Championships Missed: The Lost Years, Part 4
by, 06-07-2011 at 04:24 AM (1877 Views)
Championships Missed: The Lost Years, Part Four - The 1986-88 Seasons
by Jonathan Henderson, aka. "Dagan81"
30 May 2011
(The above title heading says it all. During the 1986 season, Jim McMahon was viciously taken down to the turf on his throwing shoulder by the Packers' Charles Martin, thus sustaining a season-ending shoulder separation. As a result of this blatant act of violence and hostility, Martin would be ejected from the contest and suspended for the next two games. The injury perhaps cost the Bears a chance at winning a second consecutive Super Bowl, as the defense in 1986 actually put up better numbers than did the one in 1985.)
Perhaps of all the disappointing seasons that were mentioned in the prior articles I wrote, none are more wrought with greater regret than the great Chicago teams of the mid-to-late 1980s. In this decade, America saw the reemergence of the Chicago Bears as a league powerhouse in much the same fashion as they were in the 1930s and 1940s. The Bears teams from 1963-1983 only saw three seasons in which the club managed to make the playoffs. These teams were often characterized by solid defenses, lead by the likes of Dick Butkus, Doug Atkins, Doug Buffone, Ed O'Bradovich, Ritchie Petitbon, Doug Plank, Dan Hampton, Steve McMichael, Gary Fencik, and later Mike Singletary, but lacked greatly on offense, with the only stars being Mike Ditka, Gale Sayers, and Walter Payton. The Bears traded away Atkins and Ditka after the 1966 season, while Gale Sayers suffered a career shortening knee injury in 1968 in a game against the San Francisco 49ers. Even more indicative of the Bears bad luck was losing the coin toss in the 1970 draft to the Pittsburgh Steelers for the right to pick first overall after Chicago had finished the season with a terrible 1-13 record. Had the Bears won the toss, it is very likely that they would have picked QB Terry Bradshaw with the number one overall pick out of Louisiana Tech University. However, in a big draft in 1983 that saw the Bears pick up such stalwart players as Jimbo Covert, Willie Gault, and Richard Dent, the Bears would bull rush their way back into the national spotlight. By 1984, Chicago would finish 10-6, win their first division championship in 21 years, and run all the way into the NFC Championship Game, where a more experienced San Francisco 49er team would bully the young Bears into a 23-0 defeat. The loss in the 1984's league championship game fueled Chicago's desire to be NFL Champions in 1985, as only the Miami Dolphins would get the better of these "Monsters of the Midway" on their way to triumph in Super Bowl XX. It looked like the Bears were on their way to a dynasty with such a young and talented team. They certainly had an aura of invincibility about them.
The 1986 Season
All seemed well during training camp in 1986, except that QB Jim McMahon reported to training camp at over 220 lbs as a result of excessive celebration from the Super Bowl championship. In the draft that year, the Bears made a steal with the pick of future Pro Bowl RB Neal Anderson with the final pick of the first round. He would come in handy some two years later when the great Walter Payton retired following the 1987 season.
In the 1986 opener on September 7, the Bears defeated the Cleveland Browns, 41-31, in a shootout in what was the first game in the history of the league to utilize instant replay. The initial usage went against the Bears, as Cleveland was awarded a touchdown. The following week saw former defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan bring his Philadelphia Eagles to town in an emotional game for the Bears. In what could not be expected as anything less than the norm between the once-Ryan led Bears and the current-Ryan coached Eagles, Chicago won, 13-10, in an overtime contest. Over the course of the next four weeks, the Bears bullied their opposition on their way to setting a record for fewest points in a 16 game schedule. Chicago had won their first 12 games in 1985, and had since won 12 more games without a defeat. Fans began to believe that their "beloveds" would run the table and finish the season with a perfect record. It was a false illusion, for the team lost a shocker in Minnesota, 20-7. Jim McMahon was injured again, and Steve Fuller proved to be inept at moving the team down the field.
After the Minnesota loss, McMahon was back, and wore black high-top shoes as a tribute to WR Ken Margerum, a good friend of his who had been released by the front office earlier in the week. The Bears then beat the Detroit Lions, 13-7, with another impressive defensive effort. The following week, the Bears would taste defeat again, as they would fall to the Los Angeles Rams on a late field goal, 20-17. No longer was there talk of an undefeated season, but rather now of whether or not the Bears would continue to lose more games.
