Jim Brown must have had a hand in changing the Chicago Bears' strategy at halftime against the Dallas Cowboys today. His beloved record, which looked as good as gone midway through a sparkling afternoon at Soldier Field, belongs to him for at least one more week.
At halftime of what turned out to be the Bears' second consecutive loss, this time a 23-14 defeat, Walter Payton had 130 yards on 20 carries. Coming into the game, he needed 222 to break Brown's all-time NFL rushing record of 12,312 yards. The way Payton was going, gaining 92 in the second half looked simple.
What's more, Chicago quarterback Jim McMahon, who missed last week's game with a hairline fracture of a bone in his throwing hand, was hurting again. His passes looked like "shot puts," said reserve receiver Brian Baschnagel, who said McMahon told him on the sideline, "I just have no control."
The Bears (3-2) had a running back on a tear and a quarterback who couldn't throw. They were behind by only three, 17-14. The second half seemed destined to be Payton's show.
But somebody forgot to give him the ball and the record remained unbroken.
Payton carried only five times in the second half, gaining 25 more yards for a 155-yard game. The Bears, who noticed the Dallas safeties playing tight against the run, decided to pass more in the second half. Eventually, they had to change quarterbacks (to Rusty Lisch) and never scored.
"That is a bit startling," Baschnagel said of the change in philosophy. "You would think Walter would run the ball, that we would hand off the ball to Walter."
Willie Gault just shook his head. "No, I don't understand it."
Payton's career total now is 12,246; he needs 67 yards to break the record. The Bears play New Orleans here next Sunday.
Payton did tie another of Brown's records when he gained more than 100 yards for the 58th time in his career, but that wasn't the record in question in Coach Mike Ditka's postgame press conference, held under a tent constructed for the crush of reporters who are chasing Payton chase Brown.
This was the first time Ditka, a Dallas assistant for nine years, had faced Cowboys Coach Tom Landry. He wasn't overly pleased with the Chicago results: a fumbled punt, two missed field goals, and a squandered scoring opportunity at the end of the first half with the Bears sitting on the Dallas 10.
Ditka answered his first five questions this way: "No. Yes. No. Yes. No."
He elaborated on Payton. When asked about Payton's four carries in the third quarter, he said, "No kidding. I didn't know that."
"It was a very emotional game for him," Baschnagel said later, "whether he'd admit that or not."
Payton followed Ditka into the interview tent, draped in a white terry-cloth Bears' robe.
"I'm not the head coach, I'm just out there," he said. "I get crossed up out there, and the coaches have a better viewpoint. I don't second-judge the coaching staff. Nine times out of 10, they're right."
The record, he said for the 12,312th time, didn't matter.
"To put it bluntly," Payton said, "I don't even care about the record now. The loss overshadows any accomplishments I make."
And mistakes overshadow the Bears' loss.
The Cowboys (4-1) scored first on Chicago's first error of the game, Jeff Fisher's fumble on a punt by Danny White. Norm Granger recovered on the Chicago 22 and Rafael Septien kicked a 44-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead three minutes into the game.
Payton, who gained 59 yards in the first quarter alone, led the Bears to the go-ahead touchdown eight minutes later. The Bears moved to the Cowboy 16 when, on first down, McMahon scrambled, saw open field and dashed into the end zone to the delight of the 63,623 fans for a 7-3 lead with 3:57 remaining in the first period.
The Cowboys were back in business moments later when Gary Hogeboom (18 of 29 for 265 yards), back-pedaling in a heavy rush from his 32, tossed a screen pass to Tony Dorsett, who ran 68 yards for the touchdown, beating cornerback Mike Richardson. It was the longest completion of Hogeboom's career and gave Dallas a 10-7 lead.
The Bears came back with a 20-yard scoring run by Payton early in the second quarter when he broke through a huge hole on the right side of the Chicago line. The Bears led, 14-10, with 14:09 remaining in the half.
The Cowboys came back with their final touchdown of the game less than four minutes later on Tim Newsome's two-yard run to culminate an 81-yard drive for a 17-14 Dallas lead.
That was the halftime score, although none of the Bears thought it should have been. The series after Bob Thomas missed a 41-yard field goal, later blaming swirling winds, the Bears took over on their 38 with 1:35 left. Payton and a 22-yard pass from McMahon to Matt Suhey put the ball on the Dallas 13 with time running out. On third down, McMahon called "the kill play," hoping to throw the ball out of bounds.
But, because of his injured hand, he couldn't throw it that far. Gault was on the left sideline and saw the ball coming.
"Instinctively, I caught it," he said. "As a receiver, I caught the ball."
He was standing on the 10 and he was not out of bounds. The Bears could not get their field goal team in the game in time.
Was that the turning point, Ditka was asked?
"What would you say the turning point was? The first time we touched the ball and we fumbled it and they scored a field goal? Maybe the turning point was last Tuesday. Maybe it was last year when we scheduled them," he said.
Septien made two more field goals in the second half, one 32 yards, the other 23. The Bears couldn't score.
"Payton was their whole offense in the first half," said Dallas defensive tackle John Dutton. "In the second half, they took him away. As you can see, they scored no points."