Who Is To Blame For The Bears Not Winning Multiple Super Bowls In The Eighties?

In a story out of ESPN Chicago, Richard Dent pointed the blame for the Bears not winning more than one Super Bowl in the 1980’s squarely on Mike Ditka.  This accusation comes 28 years after the Bears won their lone title of the Super Bowl era and twenty years since Ditka has coached the Bears.  So, the question I’m asking is:  Why didn’t the Bears win more than one title in the 1980’s?

Lets start at the top.  George Halas

He fired Head Coaches Jack Pardee and Neill Armstrong while retaining Defensive Coordinator Buddy Ryan, which basically making him untouchable while effectively hamstringing whoever would be hired as the new head coach.  Naming staff positions before hiring their boss can cause a rift in the chain of command while giving the players mixed messages about who is in charge.  With that structure in place, success is possible, but continuing success is not.

Buddy Ryan and Mike Ditka

The above situation wasn’t easy for two very strong-willed football coaches to deal with, and they didn’t make it any easier on each other.  Their reported scuffles in the locker room of the game at Miami that year (which the Bears were losing 31-10 at halftime) have the tendency to polarize a team.  Everybody takes a side in their own mind, regardless of what they say out loud, and the play on the field is affected.  Also, it didn’t help that the defense carried Buddy Ryan off the field following Super Bowl XX.  That one image showed everybody watching that this team was polarized.

The Bears’ Offense

Take a look at the offense of the ’85 team again.  They don’t pass the eye test.  The offense always looked a little clunky and disjointed.  They were the second-highest scoring offense in the NFL that year, but they were wholly dependent on one player.  The Bears’ offense in 1985 (and for the decade previous for that matter) began and ended with Walter Payton.  He had the third-best rushing year of his career with 1551 yards, led the team in receptions with 49, and also threw a touchdown pass to Jim McMahon against Washington.  Willie Gault had more receiving yards that season, but had only 33 receptions (an average of just two per game for the team’s best wideout).  Dennis McKinnon on the other side had just 31 catches for 555 yards for the year.  The offense fumbled 24 times and threw 16 interceptions.  The only reason this offense ever made headlines was because of Jim McMahon’s antics, or the goal-line plunges of William “the Refrigerator” Perry.  The Bears were not an explosive team on offense (I don’t think you could ever accuse the Bears offense of being explosive for about a sixty-year period). The offense was mostly taking advantage of good field position provided by the defense that year.

Following 1985, Payton only played for two more seasons, the last of which was a strike year (1987), which resulted in Payton and most of the rest of the regular players only playing three-quarters of a season.  McMahon was often injured (albeit, not always by fault of his own), but also wrote a book during that time where he called out his college (BYU), his parents, the league, team ownership, and management.  That’s not leadership that you would expect from a multiple Super Bowl-winning quarterback.  Also, take a look at all of the other quarterbacks that won Super Bowls ten years before and after the Bears in 1985.

  • Terry Bradshaw (4)
  • Ken Stabler
  • Roger Staubach (2)
  • Jim Plunkett (2)
  • Joe Theismann (one win, one loss)
  • Joe Montana (4)
  • Jim McMahon
  • Phil Simms (one win, injured for rest of the season in 1990 after starting with an 11-3 record)
  • Doug Williams
  • Jeff Hostetler
  • Mark Rypien
  • Troy Aikman  (3)

Do you really think Jim McMahon belongs in the same group as Bradshaw, Staubach, Plunkett, Montana, and Aikman?  The Bears had enough offense in ’85 to put a run together, but they weren’t built for dynasty-like success, which brings me to my next point:

The Bears’ schedule

The planets aligned for the Bears to go on a run.  Let’s look at the rest of the NFC powers in 1985.  The Giants were upstarts that were still a year away from greatness.  The Redskins were a team in transition with Jay Schroeder taking over at quarterback after Joe Theismann had his leg snapped in half by Lawrence Taylor.  San Francisco limped into the playoffs with an ailing Joe Montana, who told John Madden that he thought Matt Cavanaugh should start in their playoff game against the Giants because Montana had a bandage on just about every joint in his body.  The rest of the NFC Central was miserable.  Dallas was in the playoffs, but they were definitely a team in decline and a shell of their former self.  We’ll get to the Rams in just a second.  What’s the point of this?  1985 was a year when the rest of the NFC had to stop and reload.  In 1985, the Bears were not a dynasty in the making, just opportunistic.

The second half of the Bears’ schedule was as follows:  @Green Bay, Detroit, @Dallas, Atlanta, @Miami, Indianapolis, @New York Jets, and @ Detroit.  They faced such accomplished quarterbacks as Eric Hipple, Joe Ferguson, Jim Zorn (GB), Gary Hogeboom, David Archer, Mike Pagel, and Ken O’Brien.  In his defense, O’Brien did make the Pro Bowl that year, but he did have the reputation for taking sacks instead of throwing the ball away (He was sacked 62 times in ’85).

