It wasn't a happy off-season for the Detroit Lions or the Chicago Bears, but it sure was a fun season opener they played on Sunday at Soldier Field. "It was incredible," said Lion running back Barry Sanders, the Human Highlight Bite, whose 109 yards rushing included a 43-yard touchdown run you had to see to believe. "The fans got their money's worth." Make that double their money's worth.
With the score tied 10-10 and 10 minutes left in the game, the two teams suddenly exploded for 286 yards and 31 points, producing three lead changes, the last of them coming on a six-yard touchdown pass from Bear quarterback Jim Harbaugh to wide receiver Tom Waddle with one second left. That nailed down Chicago's NFL-best ninth straight season-opening win, 27-24.
Detroit has been snake-bit for a while. The off-season deaths of guard Eric Andolsek (auto accident) and assistant coach Len Fontes (heart attack), coming in the wake of the injury that paralyzed guard Mike Utley in a game last November, cast a pall on what should have been an upbeat few months for the team. The Lions won a club-record 12 games last season, captured the NFC Central title for the first time in eight years and advanced to the NFC Championship Game, but they never got the chance to swagger.
The opening of the 1992 season did nothing to lift their spirits. "I'd rather get beat 45-0," Detroit wideout Willie Green said sadly in the locker room, recalling the score by which the Washington Redskins beat the Lions in last year's opener. "I'd feel better about myself and the team."
Green should have felt fine after catching five passes for 114 yards, including a 27-yarder for the touchdown that put Detroit ahead 24-20 with just over a minute to play. But when the game, which for three quarters had been a fairly quiet staredown, turned into a gunfight at the end, the Lions ran out of bullets. "There is something about the Bears," Lion coach Wayne Fontes said at midweek. "They don't always look pretty, but they win. They just seem to get it done."
But hardly ever in the manner they did on Sunday. Not with a 74-yard drive as time was running out, not with a quarterback standing back there looking as cool and sharp as—dare we say it?—a John Elway or a healthy Joe Montana. No, the Bears usually win by getting a lead and sitting on it. But it had been a turbulent off-season for Chicago, too, portending new attitudes, new outlooks. Coach Mike Ditka feuded with running back Neal Anderson (slowed last season by an injured hamstring, which Ditka felt he hadn't worked hard enough to rehabilitate), with defensive tackle William Perry (slowed last season by an excessive accumulation of lard) and with the world in general (slowed by not marching to Ditka's beat).
Then there was the dispiriting trade of popular seven-time Pro Bowl center Jay Hilgenberg to the Cleveland Browns a week before the season started, followed by the publication of a book entitled Ditka: Monster of the Midway that painted the coach as a volatile, mean-spirited, selfish...well, monster. Ditka responded to the print attack with words worthy of Dr. Seuss: "Perfection is not something I espouse to be. I espouse to be me, and I espouse to be the best me I can be."
We see. But in the first half the Bears did not look like the best they could be. Though they leaped to a 10-0 lead on Harbaugh's 11-yard TD pass to Anderson and a 34-yard Kevin Butler field goal, the Bears allowed Detroit right back into the game on a 40-yard scoring pass from quarterback Rodney Peete to wideout Brett Perriman and a 38-yard field goal by rookie Jason Hanson just before halftime. Chicago's defense was docile and un-Bear-like, allowing the Lions 211 net yards, even while holding Sanders to just 23 on eight carries.
The third quarter was marked only by the Bears' cranking it up a notch on defense. They began blitzing Peete regularly and picked up sacks from defensive end Trace Armstrong, linebacker Jim Morrissey and defensive tackle Steve Mc-Michael, who had two in the second half.
Despite a lack of experience along its offensive line, Detroit sucked it up and struck first in the final 10 minutes, breaking into the lead when Sanders turned your basic five-yard gainer into a 43-yard I-don't-believe-he-did-that scoring run. Both Morrissey and linebacker John Roper seemed to have Sanders tackled, but he spun and...please, check the film.
Now the battle was on. The Bears came back on Butler's 38-yard field goal, cutting Detroit's lead to 17-13. And four minutes later Harbaugh gave the ball to Anderson, who raced left, juked linebacker George Jamison inside, then outran safety Benny Blades to the goal line and made one of his trademark dives into the end zone for the TD. Anderson was clearly back in form.
But the Lions fired again from their modified run-and-shoot attack, this time with Peete hitting Green on a left-to-right crossing pattern during which all the Chicago defensive backs seemed to be on a fire-drill sprint to the wrong side of the field. "Blown coverage," noted studious Chicago middle linebacker Mike Singletary in the locker room afterward.
So now it was 24-20 Lions, with 1:05 to play. Bear fans were seen leaving the stadium at this point—tentatively, to be sure—but no doubt confident that with Harbaugh at the helm, it was tap city for Ditka's troops. A former Michigan quarterback leading an old-fashioned Bears' two-minute drill? Forget it.
But Harbaugh, who is now in his sixth year as a pro and his third as a full-time starter, is one of those rare finds—a seemingly mediocre quarterback who just gets better and better. On the Tuesday before the game he had considered Chicago's prospects for the season. "I don't know how many games we'll win," he said. "But everybody worked hard this off-season. I worked hard this off-season." Part of that hard work was giving up beer in late July, "just for self-discipline," he said.
The Bears started their winning drive on their own 26, with Harbaugh calling the plays: passes from the shotgun formation to wideout Ron Morris and Anderson, followed by a Harbaugh scramble for 14 yards and a Darren Lewis run for 13 more. After a timeout Harbaugh hit wideout Wendell Davis for 20 yards and a first down at the Lion 11. Nineteen seconds remained. "I have been thinking a lot about Joe Montana this summer," Harbaugh said later. "He says that on pressure drives he just thinks about fundamentals—the drop, steps, not trying to do too much. That's what I did out there."
On first down he threw incomplete to Davis. On second down he hit Morris for five yards, to the six. On third he missed Davis in the right corner of the end zone. Five seconds remained. Ditka sent in a play called 13 wing jet. Harbaugh dropped back and found Waddle racing in from the right side on a crossing pattern underneath Davis, who was on a corner clearout. Harbaugh's laserlike pass was no more than an inch in front of safety Harry Colon's outstretched left hand.
The Bears won and proved something in doing so: They do know how to come back and win. Harbaugh was so giddy in the locker room that he twitched like a hyperactive kid. "This is the best I've ever felt in my whole life," he said. "I'm so happy for all of us. I'm so happy for Ditka. I don't like to see him hurt. People question him all the time—the stuff he says—but I believe in my heart he does everything for a purpose. He's got, like, this gut feeling about things. Instinct. And heart." Harbaugh paused, trying to get a handle on himself. "If I were drinking," he went on, "I'd have a beer." If the quarterback were drinking, there's at least one coach—and maybe a whole city—that would stand him a round.
McMichael hurdled Sanders (20) and collared Peete for one of his two sacks.
PETER READ MILLER
A couple of Bears went along for the ride with Sanders, who ran for 109 yards on the day.
Before Waddle fell to earth with the winning catch, the Fridge showed off his svelte form.
[See caption above.]