Chicago used to be Walter Payton's place. It still is, only now he shares that toddlin' town with a cocksure quarterback named Jim McMahon. Walter is hardly complaining, not with the Bears off to a 4-0 start in the National Football League and looking to all the world like a potential Super Bowl team. He's running the ball less, but enjoying the season more now that McMahon has emerged as the accomplished passer Chicago has long desired.
And interestingly enough, the theme has been echoed on the West Coast, where 34-year-old rookie Dieter Brock has provided much-needed aerial firepower to the Los Angeles Rams, the NFL's only other undefeated team.
Brock, an 11-year veteran of the Canadian Football League, is still adjusting to his new surroundings. The Rams' superb defense has bought him some time, but he also has risen to the occasion, leading the team to victories for the most part without running star Eric Dickerson, who set a single-season rushing record a year ago.
Dickerson, who missed the first two games due to a contract holdout, gained 150 yards in a Monday night victory over Seattle, then was physically hampered Sunday and saw limited duty in a 17-6 win over Atlanta.
Brock, however, was on target, completing 16 of 20 passes, including two for touchdowns.
In Chicago, meanwhile, McMahon was really cooking in a contest with the Washington Redskins (1-3), who seem to have fallen on hard times since losing to the Bears in last season's playoffs.
Washington jumped off to a 10-0 lead, but saw the momentum shift radically the other way after Chicago's Willie Gault returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. That, in turn, led to a 31-point second quarter explosion that paved the way to an easy 45-10 victory.
McMahon, of course, was in the thick of things, throwing three touchdown passes and actually catching one himself on a halfback pass from Payton, who gained only six yards on seven carries.
Payton, the NFL's all-time rushing leader, has carried the offense on his shoulders for the past decade as Chicago continued its search for an elusive, top-flight passer. The last Bears to fill that description were Bill Wade, the quarterback of the '63 championship team, and his successor Rudy (The Rifle) Bukich.
Chicago seems to have found its man, though, in McMahon, who set 71 collegiate passing records at Brigham Young before the Bears drafted him on the first round in 1982. They usually win when he plays, but injuries have limited his playing time and kept him out the last half of the '84 season.
In fact, he was on the bench against Minnesota two weeks ago, not expected to play, when Coach Mike Ditka decided the offense needed a spark and threw caution to the wind and McMahon at the Vikings. The swaggering quarterback, who seems to relish the limelight, threw touchdown passes on his first two plays, and added a third shortly thereafter in a whirlwind come-from-behind win.
At the time, the Vikings were brimming with confidence after winning their first two games under Bud Grant, who has come out of retirement to coach the team. In the season opener, in fact, Minnesota had sprung a big upset against the San Francisco 49ers, the reigning Super Bowl champions.
Miami, the league's other Super Bowl team, experienced similar difficulty in losing to the lightly regarded Houston Oilers. The Dolphins, however, have quickly recovered to post a 3-1 record, while the 49ers continue to struggle, and on Sunday lost to New Orleans to even their record at 2-2.
Along with Vince Lombardi, Miami's Don Shula was recently named co-coach of the NFL's past quarter century, an honor he appears ready to uphold. Despite a tumultuous pre-season, in which many key players were missing for one reason or another, Shula has done his usual brilliant job of piecing things together. And after a slow start, quarterback Dan Marino has come on strong, outdueling John Elway with 25 completions in 43 attempts in Sunday's 30-26 victory over the Denver Broncos.
In its previous game, Miami shut out Kansas City, which has since relinquished its claim to owning the NFL's highest-scoring offense to the explosive Bears, who are making loads of big plays.
The Chiefs, however, have bounced right back with an impressive 28-7 win over Seattle in which their defense caused seven Seahawk turnovers.