The Giants played their playoff game against the Bears like they were spooked after Sean Landeta whiffed on a punt in the first quarter.  You could tell watching that game that the Giants lost just about all of their confidence following that play.  The Giants tried to just take what the 46 gave them, and they were stymied.  The Bears walked away with a relatively easy 21-0 win.

Then came the NFC Championship against the LA Rams.  The Rams were a completely one-dimensional team which was dependent upon the running of Eric Dickerson.  Proof of this?  Dieter Brock was the quarterback.  He had a very successful career in the CFL before joining the Rams for the ’85 season (and only the ’85 season), but could not be expected to pick apart the Bears’ defense.  Teams that are wholly dependent on one player are usually not Lombardi Trophy material.  Dickerson carried the Rams on his back that year, but he also led the league in fumbles (for non-quarterbacks) with ten, and he followed suit in the NFC Championship with three.  The Bears held him to 46 yards rushing, and held Brock to 10 of 31 passing for  66 yards and an interception.  Nobody wins in the NFL with those numbers, and it also meant the Bears’ offense didn’t have to do much to ensure victory (they only gained 238 yards and scored twice).

And we all know about the carnage that was Super Bowl XX.  The Bears’ defense came out on an emotional high after learning the night before that their Defensive Coordinator, Buddy Ryan, had taken the Eagles’ head coaching job.  They dominated the Patriots’ offense like no other offense had ever been dominated in the Super Bowl.

What about the rest of the NFC?

Look at what the Bears did in the playoffs previously and thereafter.  In 1984, they were shut out 23-0 by one of the greatest teams of the Super Bowl era NFL, the ’84 San Francisco 49ers.  In both 1986 and ’87, they were beaten at home by the Washington Redskins in the Divisional round.  In 1988, they would beat Buddy Ryan’s Eagles 20-12 in the “Fog Bowl”, and they were 6-10 and missed the playoffs in 1989.  The Redskins, 49ers, and Giants all fixed their problems from ’85 (most of which had to do with injury), whereas the Bears never improved, especially the offense.

In each of these years, the defense continued their dominant play, but the offense didn’t get any better.  Statistically, the defense was actually better in 1986, after Buddy Ryan’s departure. than it was in 1985.  The problem was that the offense slipped from second in the league in scoring to thirteenth.   They lost their home playoff game against Washington because they couldn’t generate offense, and the defense didn’t make the stops when they were needed.

You couldn’t blame any team for under-performing in 1987 because it was a strike year, and three games were played by (mostly) replacement players.  Also, many teams in the NFL had locker room problems once the strike ended because some players crossed the picket lines.  After the 49ers got healthy in 1988, there was no team in the NFL that could stop them (including the Bears at Soldier Field).  The 49ers team of 1989 is arguably one of the best NFL teams in the modern [Super Bowl] era.

There is little to no doubt that the Bears were the best team in the NFL in 1985.  There are very few years in which it is uncontested who the best team in the NFL was that year.  The Bears operated on brute force, which will result in a lot of wins, but in that time period it wasn’t enough to win multiple titles.  The eighties was when the passing game in the NFL really started to open up after the 1978 rule changes.  There is a reason why six quarterbacks were drafted in the first round of the 1983 draft.  The seventies were about running backs and defense.  The eighties were about quarterbacks.  The Bears took their window of opportunity and made the most of it while the rest of the NFC was nursing injuries or in transition from one quarterback to the other.

So, if the Bears didn’t dominate an era, why are they so celebrated?

First of all, they are the only Super Bowl-winning team of the third-largest media market in the country.  Chicago’s other teams hadn’t seen a title in almost seventy years.  The Bulls were still a few years away from seeing Michael Jordan’s six titles, the White Sox wouldn’t win a World Series until 2005, and the Cubs’ futility is well-documented.  Super Bowl XX was the only thing long-suffering Chicago-area fans had to hang their hat on.

Secondly, NFL Films had built them up to legendary status.  There have been countless documentaries on the Bears and their 46 Defense, most of them focusing on the 1985 season.  The misleading part is that they have taken a decade’s worth of highlights and compressed them into a half-hour program.  The ’85 team is the one that reached the ultimate goal, but not everything they show is from the ’85 season, and fan think of it in their minds as all being the ’85 Bears.  Case in point:  the NFL Network Top Ten Series recapped the Top Ten single-season defenses of all time.  In their clip, they showed a clip against the Washington Redskins that was being played on grass.  The Bears did play the Redskins in ’85, but it was at Soldier Field.  On AstroTurf.  I don’t think they are intentionally trying to mislead, but it’s like giving a Pro Bowl roster spot to Peyton Manning or Michael Vick because of their great play in past seasons.

