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The '85 Bears
We Were The Greatest
By Mike Ditka, Rick Telander
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2015 Mike Ditka and Rick Telander
All rights reserved.
Where Are the Trucks?
The crowd was huge, half a million strong, and the plumes of condensed breath that came from the multitude of cheering mouths dissipated instantly in the stiff breeze.It was January 27, 1986, and downtown Chicago was frozen like a block of dry ice. The temperature was 8 degrees, with a windchill of 25 below zero. But the adoring masses were out to greet the returning heroes, direct from New Orleans, weather be damned. People barked like rabid dogs. They pounded their mittened hands in joy.
Less than 24 hours earlier the Bears had destroyed the New England Patriots in the Superdome 46–10, the largest margin of victory in any Super Bowl to that date. It wasn't a whipping; it was a humiliation. Consider, for instance, that starting Pats quarterback Tony Eason played all the way into the third quarter yet did not complete a pass.
"If I could crawl out of here," said Patriots linebacker Steve Nelson after the final whistle, "I would."
And the long-starved city of Chicago loved it. Bully for the bullies! On this manic Monday, Mike Ditka rose up through the sunroof of the limousine carrying him in the now-halted victory parade along LaSalle Street. There were hands to shake, supplicants to bless. His army of pilgrims was there, smiling and begging.
I stood up and, believe me, I wasn't hanging out there long. I was in a coat and tie and shades, and it was colder than frozen snot. I'd slept a little the night before, but not a whole lot. There was champagne that had to be drunk, and there was a team party. I did some TV show first thing in New Orleans when I got up — can't remember, Good Morning America or The Today Show or something — and then we got on the plane and there we were. All those people, and it was really, really cold. It was impressive. It would have been impressive if it had been 80 degrees out, but 25 below? It showed what our team meant to the city of Chicago. To all the Grabowskis.
See, Grabowski is the name I came up with for the players on our team, and it fit Chicago. I grew up in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a work-ethic community, where guys went to work with their lunch buckets, did their jobs, and came home with empty lunch buckets. So when we got ready for that second playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams, I said, "We're the Grabowskis, they're the Smiths." I didn't mean anything negative about race or nationality or any of that stuff. It's that we represented Chicago, a work-ethic place. It's just a name I pulled up. A Polish name. It could have been Jim Grabowski, it could have been Tom Grabowski. Hell, it could have been Tinker Bell Grabowski. It symbolized that we were the hard-hat guys. The other guys ride in limos. We ride in trucks.
Of course, there I was in a limo. But like I said, I was freezing my butt off, or at least the part of my body sticking out of the roof. We were all supposed to be in limos, 34 of them, but it was so cold that day, even with the sun shining bright, that most of the players were told to stay in the buses. I don't think they minded.
Some of the guys, like Super Bowl MVP Richard Dent, weren't with us. They were already flying to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. But I knew what Dent had said the night before: "If we're not one of the best teams of all time, I'd like to see the others."
Yeah, that got right to it. We finished 18–1. Fourteen times we held opponents to 10 points or less. We led the league in takeaways, yards given up, all kinds of stuff. Hell, 24 Bears players scored.
Me, I couldn't believe where I was. Mr. Halas had given me a chance. I don't think anybody else would have. There were people right in the Bears organization who didn't want me there, who thought I was the stupidest hire of all time. But Papa Bear had the say-so — he started the NFL! — and he gave me the job. I desperately wished he hadn't died two years before, so he could see me, see how I and the team had repaid him for his trust. Because this really was about a team, a group of guys who were kind of misfits who all fit together for that one time.
But, man, the cold! It was crazy.
And there I was, a Grabowski in a limo.
Game 1: Balky Beginning Turns Out Well
Chicago 38, Tampa Bay 28
A season of history began like anything but, with the underappreciated Bears offense bailing out the defense against what most considered a mediocre NFC Central opponent.
The Soldier Field crowd's expectations had been raised by a strong 10–6 season in 1984 followed by a playoff victory over Washington. But the Bears fell behind 28–17 at halftime as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, not the Bears, were the smashmouth team at the outset.
When it was over, Tampa Bay quarterback Steve DeBerg had thrown for three touchdowns to Jim McMahon's two, and Bucs running back James Wilder had outrushed Walter Payton 166 yards to 120. Wilder ran wild through a Buddy Ryan defense that was still feeling its way without Pro Bowl safety Todd Bell and defensive end Al Harris, both mired in contract impasses that would keep them out all season.
The Bucs scored first on a 1-yard pass to Calvin Magee, which the Bears answered with a 21-yard scoring pass from McMahon to Dennis McKinnon. But Kevin House scored from 44 yards out on another DeBerg pass. No one knew it then, but the Bucs would be the only team to score two first-quarter touchdowns against the Bears all season.
