The Chicago Bears have been a part of the National Football League since its inception in 1920, when it was known the American Professional Football Association.
The Bears originally were located in Decatur, Illinois, but the team had moved to Chicago by 1921. Interestingly, the only two original NFL teams still in business were the two Chicago teams of the time: the Bears and Cardinals. The two teams would be cross-town rivals for 40 years, but the Bears would win the battle for the hearts and minds of Chicago sports fans.
The Chicago Bears started play as the Decatur Staleys, named for the A.E. Staley Company which owned the team in 1919. A.E. Staley was based in Decatur. When the team moved to Chicago in 1921, it became known as the Chicago Staleys. In 1922, the team changed its name to the Chicago Bears, in reference to the baseball Chicago Cubs who shared the Bears’ stadium in those days, Wrigley Field.
George S. Halas
A.E. Staley hired George Halas and Edward Sternaman, usually known as Dutch Sternaman, to operate the ballclub. A year later, Halas purchased the rights to the franchise from Staley for a simple $100. In the early twenties, the two most consistently successful teams were the Bears and the Chicago Cardinals, though the Chicago Bears were able to capture only one league title in the 1920′s, in 1921. Confusing league scheduling rules and the lack of a playoff system meant the Bears were unable to win titles, though many considered them the best team at the time.
Red Grange: The Galloping Ghost
In 1925, Halas signed Red Grange, aka the Galloping Ghost, to the Bears roster. Grange is arguably the greatest college football player of all time, leading the Four Horsemen lineup that Knute Rockne fielded for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in the early twenties.
Grange was the star attraction of a barnstorming tour the Chicago Bears took that year, adding much publicity to the NFL. In an age where college football was a more popular sport than pro football, the addition of the most famous college football player of all time added much luster to the National Football League.
Unfortunately, Red Grange and Halas had a contract dispute in 1926, and Grange left the team to start his own league, the American Football League, with his own team, the New York Yankees. This first incarnation of the AFL lasted only one year, though Grange’s personal team, the Yankees, joined the NFL in 1927. Grange would suffer a major knee injury in a 1927 game against the Bears, and he would not play again until 1929.
When Red Grange returned to football, he would rejoin the Chicago Bears lineup, where he would team with Bronko Nagurski to form one of the most dangerous tandems in NFL history. This Bears team won the league title in 1932 and 1933, and defeated the Chicago Cardinals in an unofficial playoff in 1930 which does not count towards their title total.
In 1934, the Bears were once again the best team in the NFL, but the Bears were defeated in the title game by the New York Giants in the famous "Sneakers Game". The Bears chose to wear the standard cleats on an ice field, but the Giants chose to wear sneakers. This gave the Giants an advantage, because the sneakers gave them better traction in the conditions.
The Chicago Bears would challenge for the title again in 1937, which happened to be Bronko Nagurski’s last year with the team. (Besides 1943, when he came out of retirement for one last campaign.) The Bears would lose the 1937 title game to Slingin’ Sammy Baugh and the Washington Redskins. After Nagurski’s retirement, the team had a couple of down years in 1938 and 1939.
1939 was the first year that Sid Luckman played for the Chicago Bears. Luckman would be their star quarterback until 1950. In the first years of Luckman’s career, the Bears dominated the NFL. During the years from 1940 until 1946, the Bears won four of the five league championships in which they played.
The most famous was the 1940 league title game, when the Bears unleashed their new T-formation on the luckless Washington Redskins. The Bears beat the Skins 73-0 that day, and the T-formation would revolutionize American football. The Bears title in these years would come in 1940, 1941, 1943 and 1946, while the team lost the championship game in 1942. It was in these years that the team came to be known as the Monsters of the Midway.
The Bad Years
After the 1946 title, the Bears would experience a long title drought, collecting only one league championship in 40 years. Over the decades, the Chicago Bears fielded many iconic players, such as Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka and Gale Sayers, but they never had any sustained success. The 1963 Chicago Bears won the NFL Title Game just days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and in fact won the title on the same day that Lee Harvey Oswald was shot.
The 1965 Chicago Bears
In the 1965 season, the team added three all-time great Chicago Bears. The team drafted Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers in the NFL Draft, while Brian Piccolo joined the team as an undrafted free agent. Butkus and Sayers are still considered among the best at their respective positions in the history of the NFL, while Piccolo died tragically of cancer at the age of 26. The story of Piccolo’s disease and his friendship with Gale Sayers was depicted in the movie Brian’s Song.
