Coach Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears approaches every National Football League season as though his waterboy were being held for ransom and only a first-place finish could get him back! There is no pussyfooting around, no indecision, no calling off practice, no coddling of the team's stars. Ditka doesn't care if people consider him a taskmaster or a martinet. Here is a guy who can roll up with a can of game film at night and think he's on the French Riviera.
Mike, except when he feels that someone on the Bears isn't doing his job, has never been a complainer. Five weeks ago, when starting quarterback Jim McMahon was injured, there was no sense of panic. Ditka simply made a series of adjustments that has paid off handsomely.
With reserve quarterback Mike Tomczak replacing McMahon, the Bears rolled to four straight victories - then Sunday Tomczak was injured during a 16-0 shutout of Green Bay and is expected to be out for the rest of the regular season.
But again, no panic. Third-stringer Jim Harbaugh will start Sunday against San Diego, and probably the final two regular-season contests as well. McMahon will be the backup, but isn't ready for full-time duty, and is not expected to play for a while except on an emergency basis.
Of course it helps to have a signal caller of Harbaugh's caliber as far down as the No. 3 spot. The former Michigan All-American, who was the Bears' first-round draft choice in 1987, is what you might call a thinking man's quarterback. His dad was once a defensive coach under Bo Schembechler at Michigan and now is an assistant at the University of Pittsburgh. Reading defenses was often the main subject of conversation at the Harbaugh dinner table when Jim was growing up.
Like most quarterbacks coming into the NFL, Harbaugh saw limited action in his rookie year and early this season while being groomed for the opportunity that is now at hand.
The Bears also had to revamp their running game due to the retirement of Walter Payton, but here too, all has gone smoothly. Third-year pro Neal Anderson, a former Florida star who was Chicago's first-round draft choice in 1986, has done the job as the main ballcarrier. He rushed for 139 yards against Green Bay, and ranks among the league leaders overall.
Now it is the defense that needs reshuffling with Richard Dent, the 6 ft., 5 in., 263 lb. end who was MVP of the 1986 Super Bowl victory, out for at least six weeks with a leg injury. Again, though, Ditka isn't going to worry about things he can't control - and judging by the record, the Bears will still be a tough team to beat when everything is on the line.
With Buffalo and New Orleans getting so much national attention, Chicago may have some catching up to do in the publicity department. But the fact remains that the Bears have given up the fewest points (152) of any team in the league this year.
If you have ever watched Chicago on defense, you know how much this team likes to gang tackle. Its linebackers, as a unit, are among the best in the league at reading plays before they happen and then reacting quickly to stop them.
The defense also has this habit of turning almost every running play inside, where it can make like the compactor in an auto wrecking yard.
Throwing against Chicago's well-disguised combination zone and man-to-man defense isn't recomended, either. In fact, more and more opponents are beginning to believe that the road to the 1989 Super Bowl runs through Chicago.
With three regular-season games left, the 11-2 Bears have already clinched at least a wild card spot in the playoffs and should win the NFC Central title - though it's too early to totally count out the 9-4 Minnesota Vikings, who play Chicago at home in their final game of the season.
Elsewhere, the AFC Central-leading Cincinnati Bengals, who are 10-3 and have been winning the tough games all year, grew another tooth on Sunday during a 35-21 victory over Buffalo.
For the Bills, who had won seven straight, it was only their second loss of the season. Of course every armchair psychiatrist in Buffalo assumes that the Bills simply let down after clinching the AFC East title the previous week.
The AFC West race looks like one that could go right down to the final weekend, with Seattle, Denver, and the Los Angeles Raiders all still in contention. Seattle's 35-27 victory over the Raiders Monday night left the Seahawks tied with the Broncos for the lead right now, with another big weekend coming up as L.A. hosts Denver while Seattle travels to New England.
In the NFC West, the team you should probably keep your eye on is San Francisco, whose road record of 5-2 suggests that this might be the most dangerous aggregation in the entire league.
While chief division rival New Orleans was losing by one point, 13-12, to the New York Giants on Sunday, the 49ers were crushing San Diego, 48-10. The Joe Montana aerial show included 14 completions in 22 attempts good for 271 yards and three touchdowns. That victory left the 49ers just one game behind New Orleans with a big Dec. 11 date between the two teams looming on the horizon.
Even though nobody can figure out the Philadelphia Eagles, whose approach to winning can sometimes be as finicky as Morris the Cat, they continue to challenge the Giants in the NFC East. Both teams have 8-5 records. The Eagles showcase one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the game in Randall Cunningham, who never stays in one place long enough to leave a footprint.
For fans of the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins, the days dwindle down. After losing 17-13 to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, the injury-riddled Redskins are on the brink of elimination.
If Washington gets all of its key players back by next season, though, motivation will be the least of coach Joe Gibbs's problems.