For Chicago, It Was Almost Unbearable Season

Associated Press

It seems ages ago that the Chicago Bears crushed the defending NFL champion New York Giants in the "Galaxy Bowl."

The 1987 campaign that started out with such promise as the Bears nailed the Giants, 34-19, before a Monday night national TV audience eventually became one Chicago would just as well forget.

It will be best remembered as the season of the bitter NFL strike.

But the year also was Walter Payton's 13th and last as a player. Gary Fencik--the team's career leader in tackles, sacks and interceptions--also retired.

It was the season of Jim McMahon's comebacks from injuries and the comeback victories he engineered.

And, will anybody be able to forget Coach Mike Ditka donning a pair of roller skates or hurling a wad of gum into the Candlestick Park crowd?

The year also saw William (The Refrigerator) Perry became a second-string appliance.

It was the season Dennis McKinnon, a second-string wide receiver, announced publicly that the defensive unit should blitz more and that Ditka's play calling "didn't make sense."

This also was the year that the body of George (Muggsy) Halas, son of the Bears' founder, was exhumed in a club ownership struggle between rival heirs.

The Bears took exactly 118 days after their Sept. 14 win over the Giants to get bounced out of the playoffs with a season-ending 21-17 loss to Washington.

McMahon, who had guided Chicago to 28 victories in 29 starts, had returned from a month-long hamstring injury, but he was unable to do what Chicago players and fans had expected him to--direct the Bears to their first post-season win since the 1985 Super Bowl title.

They had failed for the second straight year to play in the NFC championship game because of a home defeat to the Redskins.

"Two in a row to the same team in the playoffs is tough to swallow," says center Jay Hilgenberg. "I wish I could explain what happened but I can't."

But Ditka's simple explanation was "I don't think right now that we're good enough."

Blurred by the loss to the Redskins were the fond memories of the Bears' 11-4 regular-season record.

The regulars, who stayed together and didn't cross picket lines while the strike replacement team went 2-1, came back from their walkout with three consecutive fourth-quarter, come-from-behind wins over Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Green Bay--plus a fourth miraculous rally to beat Minnesota.

"I don't think it was that bad a season. What about Tampa Bay? What about Minnesota?" Ditka asks.

McMahon--who had undergone major shoulder surgery 10 months earlier--came off the bench Oct. 25 in his first appearance since the operation to beat the Buccaneers.

But McMahon pulled his right hamstring muscle in the Nov. 22 game at Minnesota, and Mike Tomczak threw the winning touchdown pass in the "Rollerdome" game--so called after Ditka complained that the noisy, indoor Metrodome was fit for only rolling skating.

The next game, Chicago was wiped out 41-0 at San Francisco on Dec. 14, and a frustrated Ditka hurled a wad of his chewed gum at the crowd of taunting, beer-throwing 49er fans. A California woman told police the gum hit her in the head.

But the Bears' season had been gummed up already.

Gone were the glory days of 1985 when McMahon and the sack-happy, big-play team had stormed their way through the NFL schedule to the Super Bowl title.

Instead of winning with their stingy defense and rush-oriented attack of years past, the Bears were forced to pass more while the defense was giving the opposition more and more opportunities to score.

Payton, whose 16,726 yards and 77 100-yard games are among his 11 NFL rushing records, managed only 533 yards on the ground and had no 100-yard contests in 1987.

A 340-pound Perry, who won America's hearts two years ago for scoring touchdowns on the goal-line offense, had eaten himself out of his starting defensive tackle job.

While linebacker Otis Wilson mouthed off to Ditka about being demoted to second string, only frosty silence came from the Fridge.

Next season, Perry's role is uncertain but Neal Anderson will replace Payton at tailback, McKinnon probably will be working elsewhere and the team will trade or draft to plug a weakness at cornerback.

"It's ridiculous to expect wholesale changes," says Ditka, who will be back although he may let someone else call the plays.

"I'd retire if I thought it was in the best interest of the Bears," he said. "I don't think there's anybody better suited in America to coach the Chicago Bears than me."

But safety Dave Duerson thinks the loss to Washington will be hard to shake.

"This will be hard to live with the next six months," said Duerson. "You try to knock it out of your mind, but I know it will linger on in our minds."

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