Despite a Hall of Fame talent on both offense (Sayers) and defense (Butkus), the Bears were unable to win consistently.
Sayers’ career was cut short by catastrophic knee injuries in a time when knee injuries could not be repaired as they are today. Sayers scored 22 touchdowns in his rookie season, which was an NFL record at the time. He would be a star until 1968, when he suffered his first major knee injury.
Despite being slowed the remainder of his career, Sayers would return in 1969 and win the league rushing title. Where before, Sayers broke off long, spectacular runs, the 1969 campaign required Sayers to make yards the hard way, with grit and guts between the tackles.
In 1970, Sayers suffered a second major knee injury, this time to his other knee. 1970 was also the year in which Brian Piccolo died. Sayers would make another attempt at a comeback in 1971, but this ended after setbacks in preseason which showed he had lost his skills. Sayers would retire to become the executive of a computer company.
1967 was the last year that George S. Halas would coach the Chicago Bears. He would end his career as the all-time winningest NFL coach, a mark that would only be surpassed in subsequent years by Don Shula of the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins.
The Chicago Bears would continue their struggles into the 1970′s. Four years after the retirement of Gale Sayers, the Bears drafted another runner with their first pick. The new runner would be Walter Payton, who went on to capture the NFL all-time record for Career Rushing Yards. Jim Brown had previously held the record. Payton played on bad football teams for the first half of his career, making his record all the more impressive.
Still, the Chicago Bears of the 1970′s were bad for most of the decade, despite Peyton’s brilliance.
Iron Mike Ditka
Mike Ditka became the Chicago Bears head coach in 1982. Ditka was a Hall of Fame tight end for the Bears and Dallas Cowboys, and had been a star on the Bears last title team in 1963. In the years prior to his hiring, Ditka had been an assistant coach on Tom Landry’s staff in Dallas.
Ditka would lead one of the most colorful Superbowl champions in 1985, after he had assembled a tough team around his star, Walter Peyton. Ditka brought in Jim McMahon, a screwball quarterback known for wearing sunglasses anytime he was off the field and headbands with funny sayings on them. At one time, he wore a headband with NFL Commissioner Rozelle’s name on it, the week after Rozelle had fined McMahon.
Mike Ditka also brought in Buddy Ryan to coach his defense. The two built a defense around such stars as defensive end Richard Dent, defensive tackle William "the Refridgerator" Perry and LBs Mike Singletary and Wilbur Marshall. In the 1985 season, this defense would put on one of the most dominating performances in the history of the NFL.
The 46 Defense
Buddy Ryan unveiled his 46 Defense, which brought blitzers from unexpected places and often tried to unbalance one side of the field, overwhelming the offensive line at one key location. This risky scheme was deadly once the Bears assembled the talent to implement it. A few games into the season, people around the league knew something special was happening in Chicago.
The SuperBowl Shuffle
During the season, many Bears players got together to film a music video called the Superbowl Shuffle. Players such as William Perry, Jim McMahon, Walter Payton and Willie Gault rapped and danced, bragging about their talents and their run to the Superbowl. Sure enough, the team easily ran through the competition in the NFC Playoffs, posting two shutouts.
William Perry was a rookie defensive tackle in 1985. Mike Ditka began bringing the 300+ pound Perry in to block on goal line plays. Eventually, he began handing the ball to Perry in certain situations. When he scored a few times, Perry became a national celebrity.
Sweetness Breaks the Record
Walter Payton broke the All-Time NFL Career Rushing Record in 1984. He surpassed Jim Brown, and would only be surpassed by Emmitt Smith nearly twenty years later. By 1985, Payton was a fading star, with his best years clearly behind him. Sweetness, as he was often called, still had enough to lead a Bears offesne which still relied mainly on the run. Payton’s only regret would be that he missed scoring a touchdown in his only Super Bowl, though the game was a 45-10 blowout of the New England Patriots.
