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Pro Football / Bob Oates : Ditka Found a Perfect Answer for Critics

A year ago this month, some of the best informed football people in Chicago were speculating that Mike Ditka was out as head coach of the Bears.

He had been hired before the 1982 season by Bear founder George Halas, who died in November, 1983. As the 1984 season began, Ditka’s critics were many.

Some Chicago writers, fans and others objected to his methods, his manner and what they saw as his many mistakes.

Reportedly, Ditka had lost the confidence of the new managers of the Bears--Halas’ daughter, Virginia McCaskey; her husband, Edward W. McCaskey, and their son, club President Michael B. McCaskey.

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It was winning that saved Ditka. For whatever reason--his ability, his players’ abilities, or the reorganization of the Bears under the McCaskeys--Ditka has advanced from a 3-6 season in 1982 to 8-8 in 1983, to 10-6 in 1984, to 11-0 now.

The turning point? There wasn’t any, in Ditka’s opinion.

“I never doubted what I know about football,” he said in Dallas Sunday. “I’ve never doubted myself.”

In the NFL’s 66 seasons, only two teams have started with winning streaks longer than the Bears’ 11:

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--The champion Miami Dolphins won them all in 1972, when they were 14-0 in the regular season and 17-0 after Super Bowl VII at the Coliseum.

--The Bears won them all during a 13-week schedule in 1934, when they lost their final game--for the NFL title--to the New York Giants, 30-13. The Giants had finished the regular season 8-5.

The ’34 Bears and ’72 Dolphins were coached by acknowledged masters of their profession, Halas and Don Shula. If Ditka joins them among the undefeated this fall, he will be the first to get there a year after escaping a sack.

What does Ditka have?

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“He knows how to extract the most out of football players,” said Chicago tackle Keith Van Horne, the former USC All-American. “He knows your potential, he expects you to play to your potential every week, and he won’t accept anything less. If you give him less, you’re off the team.”

Ditka, 45, understands football players because he began as a Chicago tight end in 1961 and rose to All-Pro after an All-American season at Pittsburgh, near his hometown, Carnegie, Pa.

Said Van Horne: “When I came to the Bears (in 1981), we were like most NFL clubs. We played offense and defense. Today, we play as a team. That’s Mike’s doing. He was a rowdy, tough team player, and he has molded his club in his image. (We) reflect his personality.”

Rookies are taught their place in many football organizations, but not in Chicago, not on Ditka’s club.

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The Bears are accepting William (The Refrigerator) Perry good-naturedly, despite the extraordinary public attention he has drawn.

There doesn’t seem to be any jealously even among the most underpublicized Bears, although, for the last several weeks, Perry has won more praise for doing less than most of his teammates.

“William makes the game fun, that’s what we like about him,” Van Horne said. “He plays his heart out, and he has a good time at the same time. In other words, he’s a Ditka Bear.”

A personable, laid-back Southerner, Perry also sticks around after games, as long as there’s a reporter there, answering the same questions in different ways.

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An hour after the game Sunday, he had refined his comments on his first penalty play--when he hoisted Walter Payton into the end zone--to this:

“I thought my buddy needed a lift.”

Perry looks his tonnage: 308 pounds, 32-inch thighs, size 48 pants, 58 coats, 13 shoes. He wears a size 18 ring that commemorates a nearly forgotten milestone: He was on the Clemson team that won the 1981 national college football title.

What would the Super Bowl mean to him?

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Said Perry, grinning: “Another title.”

The difference between the Bears and most teams that can win 11 in a row is their oppressive defense.

The ’72 Dolphin defense was styled no-name. The ’34 Bears are remembered for their great running backs, Beattie Feathers and Bronko Nagurski.

Against Atlanta Sunday, if the ’85 Bears become the third team to start an NFL season 12-0, their defensive platoon will doubtless be showcased once more.

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“Their blitzers are so hard to pick up,” said Dallas fullback Timmy Newsome.

There are two reasons for that:

--In defensive Coach Buddy Ryan’s favorite defense, which he styles the 46, the Bears deploy what is virtually a seven-man line, with their two outside linebackers on the same side and their strong safety on the other side, plus four linemen. When all seven rush the passer, one usually gets through. Frequently, this is one of the hip-to-hip outside linebackers, who, as Newsome said, are hard to pick up out there.

--Some of the league’s best talent is in the Bear defense, including five first draft choices, three in the line: Dan Hampton, Richard Dent and Perry. The other firsts are linebackers Otis Wilson and Wilber Marshall.

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Altogether, the Bears start nine No. 1 draft choices, including offensive tackles Jim Covert and Van Horne, fullback Walter Payton and their quarterback, either Jim McMahon or Steve Fuller.

The NFL’s hottest new quarterback, Ken O’Brien of the New York Jets, will be matched in the game of the week against a wily retread Sunday.

The veteran is Steve Grogan, 32, who has replaced injured Tony Eason at New England and who since October has led the Patriots to six straight victories.

Each club is 8-3 in the AFC East, a game ahead of Dan Marino and the 7-4 Dolphins.

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Some say that Grogan is the smartest player in the NFL. The scouts say he has an IQ of 137. New England Coach Raymond Berry lets him call his own plays.

“Steve’s so smart he does it right,” New England tight end Derrick Ramsey said. “He asks us (receivers) to help. He asks what we see.”

O’Brien is the quarterback the Jets drafted three years ago instead of Marino. Against Tampa Bay last week, he brought the team back from 0-14 to a 62-28 win, throwing five touchdown passes. In 11 games this season O’Brien has thrown only six interceptions.

That means that the man who drafted him, Mike Hickey, the team’s player personnel director, is looking better every week.

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The Jets are winning despite an unprecedented run of injuries. All eight of their defensive backs have been on the NFL’s injury report for two weeks. The other day, two went on injured reserve. The Jets have brought in three new defensive backs in the last six days.

Can they make the Super Bowl?

“We’ve got to get some people healthy,” Coach Joe Walton said.


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