CHICAGO — When the Chicago Bears called on quarterback Jim McMahon to finish up in the second half of last week's National Football League playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles, it was the first time they had found any use for him since he injured a knee on Oct. 30--just halfway through the regular schedule.
By late December, McMahon was perfectly well, the doctors said. But by then, the Bears had found a new quarterback, former backup Mike Tomczak, who also started their first playoff game last week.
That day in a 20-12 Bear victory, Tomczak threw the decisive passes before leaving with a reinjured left shoulder--after which, McMahon also performed acceptably.
Two Bear quarterbacks, for a change. For a bigger change, two pretty good Bear quarterbacks. What should the press do about that? To what area of the locker room should Chicago reporters head after the game?
Predictably--although he hasn't been talking to them lately--they headed for McMahon, who eluded them once more.
As he ducked into the shower, McMahon was humming: "Back in the saddle again."
Most NFL folks thought so, too. They've been expecting a quarterback change in Chicago.
They've had trouble believing that a coach as competitive as Mike Ditka would continue to rely on Tomczak, a walk-on from Ohio State, instead of a healed and healthy McMahon, the Bears' 1982 first draft choice who led their 1986 Super Bowl champions.
But, strangely, McMahon hasn't been able to regain his old status.
He may be back in the saddle, but he isn't glued in.
Ditka, ending a week of suspense, said Friday of Sunday's National Football Conference championship game against the San Francisco 49ers, at Soldier Field: "Jim McMahon will start at quarterback."
But he qualified it.
"(McMahon is) the healthiest," Ditka said. "I don't know if Mike can take the hits."
Earlier this week, Ditka had said that Tomczak was the Bears' No. 1 quarterback, when ready.
That's crazy. Or is it?
The coach is either down on McMahon or high on Tomczak. Which?
The answer seems to be that McMahon is still McMahon, but that there's a new Tomczak who has won the admiration of Ditka--and the respect of Chicago's other coaches, players and executives--by rebuilding himself into an NFL quarterback.
He did this in two ways between the 1987 and 1988 seasons:
--Taking the suggestion of a friend, he looked up a psychiatrist, who told him how to deal with Ditka.
--Then Tomczak opened a 1-man spring training camp for himself. He hired a coach and spent 3 intensive months learning to throw passes properly.
As recently as a season ago, in his third NFL year, Tomczak was still disappointing the Bears. During practice that season, he was still the target of Ditka's verbal abuse. And on Sundays, Tomczak played without the confidence of his teammates.
After one bitter defeat, Mike Singletary, the Bears' all-pro middle linebacker, said: "We've won without (McMahon), of course--but this is a club that only expects to win when we have McMahon."
The change this season is that Tomczak has earned the confidence of Singletary and the others.
"And that's because Mike is playing now with confidence in himself," Ditka said.
Tomczak doesn't want to identify the professionals he consulted last spring, when he decided that he was on his way out of the NFL if he didn't improve drastically both in his relationships with the coaches and in his techniques as a quarterback.
Nor does he like to talk about specifics.
But he credits the psychiatrist for showing him how to get along with the boss.
"I used to feel that (Ditka) took all the fun out of the game," Tomczak said from Georgia, where the Bears practiced most of the week.
"It's not easy getting bitched at all the time. This year, we have only had one run-in."
In the other half of his improvement program last spring--the more important half--Tomczak learned how to throw passes against today's defenses.
Although he is the son of a high school football coach, and although he was a 3-year starter at Ohio State, Tomczak isn't an exceptional athlete. He wasn't even a very good quarterback. Suddenly, he is.
"I worked at it, and it's paid off," he said.
Even before the playoff win over Philadelphia, Bear defensive end Dan Hampton had said: "I really feel that Tomczak is the guy the entire team is behind right now."
That's what's different in Chicago.
As Bears, as quarterbacks, and as people, Tomczak and McMahon are polar opposites.
Tomczak has the appearance and style of a Boy Scout, McMahon that of a class cut-up. McMahon is a free spirit who just wants to get out there and play the game.
Tomczak is a dedicated believer in the work ethic. He will do anything sensible to win, as evidenced by the tack he took last spring.
From the first, everything came easily to McMahon. Tomczak has pulled himself up from the bottom.