The Remaining Ditka Years
In characteristic fashion, the Chicago Bears were colorful and controversial in their post-Superbowl celebration. The offensive players carried Ditka off on their shoulders, while the defensive unit carried off Buddy Ryan. When Ryan left to coach the Philadelphia Eagles in the offseason, the magic of the Bears defense seemed to leave with him. No doubt, the Bears defense would be one of the best in the league for the next several seasons, but it could never match what in did in the ’85.
The team would make the playoffs five of the next six seasons, but it never made it back to the Superbowl. In 1986 and 1987, the Washington Redskins knocked off the Chicago Bears in the divisional playoffs.
The Fog Bowl
In 1988, the Bears made it back to the NFC Championship Game, but they were defeated by the eventual Superbowl champions, the San Francisco 49ers.
A moment of triumph in the 1988-1989 playoffs was the Fog Bowl. The game pitted Mike Ditka’s Bears against Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles at Soldier Field. The former coaching colleagues wanted to put the other out of the playoffs, but a thick fog complicated the challenge. Randall Cunningham threw for more than 400 yards, but also threw 3 touchdowns. In a mild upset, the Bears went on to knock the Eagles out of the playoffs, and Ditka won bragging rights over Buddy Ryan.
1989 Chicago Bears Flop
In 1989, the Bears missed the playoffs entirely, but they were back in 1990 to play the New York Giants. These Bears would be led by Jim Harbaugh and Neil Anderson in place of Jim McMahon and Walter Payton, and they would lose in the divisional playoffs, too. Chicago Bears fans were highly critical of what they considered squandered years for the Bears, but the team had been knocked out of the playoffs by the Superbowl champ in 3 of the 5 years after 1985.
When the team lost a wildcard playoff game at home to the Dallas Cowboys in 1991, the writing was on the wall. Younger teams like the Cowboys were passing the aging Bears by. The Bears would fall to 5-11 the next year, and Mike Ditka would leave the franchise.
The Post-Ditka Years
The Chicago Bears after Mike Ditka have been generally disappointing. They have made the playoffs only five times since Ditka left. High draft picks like Rashan Salaam, Curtis Enis, David Terrell and Cade McNown have been failures, sometimes due to injuries, but often due to nothing more than being ineffective.
Dave Wannstedt was NFL Coach of the Year in 1994, and Dick Jauron was NFL Coach of the Year in 2001. But these were the only years these coaches led the Bears to the playoffs, so they were considered general disappointments by NFL Chicago Bears fans.
In 2004, the Chicago Bears hired Lovie Smith as their head coach. Smith had gotten rave reviews as the Defensive Coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the St. Louis Rams, where he had installed Tony Dungy’s Cover-2 or Tampa-2 Defense. The Bears were 5-11 in Lovie’s first year in Chicago, but he coached them to an 11-5 record and NFC North Title in 2005. Smith was named NFL Coach of the Year for his work.
2006 Superbowl Season
The 2006 Chicago Bears went to the Superbowl. Like the ’85 Chicago Bears, they were led there by their defense. In fact, the ’06 defense put up such impressive numbers that some fans actually compared the two units. Led by Brian Urlacher and Tommie Harris, the Bears won homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Bears offensive production was spotty. Quarterback Rex Grossman was much-maligned, despite a quick start and games where he threw multiple touchdowns to targets like Muhsin Muhammed, Bernard Berrian and Desmond Clark. Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson added a solid if unspectacular running back combination.
The real breakout star of the 2006 season was Devin Hester. Hester was a rookie defensive back who was only a backup on the unit. His real value was in the kicking game, where he turned the tide in several games with amazing punt returns for touchdowns. Hester would continually give the Bears offense a boost when it most needed it.
This team defeated the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints in Chicago to advance to the Superbowl. Once there, the Bears lack of offense finally caught up to them, as their defense played valiantly in a rain storm in Miami, but was unable to hold down Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts offense for the entire game.
The 2007 Chicago Bears season was a major disappointment, as injuries took their toll on the defensive unit. Rex Grossman was eventually replaced at quarterback by Brian Griese, who wasn’t much better. Thomas Jones had left the team in free agency for the New York Jets, and Cedric Benson was ineffective as the sole ball carrier. Hester continued to be impressive, but this was hardly enough to make a difference.
The 2008 Chicago Bears will be trying to come back to their ’06 levels. The defense should be better with an offseason to get healthy. Whether the offense will improve is anybody’s guess.