We could have had a season much like 1987 if things worked out differently over the summer. Back then, the players were willing to take it beyond bluster: they ended up striking for four weeks during the regular season. While the NFL cancelled its games the first week of the strike, they had management assemble new teams to field for the other three weeks of the strike. Thus the "Spare Bears" came into existence. Thankfully for fans but unfortunately for players, the union eventually caved when its members preferred paychecks to picketing, and football went on somewhat as planned. The toll the time off had on the still-strong 1987 Bears was clear in their first game back after the strike ended, an away game against the division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Follow me below the fold to see if Mike Tomczak's and/or Jim McMahon's Bears were able to shake the rust off in time to stave off Steve DeBerg's arial attack.
The common wisdom after this season's shortened off-season was that defenses would look better than offenses. After this break, though, it was the Bears defense that looked rusty. The Bears came out on defense expecting pass, but the best efforts of Richard Dent, William Perry and company couldn't get to DeBerg in time. While Perry was able to break up a pass to stop the first drive in its tracks, Tampa Bay's punter managed to take a perfect flop to get a free first down. Despite the Bears' wilingness to send five- and six-man blitzes, DeBerg was unshakable, finally converting his twelfth pass of the drive into points by hitting TE Calvin McGee with a seven-yard shot over the top of a seven-man rush. He did much the same on the next drive, hitting McGee again to move the ball 37 yards downfield and then running a fake-reverse, flea-flicker that set up Jeff Smith for a walk-in touchdown reception. 14-0 Tampa Bay, and the first quarter wasn't even over.
The Bears offense was just as rusty as the defense. While Tampa Bay was moving the ball up and down the field, the Bears found themselves tied in knots by the Tampa Bay defense. Their first drive was almost one play long, but a defensive holding penalty saved Mike Tomczak from completing his first pass to a Buccaneer. Neal Anderson was able to get one first down on the ground, but there wasn't much doing after that. On the next drive, Tomczak was sacked and stripped in the end zone, giving Tampa Bay another seven points to add to their lead. At least the Bears' Al Harris was able to block the extra point, leaving the Bears only 20 points down in the first quarter. It was looking like Ditka should have held on to some of his spares, as these Bears were looking like amateur replacements of their usual selves.
It was time to rethink the game plan. Instead of coming out throwing, Ditka put the game in the hands of Walter Payton and Neil Anderson. They chipped their way down the field, earning yards at a slow, steady clip and eating up clock time. It was looking like Bears football, but this time Dennis McKinnon was the goat, coughing up the ball after reeling in a short pass and giving Tampa Bay the ball again. The Bears' defense made a stop for the first time, with Mike Singletary getting good pressure on DeBerg to break up his third-down pass. This winds seemed to have shifted for good when the Tampa Bay punt was badly shanked, giving the Bears decent enough field position. A twenty yard Willie Gault catch set up a 38-yard counter play for a touchdown by Neal Anderson, and the Bears finally put points on the board. It was now 7-20 Tampa Bay, and the defense was beginning to show signs of life. They forced two three-and-outs in a row, with a roughing the kicker penalty in between them. Dennis McKinnon, fresh from the dog house, caught the punt in stride on the 35, had great blocking downfield, made a Hester-esque move on the kicker, and didn't slow down until hit pay dirt. 14-20 Tampa Bay with 9:10 left in the half, and what was a first-quarter blowout became a one-score game.
Tampa Bay was able recapture the magic they had in the first quarter despite the improvement in play from the Bears D. Wilder was able to rack up two first downs to move the ball into Bears territory, and DeBerg passed his way down to the 35. Dent came up when it counted, forcing a near-pick to from DeBerg on second down and a dump pass for minimal gain on third-down. Tampa's kicker Donald Igwebuike was able to convert from 46 yards out to make it 14-24 Tampa Bay, but at least the Bears had proven they could consistently slow down DeBerg after their poor start. It looked like they would have to slow him down yet again when Dennis Gentry fumbled the ensuing kickoff, but rookie DT Sean Smith caught the ball mid-air and saved the play. Walter Payton was not so lucky, though. He fumbled on the first play of the drive to give Tampa Bay one more scoring chance before the half. Holding moved Tampa Bay back ten yards from what would have been an easy field goal, and Otis Wilson moved them back fifteen more on consecutive second and third-down sacks. A third roughing the kicker penalty kept the drive alive, but this time Steve McMichael got the sack to stop DeBerg yet again. The half ended with the score still 14-24 Tampa Bay, but the Bears defense was looking more like the dominant force it was supposed to be. Better yet, Jim McMahon, recently recovered from shoulder surgery, was getting loose on the sideline.
