He's No. 1
There's nothing physically imposing about Bear quarterback Steve Walsh. Underneath his jersey he has a chest like the guy next door, and his stomach looks nothing like a washboard. His arms and shoulders aren't powerful and his back isn't muscular, so when he throws downfield, you tend to hold your breath until the ball finally gets there. When he's chased out of the pocket, Walsh lurches along on gangly legs. And inside his helmet is a clean-cut, baby-faced kid who doesn't look like he could ever rip your heart out.
Well, looks aren't everything.
"Because I don't look like an athlete and I don't throw like Dan Marino or John Elway, people figure I can't get the job done," the 27-year-old Walsh says. "I always get beaten up in the media over lack of arm strength. When I do something, everybody acts surprised."
What he is doing in Chicago—winning football games as the starting quarterback for the Bears—has surprised everybody but Walsh. He was a poised and confident field general on Sunday in a 20-10 victory over the Lions at Soldier Field. Walsh completed 25 of 31 passes for 185 yards, including a 30-yarder to Jeff Graham for a touchdown, and is now 6-0 as a starter.
Chicago's victory, coupled with the Vikings' 31-21 loss to the Jets, moved the 7-4 Bears into a tie with Minnesota for the NFC Central Division lead.
"My strength is making good decisions," Walsh says. "I protect the football, and I get it into the receivers' hands. I'm secure enough in my ability to know what I have to do to be successful."
During his two years as a starter for the University of Miami, Walsh found out what it takes to be a winner. He led the Hurricanes to a national championship in '87 and had a 23-1 record as a starter. In the NFL, however, Walsh has been in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Cowboys made him the second pick of the 1989 supplemental draft, a couple of months after they had selected Troy Aikman with the first pick in the regular draft. Then, in September 1990, he was traded to the Saints for three high draft picks. While the Saints' regular QB, Bobby Hebert, held out, Walsh led New Orleans to the playoffs. That wasn't good enough for the Saints, who re-signed Hebert and sent Walsh to the bench.
Last April the Bears signed Walsh to a $600,000 free-agent contract, expecting him to back up Erik Kramer, whom they signed to an $8.1 million deal in February. Walsh subbed successfully when Kramer missed three games with injuries, then took the starting job for good in Week 10.
Walsh has flourished in the Bears' West Coast-style offense. "This system accentuates my strength," he says. "I've got somebody inside, outside and in the flat. When I can read a defense and use the whole field, I can complete the pass."
Does Walsh think he has finally convinced people that he's a capable No. 1 quarterback? "There's still a national audience that tends to believe I can't do it," he says. "But Chicago Bear fans don't care how it looks. They just want to win."
As the Buccaneer season slowly circles the drain, Tampa Bay backup safety John Lynch is playing his heart out trying to earn a starting position. That's because at season's end he'll be faced with an important decision: continue to play in the NFL or take another stab at a major league baseball career.
The Bucs drafted Lynch, a bone-jarring hitter out of Stanford, in the third round in 1993. At the time, Lynch was beginning his second season as a pitcher in the Florida Marlin organization after being selected in the second round of the '92 baseball draft. He had a 2.13 ERA in '92 for the Marlins' then Class A farm team in Erie, Pa., but he was better known for throwing the organization's first pitch, which is why his cap is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
When he walked away from his promising baseball career in July '93 to give the NFL a try, Lynch left his options open. He agreed to go on the Marlins' suspended list, which gave the team his rights through '98. Then he signed a two-year deal with the Bucs, setting a goal of becoming a starter during that time. Although he has shared time with Pro Bowl free safety Thomas Everett the past two weeks, the 6'2", 220-pound Lynch is primarily a backup at both safety positions. With his contract expiring at the end of the season and the possibility that the Bucs will be sold and a new coaching staff brought in, Lynch knows he's at the crossroads of his career.
"I figured that baseball would be a quick track to the majors," says the 23-year-old Lynch, who was an outfielder at Stanford and pitched only 19 innings in relief for the Cardinal. "After playing in A ball, I realized I was a project. I made the decision to try the NFL, where you begin in the big leagues.
"The fact that I'm not a starter after 1½ years makes me wonder about baseball again. The Marlins embraced me, so where would I be by now as a pitcher? I don't want the Bucs to think I'm not happy, but I want to see a bright future if I'm going to hang around."
