The nickname says it all: Sweetness. His legend was still being written on a cold Chicago afternoon in 1977, as the 4-5 Bears went up against the division-leading 6-3 Minnesota Vikings at home. What should have been a battle of football philosophies, pitting the quarterbacking of Fran Tarkenton against the hard-nosed running of Payton, became a ground-and-pound duel with an injured Tarkenton watching from the sideline. It had been an up-and-down season for Bears coach Jack Pardee, quarterback Bob Avellini, and defensive leader Doug Buffone, but while the team struggled at times, Walter Payton and his young offensive line were punching holes through opposing defenses as #34 ran his way to an MVP season. By the end of the season, Walter Payton was the leader in every major running back statistic: rushing yards (1852), all-purpose yards (2216), rushing attempts (339), yards per carry (5.5), yards per game (132.3), and touchdowns (14). He had been rolling all season, and despite having a flu on this rainy November day, he still had something to prove. Join me below the fold for a look back at Walter's record-setting game against the Vikings, complete with a link to the game's highlight reel...I would embed the link if I could, but here it is in all its poppy goodness: Game of the Week, Week 10, 1977. I won't pretend to be half as eloquent as the writers from NFL Films, but here are my observations from the game highlights.
1. Jerry Angelo, take note: even Walter Payton needed to get blocks to make yardage. Just look at the first play of the game, where LT Noah Jackson pulls to the right and springs Payton for 29 yards. A running back as talented as #34 can do the work after that - he could have taken the ball to the house on that play except for the deep safety coming over - but even the best needed a good block.
2. Jerry Angelo, take some more notes: on the defensive side of the ball, the Bears were saved by the work of two of the best safeties to ever suit up in the blue and orange, Doug Plank (the 46 of Buddy Ryan's 46 Zone) and Gary Fencik. With Plank and Fencik patrolling the field, the Vikings were unable to get much going on offense - even if they could break through the first layer of the Bears' defense, one of the two would be waiting there to lay the Viking into the grass.
3. My favorite moment in the game is about five minutes into the clip, where three Viking defenders stand up Walter Payton but simply cannot bring him down. While the play is whistled dead when his forward progress is stopped, it's simply amazing to see his strength and determination to keep going no matter what. It's not surprising that Payton was able to rack up a record 275 yards in the game when he was so unwilling to let anyone stop him.
4. There is a reason the NFL Man of the Year Award, which he won in '77, is now named after Walter Payton. Watch Payton after his touchdown run at about 9 minutes in - Payton hands the ball off to the offensive linesman whose block got him into the end zone so he can spike the ball.
5. Just watch the man run - 275 yards of rushing in a single game! It took 23 years for this record to be broken, and the feat still stands as the fourth best single-game performance of all time. While the Bears squeaked out a narrow victory in the game - 10-7 was the final - Walter Payton proved to the world that day that he was the best there was.
Enjoy this amazing game, and I'll see you back here next week when we go waaaay back to the era of leather helmets and good Bears quarterbacks.