Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Mud And The Blood And The Bears And The Steelers

On to the second round, and arguably the marquee matchup: Chicago-Pittsburgh.

Hoo doggie. You can smell the concussions from here. And you don’t even have to close your eyes to picture the scene: 38 degrees, wind off the lake, occasional showers, lights on, grass in the end zones only, no heaters on the benches, Papa Bear storming up one sideline and Chuck Noll cooling it on the other, capes for everyone, Grantland Rice and Red Smith up in the press box banging it out for their respective papers, Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier up in the TV booth for CBS and Lindsey Nelson on the radio side, wearing a sport coat in a natty DNA pattern.

And then the game itself: Two teams almost completely of different eras going at it.

No kidding. The most amazing thing about this matchup is that it’s nearly devoid of overlap. Of the Bears’ top 25 players, only six date from the ‘70s and later, with only one (Walter Payton) on offense. Of the Steelers’ top 25, 20 date from the ‘70s and later, with none playing before 1950. If you’re looking for head-to-heads, you’re pretty much reduced to Sweetness vs. the remnants of the Steel Curtain, with Kevin Butler around to kick field goals.

So how does one go about evaluating such an out-of-phase matchup?

One goes to the eternal places: the lines and the defense.

The Bears have had a disproportionate share of the game’s best linemen of whatever era they happened to be playing in, except now. That is not to say that Bulldog Trafton is better than Jonathan Odgen. Can’t be said, can’t be compared. Any linemen comparison works its way around to the size of one versus the size of the other, and you’re forced to conclude that bigger and great is better than smaller and great.

The Steelers have had good offensive linemen over the last 40 years, including two Hall of Famers. They have had good D-linemen over the last 50 years, including two HOFers.

Defensively the Steelers prefer to emphasize linebackers, and have produced two HOFers at the position. They back it up with three HOF-caliber D-backs – Mel Blount, Rod Woodson, and Troy Polomalu – and an HOF defensive coach.

The problem is that the Bears can trot out two nearly complete sets of HOF O-linemen, D-linemen, and linebackers, and they throw in a couple of HOF D-backs (albeit two-way players) for good measure.

How do you get around that? More specifically, how do the Steelers get around it?

They can’t. They simply cannot.

The Steelers can’t because they don’t have enough offense to negate the Bears’ tangible advantage in the lines. Terry Bradshaw is a wobbly QB. Jerome Bettis and Franco Harris are merely Bettis and Harris, not Jim Brown or Barry Sanders. Throwing on the Bears is never a bad idea regardless of the reality level, but it’s Terry Bradshaw throwing to Stallworth and Swann and, oops, Gary Ballman, and even Red Grange, who had to be on his toes for five passes a game, can shut that down. And, heaven forbid, if the Steelers went completely against type and spread the field, they’d be trotting out Hines Ward and Roy Jefferson, and they don’t exactly overmatch the motely assortment of short Ivy leaguers and slow cover corners that have been favored by the Bears through the generations.

Which is not to say the Bears have it sussed on the offensive end. Sid Luckman is the best QB on the field and ditto Payton for the running backs, and Gale Sayers delivers speed and versatility, but the passing targets are woeful and depth is an issue. Grange and Bronko Nagurski are HOFers more on legend than performance, and the third and fourth wide receivers are the worst you’ll find anywhere. I would honestly take Kevin Walter and Jabar Gaffney over Morris and Kavanaugh, and they’re the K-cars of second-string wide receivers. The all-time Bears would be better off splitting out George McAfee and Devin Hester than trotting out Morris and Kavanaugh on third down, and they’re the bloody second-string kick-returners.

For any other team the Steelers’ secondary strength would put them in a pickle. For the Bears, it just plays to their strength. Does it really matter than Rod Woodson shuts down Harlon Hill? Nope; Luckman wasn’t going to throw to him anyway.