Given the state of flux the Bucs are in, Lynch's best bet may be with the Marlins. "When he got drafted by the Bucs, I didn't think we'd ever see him again," says Gary Hughes, director of scouting for the Marlins. "I look at the summaries in USA Today every Monday morning, and I hope that he doesn't have any tackles. He's a legitimate baseball prospect—very few players can throw a 95-mile-per-hour fastball—and he's a great kid. I'd take him back in a minute."
The return of left guard Guy McIntyre to the starting lineup has given a major boost to the Packer offense. McIntyre, a veteran of five Pro Bowls who played 10 seasons with the 49ers before signing as a free agent with Green Bay in July, started in the season-opening victory over the Vikings but then sat out six games due to a blood clot in his left calf. As a result, center Frank Winters had to move to left guard, with Jamie Dukes taking over at center During that seven-week stretch the Packer offense was unable to run the ball (it averaged just 70.8 yards per game), make big plays or score many points (16.8 per game).
Reenter McIntyre. Mean, nasty and fiercely determined, McIntyre has given the Pack's linemen a harder edge. "I take no prisoners," says the 33-year-old McIntyre, who played in three Super Bowls for the 49ers. "I get them before they get me." The results with McIntyre in the lineup have been startling:
•The running game. In McIntyre's first game back, a 33-6 victory over the Bears in the Monday Night Monsoon on Oct. 31, the Packers rushed for a season-high 223 yards and four touchdowns. Since his return the team is averaging 115.8 yards on the ground per game.
•The passing game. With McIntyre in the lineup, the front five is cohesive, giving quarterback Brett Favre more time to find his second and third receivers. "When Guy was out, Brett was scrambling," says Packer offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis. "He never could set up. Now he doesn't have nervous feet."
In McIntyre's four games back, Favre has thrown nine touchdown passes and just two interceptions, while Green Bay has averaged 27 points per game.
So where does the 6-5 Pack go from here? "We have to commit to the running game down the stretch," says McIntyre, noting that two of the Packers' last three games are at home, where bad weather is often a factor. "We've got to do that to get into the playoffs."
Pass the Novocaine
Where doesn't Bennie Blades hurt?
"Some mornings I wake up and cry, it hurts so bad," says the Lion strong safety, who's third on the team in tackles, with 72. "I scream out, 'Why are you subjecting yourself to all this pain and agony?' "
Since the beginning of training camp, the 28-year-old Blades has been in constant need of a MASH unit. Trying to come back from a broken right ankle suffered in the fourth game of the '93 season, Blades was slowly working his way into shape when he pulled his right hamstring in late July. He hobbled through the first nine weeks of the season with his right ankle still sore. On Nov. 6, playing against the Packers on a mushy field at Milwaukee County Stadium, he sprained both ankles. As if that weren't enough, just before halftime he injured his right shoulder while tackling Packer running back Reggie Cobb.
"Every time I'd hit somebody, my arm would go numb," says Blades. "My arm was totally useless. [Packer receiver] Sterling Sharpe finally said, 'Man, why are you still in there? You're playing with one arm.' And I told him, 'I'm trying to get to the Pro Bowl.' "
To make matters worse, Blades pulled his left hamstring against the Bucs a week later. "I thought, 'Oh, no. Not again. I'm not going to tell the trainers about this, or they'll make me come out,' " says Blades, who admits to taking as many as 10 Advils before games to help ease the pain. "When I pulled it again in the fourth quarter, I finally admitted I was hurt."
Blades learned about being tough from his father, Freddie, a professional boxer who fought in the early 1960s. There was a time when Bennie and his older brother, Brian, now a wide receiver with the Seahawks, dreamed of pursuing boxing careers, but their mother, Rosa, said she couldn't bear to watch them take a beating. "Now she sees it again," says Bennie, laughing. "There's more pounding in football than in boxing. After games, I feel like I've been in an auto accident."
So why does he play in so much pain? "I'm paid to give 100 percent," he says, "and I can't do that from the sideline."
Walsh, 6-0 as a starter for the Bears, may not have the strongest arm, but he delivers victories.
Lynch may chuck his Buc career to pitch again for the Marlin organization.