Even in Tampa Bay, McMahon was given a huge round of applause when he took the field to start the second half. He had to earn his first first-down himself, scrambling for eight tough yards to barely convert. With that out of the way, he reeled off back-to-back first-down throws to Gault and rookie WR Ron Morris to get the ball to the Tampa 30. A sack on third-down brought Kevin Butler out for his first field goal try of the day, but he was as rusty as the rest. Wide right, and Tampa Bay was back at it again. McGee made another connection with DeBerg, this time for a 45 yard catch-and-run to move the ball well into Bears territory. Wilder got one more first down on the ground, but Wilbur Marshall made a ten-yard sack to hold Tampa Bay to a field goal.
It was 14-26 Tampa Bay, but McMahon was an expert at the comeback. You wouldn't have known it from this drive, though. It went forward with a Neal Anderson run for a first and a Dennis McKinnon completion for another, but then went backwards when McMahon was sacked to set up a Tampa Bay interception on third and long. Tampa Bay once again had the ball in Chicago territory, but two incompletions and a combined Dent-Singletary-Wilson sack (ouch) on third down put Tampa Bay to rest. With the third quarter over and Chicago still needing two scores, it was the Bears ball again. McMahon was brought down for the fourth time of the day on third and long, and this drive fared no better than the last. Another punt, another special teams penalty: the Bucs blocked in the back and lost the 25 yards of return they had gotten on the runback. Pushed back from the Bears 35 to their own 35, the Bucs were able to move it back to midfield and then some with two nice catches by Mark Carrier (no relation). With the ball now on the edge of field goal range, it was do-or-die for the exhausted defense. It was a thankful "do" for Richard Dent, whose ferocious rush forced Tampa Bay to hold on third down and moved them out of field goal range.
With 9:50 left in the game, two touchdowns behind, and 85 yards to go for the first one, McMahon's job could have been easier. McMahon took a page from the Steve DeBerg playbook and worked the inside of the Tampa Bay defense using his tight ends to quickly move the ball to midfield. He had Willie Gault wide open on second and short from the 50, but managed to overthrow the speedster and had to rely on Walter Payton to convert the third down with a cutback run. With Tampa Bay expecting another deep shot, McMahon contented himself to taking the easy yards underneath with dink-and-dunk passes to Payton, Anderson, and Moorehead. With the ball now in the red zone, Ron Morris made a sweet catch and run but was forced out mere inches short of the goal line. McMahon picked up those last few inches on his own to score, and while Kevin Butler missed the extra point, it was 20-26 Tampa Bay with 5:31 remaining.
DeBerg was able to get one shot off on play-action and was spotted one more when Richard Dent was called for illegal hands to the face. On the next set of downs, the Bears had to make the stop. A gang of Bears led by McMichael literally picked up and threw Wilder back on second down, and held firm on third. Now with 2:50 and two timeouts left, it was McMahon's time to really shine. He worked the left sideline to preserve his timeouts, first finding Willie Gault for 20, then Neil Anderson for 6. Two more passes, this time over the top, to Gault and Ron Morris put the ball just outside the 10. Two more catches by Neil Anderson was all it took to tie the game. The second pass was a thing of beauty, with Anderson turning upfield and taking a three-yard leap over the approaching safety and linebacker to just get the ball over the line. It was a Walter Payton leap without the benefit of having a line to block for him, simply amazing. Butler made this one to move the Bears into the lead for the first time of the day, and not a moment too soon.
There was still 1:28 on the clock, but the Bears held the slimmest of leads, 27-26. Tampa Bay was unable to manage the clock or the Bears pass rushers, using a full minute to move the ball all of six yards. Facing fourth and six, McMichael was able to draw Tampa Bay into a false start and move them back five more. DeBerg was stripped of the ball by Richard Dent on fourth down, icing the game and bringing out Jim McMahon one more time to take a knee. The Bears would go on to win the NFC Central, and while they lost in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual champion Washington Redskins, the season was a worthy send-off to the retiring Walter Payton. Thank the football powers that be we didn't have to see a new version of the Spare Bears this year, and let us hope that this year's Bears can continue their history of domination against Tampa Bay. Thanks for reading, and see you back here for the bye.