After the two losses in three weeks, the Bears got back to what they had been doing best for the past two and a half seasons, and that was winning. Chicago made a trade with the Rams, sending Margerum to Los Angeles in return for QB Doug Flutie. While this proved to be controversial among the players on the team, it was hugely beneficial for the Bears, and a near-requirement with the oft-injured McMahon and Steve Fuller not being able to seriously play. On November 23rd, Green Bay rolled into the Windy City, looking for revenge after being defeated by the Bears twice in 1985. There was bad blood flowing between the two teams, which came to a head when Packers defensive lineman Charles Martin body slammed McMahon onto his throwing elbow. The injury separated McMahon's shoulder, and he would be lost for the rest of the season, along with hopes of returning to the Super Bowl.
The last four games in the regular season resulted in all Bear victories. Flutie, at 5'8" tall, was a "dwarf" by NFL QB standards, but he possessed a cannon for an arm. However, trying to teach him the ropes to the Bears' complex offense in a matter of a few weeks proved very costly, but the Bears still managed to hold on and win their remaining games, and that led them to a 14-2 mark, the number one seed out of the NFC, and a date with the conference's Wild Card team, the Washington Redskins.
The 1986 playoffs saw the Bears as heavy favorites to repeat as NFC Champions and thus make another run for the Super Bowl. However, the NFC Divisional Round versus the Washington Redskins, a team under the tutelage of coaching legend Joe Gibbs, would be where this great season's ride would end. Chicago entered the second half with a precarious 13-7 lead, but the Redskins would score 20 unanswered points, ten of which would come off Bear turnovers (the normally-reliable Walter Payton fumbled at the Washington 17 yard, which led to the Redskins scoring at touchdown on an 83 yard drive, while a muffed punt resulted in a 'Skins field goal). Washington QB Jay Schroeder shredded the Bears' blitz-happy, league-leading defense as he scrambled outside the pocket and completed passes. When the dust finally settled at Soldier Field, it saw the Redskins atop of the scoreboard by a final of 27-13. Washington would go on to play the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game, only to lose in a defensive donnybrook. Meanwhile, the city of Chicago would take a nose dive into a feeling of depression, but most felt at that point that the dynasty would still be alive and kicking in 1987.
The 1987 Season
Entering the 1987 season, dark clouds were on the horizon. It appeared that there would be a strike, and so there would be one. In Platteville, WI, site of the Bears training camp back in '80s, the ever perpetuating question continued to pop up: would Jim McMahon play at all in 1987? The question lent itself to some serious explaining by the Chicago coaching staff, as the Bears had drafted quarterbacks in each of the previous two drafts and even took a quarterback in the first round of the 1987 draft (Jim Harbaugh). McMahon openly feuded with Ditka over this move.
The season opened with the Bears playing the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants on Monday Night Football. Third year QB Mike Tomczak got the call to start for Chicago as McMahon and Steve Fuller were injured, Doug Flutie had been traded, and Jim Harbaugh was, in essence, sitting out his "red shirt" year in order to be groomed for the position down the line. Where some people saw doom and gloom in regard to this game, the Bears were prepared to make the best of it, and did they ever: Tomczak completed 20 of 34 passes for 292 yards, while Dennis McKinnon returned a punt 94 yards for a touchdown that led Chicago to a 31-19 victory over New York. The following week saw the Bears handle division rival Tampa Bay 20-3 before the strike would cancel all of Week 3's games, which would have seen Chicago play the Detroit Lions.
"The Strike of 1987" would drive a wedge between players as well as between those players and coaches. The league pondered what to do, and unlike the strike in 1982, there would not be half a season canceled. Replacements players, often called around the locker room in Chicago as "scabs" or "spare Bears", would take the place of the real players. Coach Ditka made his feelings about the strike known when he referenced the replacements as "real players." This phrasing did not sit well with many regulars, and would be a wound that would be difficult to heal over time.
After three games, the strike ended. The Bears' replacements finished at an admirable 2-1 record. In finishing the regular season, the Bears would stage the franchise's greatest come-from-behind victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 27-26, after training the Bucs 20-0 at the half. The following week saw just as inspiring an effort in a 26-24 win at Green Bay, which saw Jim McMahon lead the Bears down the field with less than a minute remaining. Kevin Butler sealed the game with a 55-yard field goal kick and, in perhaps the best homage he could possibly pay to Forrest Gregg after all the cheap shots the Packers took at the Bears the previous three seasons, he "flipped the bird" at him as if to say, "Adios!" (Note: As a result of another losing season, Gregg would be fired as head coach of the Green Bay Packers.) The next week, the Bears lost a heartbreaker to the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football, followed by wins over Green Bay at home and the Minnesota Vikings on the road. At this point, the Bears were the owners of a 10-2 record with three games remaiing, but would struggle the rest of the way into the playoffs after a disastrous 41-0 shutout loss at San Francisco, in which Ditka threw his gum at a heckling fan that resulted in him being brought up on assault charges. The next week brought yet another defeat to the Bears in a 34-21 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Mercifully, the regular season ended with the Bears defeating the Los Angeles Raiders, 6-3.
