The Oakland Raiders this Sunday will represent a possible watershed moment in the 2011 season, however unintended. It will be the first and one of the hardest tests, of Caleb Hanie, coaches, Matt Forte, the defense and the whole of the post-Jay Cutler Bears.
Perhaps that’s fitting, because once before the Raiders represented a watershed moment for the Bears. It was in 1984 and Bears players recounting the game to me used one phrase for it:
It was the game that established clearly in the minds of the 1980s Bears that they belonged with the baddest and toughest in the NFL, the reigning Super Bowl champions who were on their own way to an 11-5 season.
For Hanie personally and the Bears collectively, Sunday’s game is another proving game. The Bears hope that Cutler’s thumb surgery Wednesday will go without incident and that the damage is such that he will back after six weeks, the most optimistic time frame put forward for his return.
But the Bears are planning and proceeding without him now. And longer term, this Oakland game is a chance to establish that the Bears can, if they need to, get the better of a quality football team, and do it on the road, which is where their at least their first playoff game likely will be played.
The Bears are viewed by some now as upstarts because of the losing performances vs. New Orleans, Green Bay and Detroit in the span of four weeks.
They were decidedly looked upon as upstarts going into that 1984 game with the Raiders. They came out of it as decidedly something more than that.
“Beating the Raiders was the big game in ’84 because they were the champs,” tight end Emery Moorehead told me. “And they were scared to death, man, scared to death.”
Center Jay Hilgenberg said it was the most physical game he was ever in. “It was big because we could measure ourselves against the best,” Hilgenberg said.
Raiders Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long was more specific. After his day at the hands of right tackle Keith Van Horne, Long said he had not been beaten up that badly since he was in grade school. Merlin Olsen, then a TV analyst and himself a Hall of Fame defensive tackle, said later that what he saw in that game frightened him.
The Bears lost Jim McMahon in the game but Raiders quarterbacks didn’t fare a whole lot better.
Marc Wilson was battered and sent to the locker room with a fractured arm. David Humm came in and was pounded, leaving with a knee injury.
Without a third quarterback, punter Ray Guy was the next man up. But he was nowhere to be found, Raiders players telling the Bears that Guy was at the end of the bench wearing a rain cape, hood up on a 70-degree day, apparently wanting no part of the mayhem he was seeing. Eventually Wilson was taped up and sent back into the game to just hand off.
The biggest casualty of the game, however, may have been the Bears’ hope of upsetting the San Francisco 49ers’ Super Bowl juggernaut (which could be the situation this year, depending on playoff play-out). McMahon scrambled out of the pocket in the first half, went down and was speared in the back by Raider defensive lineman Bill Pickel.
The blow drove McMahon’s ribs in hard enough to lacerate and tear off part of his kidney and he did not play again that year.
The Bears were averaging 21.5 points per game before the Oakland game and McMahon’s injury. They scored more than 16 points just twice in the final six games and were shut out by San Francisco in the NFC Championship game.
The final score was 17-6. Afterwards, defensive end Lyle Alzado told Otis Wilson, “You just kicked our asses.”
The ‘011 Bears wouldn’t mind a similar result coming out of this Raiders get-together.
Question: How pivotal is the 2011 Raiders game for this Bears team? Or is it at all?