|The Damn! Moment of Week 10||Good, bad, ugly from Week 10||MatchSport: War games||The G-men run off track|
By Skip Bayless
The NFL's Play of the Day was as wacky as the traffic-cone-orange jerseys the Chicago Bears wore Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field. This record-setting head-scratcher surely began and ended with Bears coaches saying "Damn!" for very different reasons.
Cornerback Nathan Vasher had no business fielding a missed field goal that San Francisco coach Mike Nolan had no business trying on what veteran Bears observers called the windiest day in the Windy City in 50 years. Yet, 108 yards later, Vasher had pulled off the longest play in NFL history.
At this rate, the Cubs will win next year's World Series.
For sure, at this wind-aided rate, the 6-3 Bears will win the NFC North. But through Sunday's first half, the operative word was "blow" -- as in, would the Bears blow a home game to the NFL's worst team?
The Bears trailed 3-0 near the end of the half when the 49ers moved from their 35-yard line to the Bears' 34. On fourth-and-9 with three seconds left, Nolan appeared to have no choice but to order quarterback Cody Pickett to take a knee and head to the locker room with a lead.
You can start calling him Mike No!
Before he took the 49ers job, Nolan seemed to be such a bright, level-headed young man. But owner John York's sad-sack franchise will turn a potential star coach into a potential shrink's dream.
Nolan sent out Joe Nedney to try a 52-yard field goal toward the goal posts at the south end of Soldier Field.
In the first quarter, Bears kicker Robbie Gould had sent a 39-yarder in the same dreaded direction. Gould hit it hard and straight, and for about 30 yards Gould's kick looked good. But with gusts hitting 40-plus mph, the ball suddenly took a cartoonish right turn and landed about 20 yards wide of the right upright.
On this day, the football might as well have been a paper airplane.
Ah, that south end (or wind) zone, in which Giants punter Sean Landeta whiffed a punt in a January playoff loss as the 1985 Bears steamrolled toward a Super Bowl championship. The wind whipping off Lake Michigan can make that end of Soldier Field the NFL's windiest spot.
But here's the bizarre part about that wind zone: The gusts swirl. They can turn a kicked football into a sparrow in a cyclone and take it in any direction. Or Mother Nature can inhale and leave some kicks alone.
The left-footed Nedney had already made two field goals, from 31 and 30 yards, through the south uprights. The first was nullified by a Bears penalty -- soon-to-be hero Vasher was the goat, jumping the gun as he tried to block the kick. Four plays later, Nedney hammered the 30-yarder through the wind zone.
But trying a 52-yarder was daring the devil.
Why, Mike, why? "Joe is the strength of our football team," Nolan said. That sums up the 49ers: A kicker with his sixth team is their biggest star.
"Joe felt he had the distance," Nolan said, "but that time it came up a little short."
Yes, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Nedney hit it hard and straight enough -- but a gust took it on a hard-right detour.
And waiting in the end zone was a second-year cornerback who has never returned a punt or kickoff in the NFL. Yes, Vasher was an All-American punt returner his sophomore year at Texas. Yes, as an NFL rookie, he returned one of his team-leading five interceptions 71 yards for a touchdown.
But in this case, Vasher was basically playing safety in case a fake field goal turned into an attempted Hail Mary. Surely his coaches told him to stay the heck away from a missed or blocked field goal. Remember Leon Lett's blunder on Thanksgiving Day of 1993, allowing Miami to stun the Cowboys in a Dallas snowstorm?
On this day, the regular punt and kickoff returners were muffing balls as if they were remote-controlled by the opposition. So what was Vasher thinking? The answer, my friend, was blowing in the wind.
He faded nearly to the back of the end zone, then bolted to his left after the wind-blown ball and -- no, Nathan! -- made a terrific fingertip catch. He started forward, momentarily came to his senses and nearly kneeled for the safe half-ending touchback.
Then he took off.
It's highly doubtful that Vasher was attempting to deke the first five-player wave of 49ers. But it's highly possible that Vasher knew (or had been taught) that field-goal units are made up of a team's slowest and least athletic players -- elephantine linemen, a couple of linebackers on either edge, a long snapper, a holder and a kicker. The 49ers' holder is their punter, Andy Lee.
So this wasn't exactly the punt or kickoff coverage unit bearing down on Vasher.
Still, around the 15-yard line, he appeared trapped. And Nathanael DeWayne Vasher executed a jump-stop, hand-on-ground spin that would have inspired an appreciative nod from Barry Sanders. Boom! No. 31 left five Niners in his vapor trail and took off outside the line of traffic-cone Bears marking his route up the right sideline.
On Vasher! On Dancer! On Prancer and Vixen!
It looked as if the Bears got away with a couple of blocks in the back. But no matter.
Nathan Vasher beat Chris McAlister's record 107-yard return by 1 yard. Maybe he knew what he was doing when he realized he could make that fingertip catch 8 yards deep in the end zone.
But this is how the Bears keep winning -- with an offense of a defense. Their offense pounds the ball on the ground and relies on rookie quarterback Kyle Orton to make a few low-risk throws and fewer mistakes. The defense provides the "SportsCenter" highlights -- such as cornerback Charles Tillman's interception return for an overtime touchdown that beat Jeff Garcia's Lions.
This time, it took Vasher's record return to help the Bears win a 17-9 game in which Pickett connected on just one of 13 passes.
Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.