The Bears had emerged as champions of the NFC Central Division for the fourth consecutive season, but limped its way into the playoffs after struggling down the home stretch. Their opponents in the first round would be none other than their nemesis who eliminated them the season before in the Divisional Round: Joe Gibbs' Washington Redskins. Unfortunately, the game would go no better this year than the previous season. Though the Bears led 14-0 at one point, Redskins QB Doug Williams would lead his team to yet another upset of the Bears in the playoffs.on the team's way to a 21-17 win, perhaps made more painful to Bears fans by Washington CB Darrell Green's 52 yard punt return for a touchdown that sealed the Bears' fate. Williams, it should be noted, would go on to become the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl.
After the fact, fans were left dumbfounded. It seemed that the great ride of 1985 was fading further and further into the background of the rear view mirror.
The 1988 Season
From 1985 to 1987, the Chicago Bears were THE TEAMto beat. In those years, the Bears were picked to win the Super Bowl, and in 1985, they did just that. However, one issue or another would pop up to thwart the Bears' quest to become champions in 1986 and 1987, most notably issues at the quarterback position, a problem that had for decades plagued the legendary franchise. But there were other worries for the Bears of '88 to deal with - the loss of four Pro Bowlers to either retirement (Walter Payton and Gary Fencik), or free agency (Wilbur Marshall and Willie Gault). In the instance of Wilbur Marshall, at the time one of the Bears' All-Pro linebackers along with Mike Singletary, the Washington Redskins, with the deep wallets of owner Jack Kent Cook, offered him a five year deal worth $6 million dollars, which the Bears refused to match. With Gault, he opted out of his contract to go play in Los Angeles with the Raiders in order to pursue an acting career. Thus, with the Bears getting compensated for the players lost with draft picks for the next few seasons (for back in the 1980s, teams were compensated with draft picks if their players were lured away via free agency), they would set off on their quest to win big in '88 on the coat tails of the previous four consecutive division titles the franchise had won. However, few pundits were giving the Bears a shot at winning the title, much less making the playoffs.
Thus, the 1988 season would kickoff against the Miami Dolphins and their All-Pro QB Dan Marino, the felons who thrashed Chicago in Week 13 of the 1985 season and dealt the team its only defeat that year. The results could not be more different, nor could the Bears have scripted a reply to all of its naysayers in a more dramatic fashion, as Chicago crushed the 'Phins beneath a 34-7 avalanche in a game that saw the Bears lead 28-7 at the half. RB Neal Anderson, now in his third season as Bears RB, answered all questions about his ability to take over for the legendary Walter Payton by rushing for 123 yards and a touchdown. The following week, the Bears beat the Indianapolis Colts, but then dropped the ball against the Minnesota Vikings in a 31-7 blowout loss, the team's worst loss at Soldier Field in 13 years, which prompted fans to believe that perhaps the preseason predictions were true, that the Bears were on their way down. Mike Ditka reverberated his thoughts on the matter to the press by stating, "There's no question, we'll be lucky to make the Wild-Card this year." This would prove to be Ditka at his best in terms of reverse psychology, for the Bears would rally and win the next five games. In the final game of that streak, the Bears hosted the San Francisco 49ers and Joe Montana at Soldier Field. The game originally did not look as if it would go according to plan, for Montana led the the 49ers on an 88 yard opening drive for a touchdown. However, the Bears would rally, and would hold San Francisco to 125 total yards for the final 3.5 quarters of the game. Final score: Bears 10, 49ers 9.
As with all good things, they usually come to an end. So they did when the Bears played the New England Patriots, who were led by former Bear, Doug Flutie. On the first play of the game, Flutie hit WR Irving Friar on an 80 yard play that spelled doom for Chicago for the rest of the game. But worse than the defeat against the Pats was Mike Ditka suffering a heart attack following the game. Vince Tobin was appointed interim coach for the next week's game, but within 11 days, "Iron Mike" was back at it again, this time mellower than what he was normally accustomed to being in overseeing a slight measure of revenge from the previous two seasons' playoff losses as the Bears defeated the Washington Redskins, 34-14, on November 13. Perhaps some of the extinguished fire in Ditka led to a malaise of sorts in the intensity of the Bears, for they finished their final five games with a 3-2 record, including a heartbreaking loss that could have been avoided versus the Minnesota Vikings in the last game of the season. In that game, instead of running out the clock with Anderson, who had rushed for 122 yards on the day, Mike Tomczak, that game's starting QB in the place of an ever-ailing Jim McMahon, threw a short screen pass that was intercepted and returned 94 yards for the game-winning touchdown by Walker Lee Ashley. Still, the Bears were division champions, and would get home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The setting of the 1988 Divisional Playoffs, of course, would be Soldier Field, on New Years Eve of '88. The opponent? The Philadelphia Eagles, who were coached by former Bears defensive coordinator under Ditka from 1982-1985, Buddy Ryan. This was the third meeting between the two men, who openly despised each other and never minced words with regards to one another. This game would go on to be one of the most iconic games in the history of the Chicago Bears, for the game, which saw temperatures in the 30s throughout, was played through a very thick fog that would blanket the field and cause all sorts of visual difficulties throughout the game. The Bears led 17-9 at the half when the fog blew over Soldier Field, and that is when most all offense save for two field goals, one for each team, ceased. In the end, however, Chicago would prevail, 20-12, and it would be on to the NFC Championship Game for the third time in five seasons. Awaiting them were the upstart San Francisco 49ers, whom the Bears had defeated earlier in the season (See above).
