Dave Wannstedt may not take his team to the Super Bowl this season. Before it's over, he may not escape the wrath of Bears fans impatient for significant progress in his fourth year as head coach. But he--and his team--made a definitive statement in their season opener Monday night.
When it was over, and the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys were crawling out of Soldier Field both defeated and demoralized, Wannstedt was uttering the once unthinkable.
"Dallas is a team of great players," he said as his exuberant team tried, largely unsuccessfully, to downplay one of its biggest victories in years. "Hopefully we'll see them again at some point down the road."
One day underdog, next day welcoming all comers. It was a night full of surprises.
Two trick plays and a gutsy call by Wannstedt on a fourth-and-inches from the Bears' 47-yard line early in the fourth quarter put an immediate stamp of aggressive and unconventional play on the new season.
A resolute Bears defense eager to put a disappointing 1995 season behind them, and field goals of 31, 42 and 34 yards by new placekicker Carlos Huerta, playing in his first NFL game, all made for a most unlikely but just as impressive 22-6 victory before a Soldier Field crowd of 63,076.
When new Bears linebacker Bryan Cox recovered a Troy Aikman fumble in the end zone to punctuate the team's 12th victory in its last 13 season openers, it was clear that for now anyway, this team was not going to accept predictions of mediocrity.
"This was the perfect situation," said running back Raymont Harris, pulling double duty at halfback and fullback in the absence of the injured Rashaan Salaam. "It was the best setting possible. The weather was good. The turf was good. It was `Monday Night Football' against the Super Bowl champion. What more can you ask for?"
The Cowboys, winners of three of the last four Super Bowls, came in beat up and depleted--seven of 22 starters from last year's title team were not on the field. But they may have received a much bigger blow as star running back Emmitt Smith, already hampered by knee and ankle injuries, was immobilized and carted off the field in the closing minutes after hitting his head on the turf and feeling sharp pain in his back.
X-rays proved negative but Smith, complaining of numbness in an arm and a leg, was admitted as a precaution to Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Nonetheless, at least one Bears player did not want to hear about the Cowboys' woes.
"This was a great win against a great football team and that's the only way we're going to look at it," said linebacker Vinson Smith, a former Cowboy. "Emmitt Smith was the same Emmitt Smith. Now it's going to be, oh, his knee was hurt. Well, my knee was hurt. You play with pain. We hate to see him get hurt. But he'll tell you, he played his best just like we did.
"They don't have to have every player to be full strength. They have Pro Bowl players all across the board and they're as good as any team in the league with as few players as they had out. Nobody can use that as an excuse."
Among all those Pro Bowlers was Deion Sanders, who as promised played nearly every play in the game at wide receiver and cornerback. He had a significant impact on both sides of the ball, providing a key hit to force a Bears fumble in the first quarter, and proving a significant presence offensively.
But with Dallas lacking tight end Jay Novacek, out with a back injury, and wide receiver Michael Irvin, sitting out the first of a five-game suspension, the Bears' defense blitzed early and often and made an impact of its own, putting Aikman under pressure all night. And even Sanders, played loosely--under coaches' orders--but effectively by rookie corner Walt Harris, was ultimately harmless.
"This was as fine a defensive effort as I've been around in a long time and I've been around defenses a long time," Wannstedt said of a unit that held the Cowboys to 83 yards rushing and 173 passing, caused four fumbles (recovering three) and picked off one pass, not to mention holding them out of the end zone in a regular-season game for the first time in five years.
Cox, who recovered two of those fumbles, said the only danger is in treating this victory as something extra special. "Everything fell together on this day," he said. "We had that quiet confidence about what we wanted to do, but we didn't want to make this our Super Bowl.
"We did a wonderful job, but it won't mean anything if we don't go out and play well against Washington next weekend. I'm happy but I'm not overwhelmed because it's not like we didn't expect to win. We felt we could play with everybody. Now we just have to carry on the momentum."
The Bears' offense scored its only touchdown on the first trick play of the night as Curtis Conway took the handoff on an apparent reverse then launched a 33-yard pass across the grain to Raymont Harris, who stepped in front of weak-side linebacker Darrin Smith, then fell backward over the goal line to give the Bears a 7-3 lead after Huerta's conversion.
Huerta, who beat out longtime Bears kicker Kevin Butler in camp, ended the scoring in the half with a 31-yarder set up by the second trick play of the half--a fake punt and 47-yard pass play from Todd Sauerbrun to Raymont Harris.
"I was terrified on that play because I thought they'd notice I was in the game and call out `Fake, fake,' but they didn't," Harris said. "They had a punt rush on, so once again, it was the perfect situation and Todd lofted the ball up there for like maybe an hour. It just hovered over Soldier Field and then it dropped into my hands. I was just upset I didn't score."
Said Sauerbrun, who had an outstanding night punting: "That trick play was kind of cool. I really enjoyed that. I actually feel part of the team now. I contributed to the victory and I just hope I can contribute all year."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times