It was the third week of the pro football season, and the Chicago Bears were struggling.
This was at Minnesota in September, when the Vikings carried a 17-9 lead late into the third quarter.
The Bear quarterback, Jim McMahon, hadn't been seen. He had sat out the offensive practice day during the week, pleading illness, and his coach, Mike Ditka, was using him to make a point to the team: no practice, no play.
With only a quarter and a half left, Ditka was almost out of time. But he had one shot left. He had McMahon standing on the sideline with him, not seven paces away.
The lesson--practice is beautiful--would have to be taught another way, another day. Swallowing his pride, Ditka sent for the truant, and put him in.
McMahon's first play was a long pass for a touchdown. His second play was also a long pass for a touchdown. Then he threw for a third touchdown, and the Bears had converted a probable defeat into a 33-24 win.
That performance was the most spectacular of the season so far in the National Football league, in which the 1985 race is now half over, eight weeks gone, eight left. And since McMahon's big night, the 66-year-old league hasn't been the same.
There have been some dramatic changes:
--The Bears, winners of eight straight under Ditka, have jumped past San Francisco, Miami, Dallas and the Raiders to become the No. 1 team in football. They have also taken over as the Super Bowl favorite. For the first time since the days of George Halas, the Bears are what Halas made them 50 years ago, the intimidating Monsters of the Midway.
--Their quarterback, McMahon, is football's new star. During two months of winning, the free spirited Chicago passer has caught up with such NFL celebrities as Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson and Marcus Allen. He has been the most valuable player of the first half of the season, and is the leading candidate for the 1985 award.
--Most of the others in pro ball are experiencing erratic times. A half-dozen of the clubs planning to contend for Super Bowl XX--San Francisco, Washington, Seattle, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh--are laboring. All are at .500 or below.
The trend is widespread and, apparently, continuous: NFL clubs today are winning some and losing some almost everywhere--except Chicago.
"We have so many dimensions," Ditka said of his team. "McMahon, Payton, defense. We're a complete team."
The Rams (7-1) are next for diverse reasons--among them the leadership of John Robinson, a big-play defense, and some strange breaks--but they're not yet a complete team. They lack something on offense.
Result: As of midseason, this is the year of the Bear.
PARITY LEAGUE The dominant characteristic of the pros in the first half of 1985, coast to coast, was their balance of strength.
Looking around the other day, Gil Brandt, vice president of the Dallas Cowboys, said: "We're seeing more and more parity all the time."
After eight weeks this year, most NFL clubs have parity records of 5-3, 4-4 or 3-5. Nineteen of the 28 franchises--or 68%--are in that range.
There are only three cellar clubs--Atlanta, Buffalo and Tampa Bay--and only six with records of 6-2 or better, among them the New York Jets, the surprise team of the East.
No 1980s entry has been able to win two straight Super Bowls. The champion 49ers, 18-1 last season, are 4-4 this year.
"The players are about even everywhere," Ditka said. "It's the opportunities--the breaks--that keep changing. A lot of the time, that's what makes the difference."
Is there anything else?
Dick Steinberg, director of player development for the New England Patriots, said:
"I think the thing that kills most winners these days is complacency. In the '60s and '70s, the great old champion Packers and Steelers faced similar problems. But the league was weaker then. A coach could win the fight against complacency then. It's much, much harder today."
An executive of a .500 team, who asked not to be identified, summed up the NFL today in seven words: "The players are equal. The coaches aren't."
He contends that the playing talent has been so evenly divided that most of the 28 clubs have playoff potential. They all spend $500,000 or more on the draft each year. They've all built their teams out of the best material in college football. The difference each week, then, is made by the coaches who can get their players to play with more intensity and concentration than their opponents.
Steinberg agrees. "The edge in every game is with the (coach) who can get his guys to play the hardest," he said.
At halftime in the NFL, only three teams are winning the way they they were expected to win: Dallas, Denver and the Raiders, all 6-2.
The only race with three winners is in the AFC East, where the 6-2 Jets--with a great runner, Freeman McNeil, and a promising quarterback, Ken O'Brien--are ahead of Miami and New England, each 5-3.
THE ALL-PROS What players have dominated the first eight weeks of the season?