The NFC Championship Game would be far more frigid than what was experienced in the Divisional Playoff game, but the visualization would be perfect. That being said, perhaps the Bears could have wished for another fog to overtake Soldier Field on this day, because their patented hardcore defense could do next to nothing to solve the 49ers offensive attack. Save for a field goal in the 2nd Quarter, the offense could generate nothing. Prior to the game, Mike Ditka opted to go with the experienced Jim McMahon as his quarterback instead of Mike Tomczak, who had won the Eagles game in the Divisional Round. That mistake proved costly, as the 49ers were the beneficiaries of one touchdown in every quarter of play and played perfect defense in routing Chicago by a score of 28-3. Once again, the Bears championship hopes were dashed by a Hall of Fame coaching legend, this time in Bill Walsh, who had gotten the best of the Bears in the 1984 NFC Championship Game. The 49ers would go on to win Super Bowl XXIII on a late touchdown from Joe Montana to Jerry Rice against the Cincinnati Bengals. Meanwhile, the Bears would fall to 6-10 in 1989 and fail to make the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. They would win another division title in 1990, win a Wild Card playoff 16-6 over the stalwart defensive unit of the New Orleans Saints, but would be bludgeoned against the Giants in the Divisional Round. 1991 would be the last time "Da Coach" would lead the Bears to the playoffs as he would be fire the very next season.
The Bears are one of the most storied franchises in the history of the NFL and in North American sports, so it comes as no surprise to anyone that when their failures are brought up for discussion, they are just as epic as the franchise's triumphs. The Bears won five consecutive division titles in the 1980s, but only brought home "the bacon" once - that time being the fabled 1985 season that for those who are old enough to recall it, do so with a big smile and with visions of "The Chicago Bears Shufflin' Crew" bringing down the house, while those of us who were too young, read and hear stories about that season as if it were one of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales. What doomed the Bears in 1986, 1987, and 1988 was their lack of offense, which was caused by that position, that culprit, that Bears fans since the 1950s had long known about as being the downfall of their team: the quarterback position. Jim McMahon, for all of his success in 1985, could never duplicate that success in future seasons, as he battled injury after injury. The Bears tried trading for, or drafting, more quarterbacks - Doug Flutie, Mike Tomczak, and Jim Harbaugh, for example - but nothing ever stuck. The 1988 team, for example, only scored on average 19.5 points per game, which is only a little better than what the 2005 NFC North Division Championship team produced.
As I said at the beginning of the article, this stretch of seasons is probably the most difficult and frustrating to swallow for Bears fans who yearn for that elusive 10th World Championship that would put it in the company of such legendary franchises as the New York Yankees, the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Detroit Red Wings, and yes, the hated Green Bay Packers, as one of a select number of North American franchises with at least 10 league championships. The Bears came close to pulling it off one time since 1985 - in 2006, when they appeared in Super Bowl XLI - but were handily beaten by a better-prepared Indianapolis Colts team. The Bears just last season returned to the NFC Championship Game, but were defeated by arch rival Green Bay, who would go on to add to their collection of NFL titles and extending their lead over the Bears. The Bears, meanwhile, have drafted well and have a chance to win big in 2011 provided that there is a football season with the lockout in place. Until the next football season begins, Bears fans will be forced to feed off the left over energy of that shooting star that was the team and the aura of the 1985 season, as the rest of the 1980s and early 1990s failed to quench Chicago fans' thirst.
Tune in later, as I examine the 2006 team that went all the way to Super Bowl, only to fumble and stumble opportunities to cash in on the big stage.0 BEAR DOWN!, 0 High Fives, 0 Like, 0 Dislikes, 0 Fap, 0 Facepalm