game against the Raiders with a run-and-pass mix, leaning more to the run. Again, turnovers won it for them. They pounded Miami all day in the AFC championship game. Anyone would have. Turnovers ultimately swung it, plus the fine defensive work on the Miami wideouts, plus the heavy running.
That's all fine, but it might give the Patriots a false sense of security against the Bears, who bring seven and eight people up close to stop the running, who walk their free safety, Gary Fencik, up to a linebacker's spot, where he has feasted on runners like the Rams' Eric Dickerson. Their linemen do an excellent job of keeping blockers off middle linebacker Mike Singletary, the Samurai, who bends runners backward with his perfectly timed hits. Well, maybe the Patriots can figure out a way to run against those monsters. They couldn't when the teams met in Chicago in September. Their running game was held to 27 yards while the Bears were whipping them 20-7, but, as Brock says, that was a different Patriot team.
"Holloway was hobbling," he says, "Hannah was out, Moore was in his second start as a pro. Through training camp, we'd never had our offensive line intact. We weren't cohesive, and Tony was trying to learn a whole new offensive system. We're much better now."