Just Whose Kind of Town Is It Now? : McMahon Has Bear Starting Job, but Tomczak Has Backers, Too

Times Staff Writer

When the Chicago Bears called on quarterback Jim McMahon to finish up in the second half of last week’s National Football League playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles, it was the first time they had found any use for him since he injured a knee on Oct. 30--just halfway through the regular schedule.

By late December, McMahon was perfectly well, the doctors said. But by then, the Bears had found a new quarterback, former backup Mike Tomczak, who also started their first playoff game last week.

That day in a 20-12 Bear victory, Tomczak threw the decisive passes before leaving with a reinjured left shoulder--after which, McMahon also performed acceptably.

Two Bear quarterbacks, for a change. For a bigger change, two pretty good Bear quarterbacks. What should the press do about that? To what area of the locker room should Chicago reporters head after the game?


Predictably--although he hasn’t been talking to them lately--they headed for McMahon, who eluded them once more.

As he ducked into the shower, McMahon was humming: “Back in the saddle again.”

Most NFL folks thought so, too. They’ve been expecting a quarterback change in Chicago.

They’ve had trouble believing that a coach as competitive as Mike Ditka would continue to rely on Tomczak, a walk-on from Ohio State, instead of a healed and healthy McMahon, the Bears’ 1982 first draft choice who led their 1986 Super Bowl champions.

But, strangely, McMahon hasn’t been able to regain his old status.

He may be back in the saddle, but he isn’t glued in.

Ditka, ending a week of suspense, said Friday of Sunday’s National Football Conference championship game against the San Francisco 49ers, at Soldier Field: “Jim McMahon will start at quarterback.”

But he qualified it.

"(McMahon is) the healthiest,” Ditka said. “I don’t know if Mike can take the hits.”

Earlier this week, Ditka had said that Tomczak was the Bears’ No. 1 quarterback, when ready.

No. 1?

That’s crazy. Or is it?

The coach is either down on McMahon or high on Tomczak. Which?

The answer seems to be that McMahon is still McMahon, but that there’s a new Tomczak who has won the admiration of Ditka--and the respect of Chicago’s other coaches, players and executives--by rebuilding himself into an NFL quarterback.

He did this in two ways between the 1987 and 1988 seasons:

--Taking the suggestion of a friend, he looked up a psychiatrist, who told him how to deal with Ditka.

--Then Tomczak opened a 1-man spring training camp for himself. He hired a coach and spent 3 intensive months learning to throw passes properly.

As recently as a season ago, in his third NFL year, Tomczak was still disappointing the Bears. During practice that season, he was still the target of Ditka’s verbal abuse. And on Sundays, Tomczak played without the confidence of his teammates.

After one bitter defeat, Mike Singletary, the Bears’ all-pro middle linebacker, said: “We’ve won without (McMahon), of course--but this is a club that only expects to win when we have McMahon.”

The change this season is that Tomczak has earned the confidence of Singletary and the others.

“And that’s because Mike is playing now with confidence in himself,” Ditka said.

Tomczak doesn’t want to identify the professionals he consulted last spring, when he decided that he was on his way out of the NFL if he didn’t improve drastically both in his relationships with the coaches and in his techniques as a quarterback.

Nor does he like to talk about specifics.

But he credits the psychiatrist for showing him how to get along with the boss.

“I used to feel that (Ditka) took all the fun out of the game,” Tomczak said from Georgia, where the Bears practiced most of the week.

“It’s not easy getting bitched at all the time. This year, we have only had one run-in.”

In the other half of his improvement program last spring--the more important half--Tomczak learned how to throw passes against today’s defenses.

Although he is the son of a high school football coach, and although he was a 3-year starter at Ohio State, Tomczak isn’t an exceptional athlete. He wasn’t even a very good quarterback. Suddenly, he is.

“I worked at it, and it’s paid off,” he said.

Even before the playoff win over Philadelphia, Bear defensive end Dan Hampton had said: “I really feel that Tomczak is the guy the entire team is behind right now.”

That’s what’s different in Chicago.

As Bears, as quarterbacks, and as people, Tomczak and McMahon are polar opposites.

Tomczak has the appearance and style of a Boy Scout, McMahon that of a class cut-up. McMahon is a free spirit who just wants to get out there and play the game.

Tomczak is a dedicated believer in the work ethic. He will do anything sensible to win, as evidenced by the tack he took last spring.

From the first, everything came easily to McMahon. Tomczak has pulled himself up from the bottom.

McMahon is a passer with little style or discipline. No one will ever compare him to Warren Moon or Dan Marino. He still just picks the ball up and throws it the way he did as a kid.

Tomczak, by contrast, has a classic modern throwing motion, one that he has worked on and perfected. Holding the ball above his shoulder, he releases it after a hard, twisting swing of his upper body.

Moreover, Tomczak reads defenses with considerable success. He doesn’t throw many dumb passes.