So all signs point to a defensive struggle – a misnomer, since it’s the offenses that struggle. Even Lindsey Nelson, as gifted with the tongue as Gale Sayers was with the hips, is struck dumb by the stupefaction produced by this game. Three yards and a cloud of mud is treating this game too kindly.

Ah, but something happens eventually. George Halas falls asleep on the bench. No! Running a two-minute offense consisting of over-the-middle dumps to Mike Ditka and incomplete passes heaved in the direction of Bill Hewitt, Luckman throws a screen pass to Gale Sayers, who gets wide and takes it 34 yards for a score. Butler misses the extra point, and the Bears go into halftime with a 6-0 lead.

And then the defenses really get stingy.

Bradshaw and Luckman are content to run sweeps and dives. The sweeps work better for the Bears, who have the superior speed to the outside. The dives don’t work for anyone.

As time winds down in the fourth the Steelers are forced to throw the ball. Passes to Swann and Stallworth work the ball down to the Bears’ 24, where two incomplete passes and a Dick Butkus sack bring up fourth and 17.

Bradshaw drops and lofts a wobbler in Gary Ballman’s direction. Ballman goes up, Dave Duerson goes up, the crowd rises to its feet, the ball nestles in Ballman’s hands, the two men collide, and Ballman falls to the turf cradling the ball … nine yards short of a first down.

Luckman takes a knee three times and the game ends.

The stats are woeful. Luckman goes nine-of-14 for 113 yards and the only score. Bradshaw is 13-for-27 for 163 and a pick. Bettis carries 12 times for 26 yards; Harris rushes 18 times for 39. The Bears are led by Payton with 81 yards rushing and Sayers with 57. Sayers is also the leading receiver, with five catches, and sets up the lone touchdown with a 54-yard punt return.

There’s nothing that says that the higher up the ziggurat you go the better the football games automatically get. This one is ugly as they come. But as Tom Brookshier would remind you, neither team would have it any other way.

(Incidentally, after I wrote this I ran it past one of my more football-savvy friends, and he was vehement in asserting that not only would the game be more high-scoring, but that Pittsburgh would win. His argument was something along the line of the Pittsburgh teams of Terry Bradshaw’s day were offensive powerhouses, and after that it trailed off into invective.

Interesting assertion, invective notwithstanding, so I checked it out.

First, as a previous column pointed out, Bradshaw ranks with Joe Namath and George Blanda as the worst HOF QBs ever.

“Aha!” you exclaim. “Blanda’s with the Bears!”

Yeah, but Blanda’s not getting anywhere near the field in this game. Jim McMahon and Ed Brown and even Sleepy Jay Cutler are going to hit the turf before Blanda sheds the cape.

Second, Bradshaw’s teams were the league’s top offense exactly once, in 1979. Most of the time they were between fifth and seventh. And even in that magical year of 1979 Bradshaw threw 25 picks against 26 TDs and finished with a decidedly mediocre passer rating of 77.0.

Now, the interesting thing about Bradshaw vs. Luckman is that the two QBs finished their careers with similar passer ratings (79.0 for Bradshaw; 75.0 for Luckman). But Luckman’s bad numbers came after 1947, when players were back from the war, the AAFC teams were integrated into the NFL, the Bears were less talented than Chad Hutchinson, and opponents were hip to their offense. Furthermore, passer rating is not era-corrected. A 75 rating in 1943 is equivalent to a 110 rating today. Sammy Baugh was a 72.0 passer over his career, and he was the Peyton Manning Peyton Manning has yet to become.

Looking at the two QBs’ numbers and studying the way their teams played, eventually you come to understand the key difference between Bradshaw and Luckman. The Bears were an effective offense because of Luckman. The Steelers were an effective offense in spite of Bradshaw.

What I told my friend still holds: Can you conceive of a scenario where Pittsburgh would win? Only if the Bears self-destruct – and the Bears under Halas almost never self-destructed. Given that – given all that – the original judgment stands. The Bears win 6-0.)

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