CHICAGO — On the day when it mattered most, the Chicago Bears forgot the answer to their very own pop quiz.
Question: What's green and white and freezes all over?
Answer: Soldier Field's field.
Of course, don't mention that to Bear coaches, who, according to cornerback Vestee Jackson, may have experienced some brain lock of their own in Sunday's National Football Conference Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers. The miscalculation, suggested Jackson, figured heavily in the 49ers' 28-3 victory.
Jackson's point was this: Rather than remember The Frozen Rule (Grass turns to granite when the wind chill drops the temperature to minus-26 degrees), Bear coaches pretended they were on the shores of Maui, not Lake Michigan. They ordered blitzes when they should have been playing it safe. They ignored the elements, and by doing so, left Jackson and the rest of the Bear secondary ice skating their way to tundra trouble.
Cornerback Mike Richardson found himself alone with 49er wide receiver Jerry Rice as the Bears blitzed late in the first quarter. Moments later, the 49ers had a 7-0 lead, courtesy of a 61-yard touchdown reception by Rice.
A fluke, Bear coaches must have thought, because midway through the second period, they called for another blitz, this time leaving Jackson with the job of guarding Rice one-on-one. Venture a guess on the outcome?
That's correct: 49ers 14, Blitzes 0.
And that was that. In no time at all, the 49ers and veteran quarterback Joe Montana proved that frozen fields are the great unequalizer. The 49er receivers knew where they were going--and adjusted accordingly--while Bear defenders didn't have a clue.
"It was like playing on ice," Jackson said.
Making matters worse was the Bears' insistence of leaving Rice to roam with but a single defender assigned to him. For whatever reasons, someone forgot to inform the coaches of the unsure footing.
"We blitzed on both of (Rice's touchdowns)," Jackson said. "It was tough. The coaches don't know how the field is. They don't know (how) the field conditions are at the time."
So, were blitzes the answer?
"I personally don't think so," Jackson said. "When you've got conditions like that . . . we're at an even greater disadvantage at that point. It's hard for the coaches to know exactly what we're feeling out there on the field and what the conditions were today. But the coaches make the call and we're out there to play and execute."
Oddly enough, defensive coordinator Vince Tobin spent the game on the sidelines, where 29-m.p.h. winds swept across the field, where snow flurries occasionally appeared, where any person with an eye for ice could see that traction was a rumor--especially for backpedaling cornerbacks and safeties.
Tobin thought otherwise. Must have.
This was not a banner day for Bear decisions.
Every element, even something as simple as shoe selection, worked against the Bears Sunday. At game's beginning, the Soldier Field turf was still soft, the result of a protective covering kept on it for days. But halfway through the second period, the field was as giving as the Soldier Field parking lot. Players bounced when they hit the ground. And cleats, especially the metal ones that many of the Bears had chosen to wear, slipped and slid on the frozen stuff.
"At the beginning of the game, (the field) was great," free safety Todd Krumm said. "Then the area around the sidelines started to get rock hard. By halftime, there were patches all over the field where it had frozen up."
Krumm said he hit the skids while trying to help Richardson on Rice's first touchdown catch. Instead of tackling Rice, Krumm skated past him.
"Rice just made a great catch," Krumm said. "It was like he almost had a sense that I was coming. If he wouldn't have moved and just stayed there an extra second, maybe I would have been able to get better footing. But (Richardson and I) were both going full speed and, well, when he made his move. . . . "
Like many of the Bears, Krumm couldn't quite believe that the 49ers, of all teams, had overcome the bitter cold. This was supposed to be Bear weather. Instead, the Bears froze and the 49ers kept lighting more bulbs on the scoreboard.
"We're always told, 'You play under any conditions,' " he said. "But today was a little bit out of the ordinary. Maybe we thought that a team coming from the West Coast, that it would make a difference."
It didn't, of course. Montana passed as if it were balmy, not near-blizzard weather. Rice danced across the turf as if he knew where every ice patch was located.
"(Montana) waited, he was patient, he deserved to win," said linebacker Ron Rivera. "The pass rush was there, but Montana did an excellent job. He just stepped up and avoided the pass rush. He held the ball. He was courageous."
As for Rice, strong safety Dave Duerson offered this observation: "There were only a couple of plays that Jerry made, but they cost us. We really couldn't afford to give them anything."
Meanwhile, the Bears had a case of cold feet.
"They killed us," said Duerson.
The 49ers had help. They had those Bear coaches.