Jerry Bell gave the Bucs a 21–7 lead early in the second quarter on DeBerg's third scoring pass before a 1-yard McMahon run and a 38-yard Kevin Butler field goal brought the Bears within 21–17. However, Wilder powered into the end zone from 3 yards out for a 28–17 Tampa Bay lead at halftime. The defense then came to life and struck with what head coach Mike Ditka and others considered perhaps the most important play of the season.
Twenty-two seconds into the second half, cornerback Leslie Frazier read DeBerg's quick three-step drop and broke before the sideline pass was thrown. At the same time, defensive end Richard Dent detected signs of the play and drifted to his outside, into the path of the throw.
Dent deflected the pass, Frazier intercepted, and the result was a 29-yard interception return for a touchdown that ignited the Bears. The TD brought them back within 28-24 and shifted all the momentum to them.
They took the lead for good when Matt Suhey made a diving catch of a McMahon pass for a 9-yard score and sealed it when Shaun Gayle blocked a punt to set up a 1-yard McMahon plunge for the final touchdown.
Chicago 38, Tampa Bay 28
SEPT. 8, 1985, AT SOLDIER FIELD
BOTTOM LINE 21-point 2nd-half rally rescues season opener
KEY PLAY Leslie Frazier's 29-yard interception return for a touchdown at the start of the third quarter. It trimmed Tampa Bay's lead to 28–24 and sparked the comeback.
KEY STAT The Bears gained 436 total yards, their second-best showing all season.
No. 9, quarterback
"It amazes me that we didn't win four of them. We lost 11 games in four years and only won one Super Bowl."
"I haven't watched a game in years. I was a player, that's it."
"Like I told Ditka years ago, 'I don't care what you call, I just want the freedom when I get to the line of scrimmage, if it's not a good play, to get out of it.' That's what these guys don't do now. Nobody wants to take it on their shoulders to say, 'I'm not going to call that play. It's not going to work.' They can just go in the locker room after the game and go, 'Well, the coach called it.' They don't want to take any heat. That's another reason I don't watch it. A bunch of robots."
"We had our moments. [Ditka] was a tough coach. Had we played together, I think he would've understood me a little bit better, had he been in my huddle. I think he finally figured out that I knew what I was doing."
"I thought the best player I ever played against was Wilber Marshall, and that was every day in practice until he went to the Redskins."
"I think the people who meet me and spend some time with me know that I'm not the guy they see in the papers."
"The fans [in Green Bay and Chicago] are about the same — maybe a little more rabid in Green Bay, because there's nothing else to do, other than icefish, and I didn't do that."
"Bears fans always treated me well, even when I came back in a Green Bay Packers uniform. I got cheered. That's why I kept living in Chicago."
"Played with a lot of great people. That's what I remember — guys I played with, friends I made in the league. I just had a good time."CHAPTER 2
We'll Be Back!
Mike Singletary stood in back of the team bench at Candlestick Park, facing not the debacle being completed on the field behind him, but the jeering, sneering San Francisco fans.
"Nice game!" hostile voices screamed. A lot of them sounded very drunk. "The Bears suck!"
Singletary's nostrils were flared, and his glinting samurai eyes were wide and focused. He was breathing hard. The clock was running out on this NFC championship game between the Bears and the 49ers, and the Bears were being dissected 23–0. It was January 5, 1985, and Chicago's high hopes for its 1984 team were being crushed. No Super Bowl here. Maybe none ever.
"We'll be back!" Singletary, the Bears' Pro Bowl middle linebacker, yelled in a fevered Southern minister's voice, facing the enemy. "We'll be back! I guarantee you. We WILL be back!"
The crowd hooted and pelted Singletary with more verbal abuse. On the bench Walter Payton had sunken so low into himself it appeared he was shrinking. He may have been crying. He had carried the ball 22 times for 92 yards, and they were hard yards. On one barely successful fourth-and-one run he had to break three tackles — in his own backfield.
The Bears' offense was impotent. It had totaled but 186 net yards to the 49ers' 387. And of course, it couldn't score. The loss was complete, overwhelming, destructive. And humiliating. San Francisco coach Bill Walsh had briefly used a 280-pound guard, Guy McIntyre, in his backfield as a flattener. It wasn't illegal. In fact, it was semibrilliant. But it hurt.
The Bears thought they had a stellar defense, based on the hyper-aggressive "46" scheme. But 49ers quarterback Joe Montana had whipped it by taking three-step drops and throwing in less than two seconds. San Francisco receivers Freddie Solomon and Dwight Clark had 11 catches for 156 yards between them. Bears fill-in quarterback Steve Fuller passed for just 87 yards and was sacked an astounding nine times by a San Francisco defense that was more Bear-ish than the Bears.
Fans began pouring out of the stands before the clock had expired. It was going to get ugly. For the Bears. The refs called the game with two seconds remaining.
Even Singletary, eyes set in fury, ran for the exit.
My God, did we hurt. I don't think anybody can realize how much we hurt after that game. I take the blame for a lot of it, because I thought with our defense, all we'd have to do was stay close, run the ball, and our defense would give us a chance to win. That was wrong. I was wrong. We had to score points, be more aggressive.