What are the enduring images of the ’85 Bears team?  Swarming sacks by the Bears’ defense, quarterbacks running for their lives, Joe Ferguson of Detroit lying motionless on the field, The Fridge’s first touchdown against the Packers on Monday Night Football, Wilbur Marshall returning a fumble for a touchdown against the Rams with the snow coming down (and the Bears’ radio crew cheering him on), and the dominance over the Patriots in the Super Bowl.  Most of these moments are somewhat manufactured.  They come from documentaries, and are not shown as they were originally broadcasted (the exception being Fridge’s touchdown against the Packers; they keep the Monday Night announcing crew for that one).  The memories of this team are akin to “the longer ago it’s been, the better you were”.  If you were to go back and watch the old games in their entirety, you might be a little disappointed.

In response to Richard Dent, wouldn’t it be more fair to say that the NFC powers of the time (Giants, Redskins, and 49ers) had a more complete package than the Bears did?  You can’t place all that on Ditka’s shoulders.  There’s more than enough blame to go around.

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7 Responses to Who Is To Blame For The Bears Not Winning Multiple Super Bowls In The Eighties?

  1. You make some interesting points, and the Bears were far from a model franchise. But let’s not forget the fact that the Bears were 14-2 in 1986 and probably were the best team in the NFL before that cheating scumbag Charles Martin knocked McMahon out for the season with his late, illegal, cowardly body slam.

    I’ve never been a big McMahon fan, but he was definitely better than his stats indicate. He was a gamer, came up big in big games and in clutch situations. (In some ways he’s similar to Cutler today, who curretnly leads the NFL in 4th quarter QB rating despite rather pedestrain stats overall.)

    I will go to my grave saying the Bears would have repeated in 1986 were it not for one of the dirtiest plays in football history. And that’s also why I will hate the Green Bay Packers for the rest of my life.

    • I agree, Martin’s hit was one of the worst, most intentional dirty plays in NFL history, and no one deserves that fate. McMahon was also constantly injured (probably due to his style of play) prior to that play, though. What’s to say that he would have stayed healthy throughout the ’86 season? He hadn’t ever stayed healthy previously.

      As always, thanks for the comments. I always enjoy when people have insightful criticism (really, I do).

      • You’re absolutely right, McMahon was extremely injury prone, which is one reason he can never be considered an elite QB. But the Martin hit took place in late November, so the odds of him making it through the season are much better.

        As I said, I’m not a big fan of McMahon (too much of a jackass for my tatse) but the guy was a winner. According to Pro Football Reference, between 1984 and 1988 when McMahon was the starting QB the Bears went 36-5 (.878 win %); when he was out, which was a whole lot, they went 26-12 (.684). Obviously it’s small sample, but I doubt many QBs have ever had a run that good.

  2. As a follow up, remember that the McMahon injury led to the dreaded “Flutie experiment.”

    We can debate the stupidity of Ditka’s infatuation with Flutie, but it’s not like he would have done much better with Mike Tomczak at QB. Neither QB was of McMahon’s caliber, and it forced the Bears to be even more reliant on Payton and the defense. Ultimately it was too much to overcome.

    This raises an interesting question: how many backup QBs have led a team to Super Bowl glory? Jeff Hostetler is the only one I can think of who came in late in the year and carried the team to the title. Kurt Warner came off the bench as well, but he assumed the starting role after Trent Green went down in the preseason, so it really was Warner’s team by pretty early in the season. Am I forgetting anyone else?

    • What’s the definition of leading your team to the Super Bowl? Len Dawson missed a lot of time in ’69, Bob Griese was out most of the season in ’72, and Vince Ferragamo was a backup for the Rams in ’79 (even though they lost the SB). It could be argued that Doug Williams was a backup for the Skins in ’87 as they had invested in Jay Schroeder. You’re right about Hostetler, but I would include Kurt Warner on that list because he was basically a backup playing the whole season (also with virtually no NFL experience prior). I would even have to put Trent Dilfer and Tom Brady (but only the Pats’ first one) on that list because they took over during the regular season(s).

      • Excellent points, I guess I meant when the backup has to come in later in the season and carry the team to the Super Bowl. You know that moment when you lose your starting QB and say to yourself, “Well, it’s all over now,” and then the backup surprises you by winning anyway?

  3. PGM says:

    The 1985 Bears were every bit as they say they were….I remember that year well…and none of the history was ‘manufactured’….the belief that the offense was not great is only somewhat justified…they were the no.1 rushing offense in the NFL and McMahon did miss several games due to injury…but although he was never a hall of fame caliber QB…he was opportunistic when he had to be. It is difficult to know for certain how the offense would have been after 1985 had McMahon been healthy the rest of his career.

I do appreciate other viewpoints, so please comment

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