He seems to be at his best, however, in structured situations. If the Bears are playing defense emotionally and if they are gaining yards running, Tomczak can throw the ball accurately enough to beat anyone.

McMahon, on the other hand, is at his best in an unstructured crisis. If you want a quarterback who can react successfully to the unexpected, who can make something happen when everything is going wrong, who can win a given game by himself, McMahon is your man.

Tomczak has trouble in emergency situations because there’s no way to practice for the unexpected.

Thus, neither McMahon nor Tomczak is everything an NFL team wants or needs in a quarterback. A man combining the best of both might be all-pro every year.

What Tomczak has lacked most until this season is aggressiveness. In the early days of his Chicago career, when needled by a teammate or yelled at by Ditka, he tended to react by turning the other cheek.

McMahon, in contrast, has always reacted with guns blazing.

When criticized by, for example, Hampton--who has criticized him for years--McMahon invariably responds with personal attacks on a player who is one of the leaders of the defense.

Most recently, after Hampton noted that injuries have benched McMahon half the time in the last 4 years, Hampton added, mildly, “If we keep waiting on someone who is more or less not concerned with our future, I think we’re lost.”

Firing back, McMahon said: “Hampton is just whining because he didn’t make the Pro Bowl.”

When McMahon suspected on another occasion that Bear trainer Fred Caito had told Ditka that McMahon didn’t want to play injured, he said: "(Caito) couldn’t tell a compound fracture from a blister.”

Last year, such an attack would have horrified Tomczak. This year, he’s listening and learning.

“It’s not easy playing 3 years in McMahon’s shadow,” he said. “It’s not easy hearing for 3 years that if McMahon goes down, you can’t do the job.

“I decided I had to be more aggressive, and this year, I think I am. I know I am.”

Tomczak said that what has helped the most in overtaking McMahon on the depth chart was his private training camp.

“The way I think of it is, I worked smart,” Tomczak said. “I developed a game-type atmosphere, and put myself in a game-type situation every day.”

That was last spring, when, with the assistance of the pro he hired to coach him, he worked out several times a week on an 80-yard field.

“The average long touchdown drive in the NFL lasts about 80 yards and takes about 12 plays,” he said. “So we’d type out a bunch of game plans--each with 12 different kinds of passes--and march up and down the field throwing the ball.

“I’d throw posts and outs and bombs, I’d throw against a (presumed) blitz sometimes, and an 8-man secondary sometimes. Then after throwing a touchdown, we’d turn around and come back up the field.”

Each day was the same in one respect.

“I’d work at a pace of 185 heart beats per minute,” he said.

And the object on every pass was to speed-throw the ball--to zip it with absolute accuracy.

"(The coach) told me that if you think of it as a pass, you guide or aim the ball,” Tomczak said. “I realized that that’s what I had been doing.

“So at my training camp, I threw it. I picked out a spot, and threw it like Orel Hershiser. That’s the best way to combine accuracy and velocity.”

Tomczak’s feet got more attention than his arm.

“As they say, you throw passes with your feet,” he said. “It’s hard to throw accurately unless your feet are directly under you. You’re at your best when you’re steady on your feet.

“You can’t launch a rocket from a rowboat. You never see a smart Indian shooting arrows from a canoe.”

As one result of his spring training camp, Tomczak just about caught McMahon in the 1988 statistics.

In 5 games, Tomczak completed 86 of 170 passes for 1,310 yards and 7 touchdown passes, and threw 6 interceptions.

In 9 games, McMahon completed 114 of 192 for 1,345 yards and 6 touchdowns, with 7 interceptions.

McMahon was 6-3 as a starter this season, Tomczak 4-1. Jim Harbaugh, the third quarterback, was 1-1.

McMahon’s NFL quarterback rating was 76.0, Tomczak’s 75.4.

Some Chicago fans have said that Tomczak never would have realized his potential on any other NFL team.

They’ve said that Ditka’s abrasiveness and McMahon’s aggressiveness have made him what he is.

A naturally easygoing person, Tomczak seems, in any case, to have adopted both men as role models.

“I used to try to make everybody else happy,” he said when asked why he turned to psychiatry several months ago.

“I’ve always tried to be a nice guy, and what did that do for me? It got me my brains beat out by (Ditka)--while McMahon ran all over me.”

“Now, what I’m concentrating on, is making myself happy.”

The new Tomczak, though, has a strained relationship with McMahon. Previously, for 3 years, they had been friends--as close, that is, as two quarterbacks can be who are fighting for the same job.

Most memorably a few years ago, when Ditka hired another quarterback named Doug Flutie, McMahon was loudly critical of the idea, and publicly supportive of Tomczak.

This week, commenting on the change in his relationship with McMahon, Tomczak said: “We’re not communicating as efficiently as we did 5 months ago.

“But when Jim is on the field, I’m his biggest fan. I like him and his family very much. Anything Jim wants, I want for him.”

Anything, that is, except the one thing that Jim wants most: Tomczak’s job.

Times researcher Doug Conner assisted on this story.