I said at the time that we got a lot of lessons out there. In life, you either teach or you learn. Professor or student. I hoped we learned. I was outsmarted by Bill Walsh, their great coach. And I was embarrassed. But we had a couple things going against us, too. Things that had nothing to do with the 49ers.
Our safety Todd Bell had played a great game against the Washington Redskins the week before in our first round, which helped get us into this game — and this NFC title game was as deep into the playoffs as any Bears team had been since the Super Bowl started. But against San Francisco, Bell had to replace our injured right cornerback Les Frazier, and second-year sub Dave Duerson replaced Bell. Later, Bell and Duerson switched positions. Our other safety, Gary Fencik, had a good game with two interceptions. But we were unsettled back there. Neither Todd nor Dave was a cornerback.
Also, we were without Jim McMahon. He was our quarterback, our first-round pick in 1982, my first year. He was smaller than most quarterbacks, and he wasn't in great shape and he was feisty. And he was different. What I was already finding out was that he was going to be injured a lot, because of the way he played. He played balls out, all the time. He had already suffered a lacerated kidney, which in a way was just par for the course. We'd had four quarterback changes in just that 1984 season because of Jim, but I didn't blame him.
I mean, there was no question that he shortened his career because of the way he played. He butted heads with linemen, he ran, he dove, he hung on to the ball too long. He played the way a linebacker plays the game. He had no regard for his body. But I couldn't change him. It would have ruined him. His persona was to put the pedal to the metal, and I kind of liked that. But, man, the problems.
Fuller couldn't do anything in that NFC game, because we were playing catch-up most of the time, and they were laying for him. Steve was a great addition to our team, and tough as nails himself, but he wasn't McMahon.
Who was? I remember when McMahon first came to Chicago. We had just drafted him, and I was in the office with Jim Finks, the general manager at the time. McMahon walks into Halas Hall, and he's got a beer in his hand and a six-pack under his arm. I think it was Miller, but it might have been something else. He has a wad of tobacco under his lip, too. First thing he says is, "I was getting dry on the way in."
I look at Finks, and he looks at me. Oh, brother. But it was okay — I played the game, and I did my share of messing around, and it wasn't going to kill him. He had on a sport coat and slacks and sunglasses, of course. He had an eye that was damaged from when he was a kid — he accidentally stuck a fork in it or something — and he said he needed the shades for the pupil. Needed shades all the time. Fine.
After a while it was time for McMahon to talk to Halas. The Old Man was brutal. He'd only been with the team for 62 years. When I played, Halas did all the negotiations, all the contracts, everything. He was tougher than iron. He was mostly retired now, but he meets McMahon, and he looks at him and says, "You're not very big, you don't look very strong, your knees are lousy, you got a bad eye. I'm not going to pay you very much money."
McMahon looks at him, kind of curious. Maybe he yawned. He says, "I thought you drafted me."
Jim was something. Anyway, I knew we weren't bad enough to get shut out, 23-zip by the freaking 49ers. The guys knew it, too. In the locker room afterward I told them I'd take the blame for the mess. I thought we could shove the run at them. I thought we could bully them. I thought we were much more physical than they were. But I realized we would have to be creative and aggressive on offense next time, and we would have to score points.
Were we fighters or not?
And I couldn't forget how Walsh had this formation, and I looked in the backfield, and I'll be damned, there's a guard back there. That big old McIntyre. I said, "Okay. Good. Uh-huh." That stuck in my mind.
I'm talking to the team, and I tell them we will be back and we will play these guys again. I hadn't read it yet, but I know Walsh had a quote in the next day's paper where he said, "They have a great team. When they get their offense squared away with McMahon and get more experience with Fuller and the defensive backfield, I think next year they will be the team to beat."
That's fine. But I was mad as a sledgehammer. I had great respect for Bill. To a point.
I told the team, "We will beat these guys. You take care of the players next time, and I'll take care of the coach."
We had time to think about it. And fume.
Gary Fencik Remembers '85
Losing the 1984 NFC Championship Game to San Francisco
"We were only down six-zip at halftime and that's not much. But we were fortunate not to be down by a lot more, because we didn't have our starting quarterback in the game. I don't remember why Jim was out, but he was. Steve Fuller was in. It wasn't his fault. It was just a demoralizing loss. But the better team won. I went to the Super Bowl two weeks after that at Stanford, and the 49ers beat the Dolphins bad. With Dan Marino.
"From the Bears players' perspective that NFC Championship Game loss was devastating. It was so emotionally draining, and then we had to fly all the way back to Chicago. We were on that plane and it seemed like forever and it was no fun. But I had seen that the 49ers were a really good team. We all did. I think we learned from that.
Excerpted from The '85 Bears by Mike Ditka, Rick Telander. Copyright © 2015 Mike Ditka and Rick Telander. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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