CHICAGO — The Buddy Bowl, the NFL's answer to "Family Feud," was finally played Sunday and, anyway you look at it, it was a surprise.
Imagine the world champion Chicago Bears (2-0) having to go to overtime to claim a 13-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles (0-2). Imagine Eagle Coach Buddy Ryan, his crustiness thoroughly documented since he noisily left the Bears last year, halting a press conference in tears. Imagine Bear Coach Mike Ditka taking shots at his former defensive coordinator.
OK, imagine two out of three and you've got a surprise, anyway you look at it.
To be sure, the game itself was somewhat anticlimactic, coming as it did after an off-season of buildup, kind of an extended pre-fight weigh-in. The two coaches, each resentful over the credit the other received for the Bears' Super Bowl success, seemed to have left their best stuff in the newspapers. For most of the five quarters, this was football at its eye-glazing worst.
The only on-field excitement was provided by Bear Walter Payton, who has assumed the offensive burden since quarterback Jim McMahon went out with a shoulder injury. Payton, seemingly unmindful of the rivalry between the two coaches, went about his business, carrying the ball for several milestones and 177 yards, obscuring a game of fumbles (3), interceptions (7) and missed field goals (4).
It was his six carries in overtime, after Vestee Jackson recovered a fumbled kickoff return, that put the Bears on the six-yard line and gave kicker Kevin Butler the chance, presumably his only chance, to vindicate four missed field goals and to, finally, win the game.
But this was the kind of game where football was the backdrop to a bigger drama. Ever since Ryan, who happily gathered credit for the Bears' 46 defense and thus its overall eminence, left for his own head coaching job, Ditka has publicly seethed, glad to be rid of his attention-mongering assistant. Ryan, meanwhile, has been boasting of an impending dynasty at Philadelphia, a team he found in some shambles. As for his former boss? "Aw, he's a jerk."
Newspaper rivalries in the two towns have done their part to intensify the competition, and even though both coaches declared a moratorium on maledictions this week, there was plenty to fill sports sections.
Junior Eagles even took their outspoken coach's lead. Mike Waters called Mike Singletary, Bear linebacker, a baby and accused the Bears in general of being "pansies."
Ryan said he appreciated the spirit but would have liked hearing that kind of talk from somebody who was closer than 15,000 yards to Payton's rushing totals.
And some of the Bears could not forget Ryan's roughshod coaching tactics. Safety Dave Duerson, who was to achieve hero status in the game, had long felt slighted by his former coach. "I'd love to shut him out," he said.
This rivalry was not particularly evident on the field. Ditka failed to do anything totally outrageous in his attempt to show Ryan up, although he did put 320-pound defensive tackle William (Refrigerator) Perry in as a blocking back for Payton twice. But then that's nothing. It was thought Ditka might let the Fridge run back a punt or play free safety.
Nevertheless, Ditka admitted that he had allowed this to become a game between two coaches, not two teams. "I made too much of a personal thing out of it," he said. "I tried to do too many things, I put too much pressure on myself. That's wrong, we're a team. If I had to rely on being a genius to win football games, I'd have a lot of problems."
On the other hand, Ditka did little to soft-peddle what looks to be one of the NFL's great personal rivalries. Did he look to Ryan after the game to give him a handshake? "No, I didn't want one." Did he like the Eagles' version of the 46 defense? "For a defense that's supposed to be tough on the run, we sure shoved it down their throats."
Old loyalties sure die hard.
Duerson, who set up the Bears' only touchdown when he intercepted the Eagles' Ron Jaworski in the third quarter, also took satisfaction in the day's events. "I looked to the sideline after I intercepted the ball, but I couldn't find him," Duerson said. He allowed that the Bears always respected Ryan, but "that's not to say we didn't have our differences. With some, like Samurai (Singletary), it was father and son. But I never got so much as a congratulation from him."
Singletary, seemed to regret everything about this game but the victory. He's still Buddy's buddy. "Friendships are different for different people," he said. "To me, friendship is a long time. You don't forget people when they go somewhere else. That's life.
"It's not a war, you know. It's just a game. And I'm glad it's over and we can get back to the real thing."