Since Chicago baseball has little to offer these days, let's take a look back to when a winner graced the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field - your Chicago Bears. In 1966, the Green Bay Packers were in the middle of a Lombardi-led run of greatness, but the Bears still retained some of the shine from their 1963 NFL Championship. The defense featured Dick Butkus at middle linebacker, and the offense remained dangerous with Mike Ditka at tight end and second-year man Gale Sayers as the featured running back.
Sayers had blown the door off the NFL his 1965 rookie season, scoring a record-setting six touchdowns in a breakout game against the 49ers. Sayers still had plenty to prove, however, and 1966 was the year he would show the NFL he was more than just a flash in the pan. Add in last week's insulting 17-0 loss to the Packers - a game in which Sayers was held to only 29 yards - and Sayers was more than ready to go against the architect of the Bears '63 NFL Championship defense, Rams head coach George Allen.
With both teams featuring strong running backs - Sayers for the good guys and the season's current yardage leader Dick Bass for the Rams - and equally powerful defenses, the game was bound to hinge on which defense could stop the opposing ground game.
The Bears took the opening kick, and while they flipped the field courtesy of some nice running by Sayers and fullback Ralph Kurek, the Rans defense won the first round. Thankfully for Bears head coach George Halas, the Rams fared equally well on their first offensive try. LA advanced the ball, but QB Roman Gabriel missed a wide open receiver for a touchdown and then was picked off by Bears DB Dave Whitsell on the next play.
With the ball just shy of midfield, it was time for the Bears' bell cow to do his job. Sayers was more than happy to oblige. Bears QB Rudy Bukich sent Sayers out on a wheel route, and the running back made a tough catch in coverage to move the ball half way to paydirt:
The Bears would go the rest of the way with one more play, a sweet touch pass from Bukich to flanker Jim Jones, giving the Bears the opening seven on the Wrigley Field scoreboard.
The Rams had struggled to get their offense moving against Butkus and company in their first few possessions, but after the two teams traded punts, Rams DB (and future Bears head coach) Jack Pardee recovered a fumble deep in Bears territory. Dick Bass took it from there to tie the game at seven a piece.
Scoring a touchdown is usually a good thing, but not when it means you have to kick to a player like Sayers. His number was up yet again, and this time the number was 93: the yards he covered on his way to put the Bears back up by a touchdown. With good blocking ahead of him, Sayers swerved his way through the coverage, hit his top gear, and left the Rams with nothing to do but watch the show:
Even after this demoralizing return touchdown, the Rams weren't out of it just yet. While the D slowed Los Angeles on the next drive, they had given up enough to let the Rams hit a field goal and close the score to 14-10. But with Sayers again on the field, it was a simple enough call for Halas: ride the Kansas Comet downfield. His first rush was stopped in the backfield for a loss, but with the Bears facing a second and fourteen, Sayers chipped off seven yards on one run and then went for broke on third and seven. He was dead to rights on a sweep right, but was able to skid to a stop and reverse his field. From there, number 40 dodged, ducked, and leapt his way past the over-pursuing Rams to ring up 25 yards and put the Bears into Rams territory.
From here, Bukich connected with TE Mike Ditka and flanker Dick Gordon and inched Chicago into the shadow of the uprights. With the clock close to zero and the ball on the five, Bukich barely missed his man on a fade route into the end zone, but the Bears saved enough time to to chip in an easy field goal to end the half with a seven point lead.
The first half was a busy one for the scoreboard operator, but he was able to take it easy for the rest of the game. The two defenses came up with stop after stop, each getting both a blocked field goal and an interception. Sayers did his part in running down the clock with some nice work on the ground, and ended the day with over 200 all-purpose yards. The halftime score of 17-10 proved to be the final score as well, and the Bears walked off the field with a 3-3 record and an even record against their divison foes.
While the Bears would go on to earn a 5-7-2 record and missed the playoffs, Sayers plowed his way through the opposition to top the NFL in rushing yards (1,231), total yards from scrimmage (1,678), and all-purpose yards (2,440), a feat I doubt has been repeated since.
For all his current bluster and seeming bitterness, Sayers was a thing to behold in his playing days. The Bears were lucky to capture lightning in a bottle a second time with Walter Payton, but even Sweetness was never the triple threat that Sayers was. As Timothy Hockenmeyer put it a couple of years ago:
Sayers was Barry Sanders before Sanders was. He was Devin Hester before Hester was. He could run, catch and return with the best.before Faulk was. And he was
I wouldn't crown Sayers as the best Bear ever, to be sure, but he is easily ranked as one of the most versatile players to play in the Super Bowl era. The Bears have had better running backs, more dangerous returners, and backs better at catching the ball, but all in one wonderful package? As Sayers proved to Los Angeles, that's a tough combination to beat.
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