No other team quite like the '85 Bears
Iconic team joined elite fraternity of teams identified by masterful season
It's the most exclusive fraternity imaginable, the tiniest handful of teams that are so great, so memorable, so once-in-a-lifetime rare that they will be identified forever simply by the season they authored their masterpieces.
The '27 Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig.
The '72 Dolphins and their perfect season.
The '80 U.S. Olympic Hockey team and its Miracle on Ice.
The '85 Chicago Bears and their defensive savagery of the NFL.
It's a list that excludes Auerbach's Celtics and Lombardi's Packers, Wooden's Bruins and Notre Dame's great football teams, Jordan's Bulls and Gretzky's Oilers, Jeter's Yankees and the Lakers of Jackson, Shaq and Kobe, because even in their sustained greatness those teams and seasons become, over time, somewhat indistinguishable to everybody save the locals who hang on every detail. I suppose the 1958 Baltimore Colts have a good argument for inclusion, but it's the championship game of that season that's more celebrated, and the same goes for the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, who are remembered more for Bill Mazerowski's famous home run than any kind of historic season.
The '72 Lakers in another year might make the list because of their record 33-game winning streak and because it was Jerry West's only championship and Wilt's last hurrah, but the Dolphins and their perfect season own 1972. And while to me (and I presume all Chicagoans of a certain age) it's the '69 Mets, the fact is everywhere else they're known as "The Miracle Mets" or the "Amazin'" Mets.
Moving forward, I suspect we can anticipate a new team will join the fraternity, one to which there should be no opposition: The '04 Red Sox, the team that broke the franchise's curse to win the World Series and beat the Yankees by becoming the first MLB squad to erase a 3-0 series deficit. Still, it's an intimate gathering of the greatest of the great teams and that '85 Bears team this week celebrates its silver anniversary of trashing the Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
No team in professional football history, certainly not the '72 Dolphins, was as irresistibly charismatic as the '85 Bears, the team that gave us the "Super Bowl Shuffle," a rambunctious rookie nicknamed "The Fridge," the rebellious Jim McMahon, the collaborative tension of Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan, the Sweetness of Walter Payton, the hijinks of Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael. As Steve Sabol of NFL Films recalled in a conversation this week, "That team had all these disparate personalities that maintained their individuality but still came together for this one season that was unlike anything anybody had ever seen. The phrase ''85 Bears' is one of the important phrases in NFL history; it's right there with the Immaculate Reception, The Catch, The Drive ..."
When the Bears of Lovie Smith and Brian Urlacher reached the Super Bowl at the end of the 2006 season, you could feel a bit of resentment come from that team because nothing they did could measure up, especially not in Chicago, to the '85 Bears, not on the field and not off it. Had the Bears beaten the Packers on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, the '10 Bears would have faced the same comparisons, the same questions. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, that 1985 Bears team is the most beloved team in the history of Chicago sports. Even the fact that the team, according to players such as Mike Singletary, got complacent and never won again helps isolate the '85 Bears as an unforgettable entity that could never be duplicated. Singletary has said the feeling from '85 could never be recaptured.
Sabol agrees, and says in the case of teams that had great runs like Lombardi's Packers, Walsh's 49ers and the great basketball dynasties of Auerbach and Wooden, "Nostalgia can be a tangled yarn. ... But not with the '85 Bears. They'll always be remembered and defined by that one extraordinary season. It's like J.D. Salinger writing one great book."
Sabol recalled NFL Films putting together a feature that year on Buddy Ryan's famed "46" defense. Ryan was going through exhaustive explanations on what and how the "46" did what it did to offenses, particularly to quarterbacks, when somebody in the room said, "Well, it's just an eight-man front, right coach?" Buddy shot back, "That's like saying Marilyn Monroe was just a girl."
The relationship between Ryan and Ditka, in and of itself, was filled with drama, like everything else that season. Ditka, when he didn't like one of Buddy's defensive assignments during that flaw-in-the-diamond loss to the Dolphins in Miami, challenged Ryan to take it out back behind the Orange Bowl. "The relationship between Buddy and Mike was so much a part of what you remember," Sabol said. "And Mike had that blow-torch spirit that ignited the whole team."
When else in sports history has a team carried two coaches off the field?
While Jordan's championship teams, all six of them, had an elegance that highlighted and probably helped further establish a certain sophistication about Chicago, the Bears tapped into Chicago's pride over physical toughness in a way nothing else ever had. The Bears knocked out every pretty boy quarterback they faced that season, or so it seemed.
Every Chicagoan, probably every Bears fan regardless of civic affiliation, has a favorite moment from that '85 season. Mine was when the Bears went to Dallas and trashed the division-winning Cowboys 44-0 in Texas Stadium. It has to be the most humiliating defeat in Cowboys history and in Tom Landry's storied tenure. They knocked both Danny White and Steve Pelluer out of the game, and there's this one image of Landry on the sideline trying to talk White into going back into the game.
The Cowboys were literally physically afraid to play the Bears that afternoon. I was a grown man, 26 years old and already a sportswriter, and I remember thinking, first, that this was as empowered as Chicago would ever be by one of its teams and, second, that I'd never see anything like it again. And I haven't. We haven't. The antidote to the "46", the "West Coast" offense, was already being concocted and coaches necessarily changed the nature of offense to counter the mayhem the Bears' defense created. The game had to change or Buddy Ryan would have put quarterbacks on the list of endangered species.
I was with Joe Theismann one night about 10 years ago, and we started talking about defense. That always becomes a delicate topic when you're talking with Theismann because his leg was famously cracked and his career ended by Lawrence Taylor on a Monday night for the nation to see. So it surprised me when Theismann said what he still dreamed of, what literally caused him nightmares years after he retired, was the Bears' "46" defense, which rumbled through his Redskins in the '84 playoffs and again in the '85 regular season. "I can still see them now," Theismann said, and he began pointing at an imaginary 11 in front of him and reciting their names: "Richard Dent, Fridge, McMichael, Hampton ... Otis Wilson, Singletary, Wilber Marshall, Leslie Frazier, Gary Fencik, Dave Duerson, Mike Richardson." It was like Theismann was seeing ghosts, and for a quarterback on the Bears' schedule in 1985 that's probably what they were.
The two playoff games were relatively unexciting compared to the regular season, except that it was so appropriate that the Bears trashed teams from New York (the Giants) and Los Angeles (the Rams) to reach the Super Bowl. The '85 Bears and Michael Jordan put an end to any "Second City" feelings of inferiority Chicago might have had about New York. All these years later, the room tilts when a member of the '85 Bears, particularly one of the defensive players, walks into a Chicago restaurant. That Dent, the most destructive force on a team predicated on killing the QB, isn't already in the Hall of Fame is simply wrong. Being voted into Canton on the 25th anniversary is the least the selection committee can do to make it right and enshrine one of the best defensive ends ever.
Even though that team didn't achieve perfection the way the '72 Dolphins did, the '85 Bears dominated opponents in a way the NFL hadn't seen, and a way the league will never see now that protecting the quarterback and reducing violence have become a primary agenda. The '85 Bears, quite simply, couldn't play in today's NFL. They'd be X-rated and outlawed. It's now a museum piece, part of NFL history not unlike the T-formation or Packer sweep. We're left then with film clips, memories and wonderfully entertaining stories about not just one of the great teams in pro football history, but one of the most identifiable teams to play anything, anytime, anywhere.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.