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Jim Murray

They Simply Were Caught in the Middle

December 18, 1987|Jim Murray

If the Minnesota Vikings don't make the Super Bowl this year--and Vegas will lay you a price they don't--they can place the blame squarely on the old-coaches' union.

Come back with me to the night of Sunday, Dec. 6. The Vikings are sitting pretty. They have the lead, the ball, the time, a first down and they're on the Chicago Bears' one-yard line.

They have four downs to make 36 inches and get an eight-point lead that the Bears will scarcely have time to overcome.

San Diego, here we come! The win will tumble the Bears to 9-3, move the Vikings to 8-4. The Bears have San Francisco, Seattle and the Raiders coming up. The Vikings have Green Bay, Detroit and Washington to close out with.

Now, if you know coaches, you know what comes next: three or four mindless crashes into the center of that Bear line. These guys all know their geometry: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Not if it goes through the Chicago Bears.

The Bears' one-yard line may be one of the worst places in the world to be. I can't think of many worse. The side of Mt. Everest in an avalanche? On top of a burning oil rig in the North Sea? The Everglades in a mist? The deck of the Titanic? Gestapo headquarters on Saturday night?

I couldn't look. I knew what was coming. It reminded me idiotically of one of those old World War I movies where the adjutant says, pointing to the Red Baron aloft and the shot-up plane aground, "My God, sir! You're not going to send a boy up in that, are you?"

It was like throwing maidens into a volcano. Clubbing baby seals.

There, salivating like a pack of mad dogs surrounding a dying caribou, were the Bears. You knew the ballcarrier was going to disappear in there without a trace. A cow has a better chance in a school of piranha.

Never mind. The "book" says you go through the middle in this situation.

Earlier, in a similar situation, first and short yardage to the goal line, the Vikings had called a rollout pass to a receiver heading for the sidelines. I wanted to stand and cheer. It worked perfectly, of course. Your grandmother could have caught that pass and gone into the end zone with it. Because all 11 Chicago Bears were clogged in the middle.

Some people are miffed at the Vikings because they passed up a field goal on fourth down. Not this reporter. They needed seven in that situation. They did the right thing the wrong way.

An eight-point lead would have forced the Bears into desperation passing, the kind where your pass rush can ignore the run and come in like cops raiding a crap game on every play.

It was not that the Vikings passed up a sure field goal on fourth down, it was that they passed up a sure touchdown on down Nos. 1 and 2, or even 3.

Coaches, you see, are creatures of habit, slaves to convention. They are as predictable as spawning salmon.

Consider, if you will, the deployment of what used to be called the "prevent" or "nickel" defense. This is what I think of as the Maginot Line theory of defense deployment. It holds that if you peel back enough players in obvious passing situations they can blanket the area of penetrability.

They can't. It's like putting up barrage balloons. Trying to catch needles in the dark.

You see, professional quarterbacks have been throwing the football with accuracy since they were in knee pants. Most of them can hit a squirrel in the eye at 50 paces with the pointed end of the football. If you give them time.

If you leave them unhurried, unworried, unharassed, the best of them can deliver the football on target through a forest of defenders. If you tell them to hit a receiver in the ear in practice, they say, "Which ear?"

The surest way to stop a forward pass from being completed is to stop it from being thrown. The late Red Sanders, one of the three best coaches I have ever known, used to say nobody was a good enough passer to complete passes flat on his back. That's where he kept the best college passer I have ever seen, John Brodie, in their pivotal confrontation.

Coaches who will pass up a fourth-and-one on their opponents' 40-yard-line and punt the ball instead, nevertheless think they can make one yard at the goal line. Against the Chicago Bears.

There used to be a cartoon in which a prizefighter at a contract signing is leaning over whispering to his manager and the manager says, "My boy says he don't sign till he finds out exactly why they call him the Bushwick Assassin."

Well, if I were an opposing back and they wanted to give me the ball on the Bears' one-yard line, I would be tempted to call time and whisper in the quarterback's ear that this boy won't carry the ball till they tell me exactly why they call them the Monsters of the Midway.

The moral of the story is, if you're ever on the Bears' one-yard line with the season in the balance, Go wide, young man, go wide.

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