There are any number of comparisons between Jim McMahon of the Chicago Bears and NFL glamor quarterbacks Joe Montana and Dan Marino. Acting, however, isn't one of them.
Montana and Marino are frequently seen in slick television commercials for Diet Pepsi. Jim McMahon pitched garden and farming equipment on TV in Utah and, he said, "felt like an idiot."
The 49ers' Montana and the Dolphins' Marino were both born in the steel and mining areas of western Pennsylvania, yet it is McMahon, raised in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains, who is the throwback to the sootier days of professional football. On the field, McMahon rolls the sleeves of his jersey under his shoulder pads and off the field he says his major vice is a pinch of snuff.
"I'm married with two kids. I'll never be a star like those guys or a (Joe) Namath," said McMahon. "If people just recognize me for my abilities as a football player, that will be enough for me."
McMahon will lead Chicago (which, at 3-0, shares with the Los Angeles Rams the distinction of being the only undefeated teams in the NFL) Sunday when the Washington Redskins visit Soldier Field. He is the leading passer in the NFC with a rating of 115.3. The Redskins' Joe Theismann has a mark of 40.
The 26-year-old, four-year veteran from Brigham Young has completed 44 of 70 attempts for 742 yards and six touchdowns this season, and the Bears have won 14 of the last 18 games he has started. That McMahon is en route to being compared favorably with quarterbacks such as Montana and Marino is unquestioned, it's just how he's made the trip that raises eyebrows.
"He's a guy that . . . it's hard to really put your finger on a lot of things about him," said Bears Coach Mike Ditka, himself a tough guy from Pennsylvania.
"If you tell him not to do something," continued Ditka, "he'll listen to you but he'll do what he has to do -- what he thinks he has to do -- to get the job done, regardless if it's contrary to what you asked him to do or not.
"He wants to do what it takes to win, that's just how he is. He thinks he's our best thrower, our best runner and our best blocker."
He's probably the most willing hitter lining up behind a center today. "I don't mind doing it; if there's a chance to spring somebody I won't hesitate to get right in the way," McMahon said. "Especially if you get a blind shot on somebody. They knock the heck out of you all day. You finally get a chance to cut somebody or stick 'em in the ribs . . . yeah, I'll do that."
It is incumbent upon Ditka to find the right level of tempered bravura when it comes to McMahon. Last Thursday, for example, Ditka asked McMahon not to bother him about going into that night's game against the Minnesota Vikings. Hospitalized earlier in the week for a sore back and neck as well as a leg infection, McMahon was to be used only "because of catastrophe," Ditka had said.
Yet, at the start of the game, McMahon asked to play. And at halftime. And at the start of the third quarter. He got into the game midway through the third period and, on his first play from scrimmage hit speedy wide receiver Willie Gault with a 70-yard touchdown pass. On his second play, he hit flanker Dennis McKinnon with a 25-yard scoring pass. Then McMahon needed six plays before throwing another touchdown, this one 43 yards to McKinnon.
He completed eight of 15 passes for 236 yards as the Bears rallied to win, 33-24.
"I only had to ask him three or four times before he let me in. I thought that was pretty good," McMahon says.
At the time, Ditka said the game was like a storybook finish that "couldn't be scripted," yet he also sees the potential for a nightmare on the scale of last season. McMahon played despite a hairline fracture in his throwing hand and a severely bruised back early in the '84 season, then had his season end on the first Sunday in November when he lacerated a kidney while running the ball against the Los Angeles Raiders.
It was believed that the injury might mean the end of his career, which would have been disastrous for the Bears. Although they made it to the NFC championship game, the Bears lost, 23-0, to the 49ers. In the nine games that McMahon missed last year, the offense averaged just over 15 points, with a total of 15 touchdowns.
"He doesn't believe he can get hurt, or get hurt bad enough to keep him out and that's why he tries to make the plays that he makes," said Ditka of McMahon, listed at 6 feet 1, 190 pounds. "But that's going to be a problem later. He has to learn the things he can and can't do with his body."
McMahon said his head knows Ditka is right but the rest of his body won't listen. "A lot of what I do is instinctive," he said. "I'm out there trying to make something happen so there are times when I'm running and my head will tell me to go down but my legs won't cooperate."
McMahon's persona only adds to the almost manic approach he brings to a game. Highly intense, he screams (mainly at himself, he says) and struts on the field, bouncing around as if part of some revved-up pinball game. An eye problem makes it necessary for McMahon to don sunglasses whenever conducting interviews under television lights, and this, combined with an attempt to give himself a haircut this season, has resulted in his looking a bit like the late Sid Vicious.
His appearance, his keyed-up personality and his candor and bluntness cause some Chicagoans to question him and Ditka to worry about his health.
"His being pumped up brings our team up to another level," said Ditka. "But it might get our opponents pumped up another level, too. They just want to get after him and put pressure on him. And I'm being nice when I say that. What they really want to do is knock him on his can."
Does McMahon care? Are you kidding?
"I just try to have fun, this is how I am," he says. "I'm just confident in my abilities. If people perceive that as being cocky, well, everybody's got their opinions and I don't worry about 'em.
"I never doubted that I could play this game. I'm learning week by week and year by year and I'm having a good time. But not as good as the one I'll have when we win the Super Bowl. Look out for me then."