Now that the week after hip-replacement surgery is past, and at least some of the meds are out of my system (not all the metal, though; I’m never getting through TSA on one pass again, not with this metallurgy in my shoulder, knee and now my hip), it’s a chance to really look over the “Top 100” Bears player list that the organization commissioned ink-stained wretches Don Pierson and Dan Pompei to compile.
With 100 players in those ranking slots, plus another 15 or so who arguably could’ve made the list, a hefty basket of takeaways was easy, a lot easier than a whole lot of the decisions that went into the list. Here are just a few….
The list is tremendous, outstanding. How could it not be? This ranking wasn’t put together by just two guys who covered the team for a lot of years. It was put together by THE two reporters who’ve covered this organization personally directly for a good half of its existence, and by extension for more than that.
But it’s more than time on the job. You need to first understand that Dan and Don both served many, many years as selectors for the Hall of Fame, which means that a critical role in their work involved in-depth evaluations of greatness and shades of excellence. Nobody did it better, which is why both of them are themselves in the NFL’s HOF. They’ve been the actual presenters to the electors of Bears candidates like Dan Hampton (Don), Brian Urlacher (Dan) and myriad others.
Meaning: It’s been part of their “jobs” to do the most exhaustive evaluations of Bears players. Nobody knows these players as well as the reporters who did this list. Nobody. Period. Virginia McCaskey maybe? Well, Dan and Don had 15 hours – hours – of exclusive time with Mrs. McCaskey, and what she thought is folded into the rankings.
Last point of perspective on the guys: I’ve covered the Bears for going on 30 years. When I started on the beat in 1992, Don was the platinum standard, a true “writer” who just happened to write about sports. He was my template for how to do this job: do original research on angles outside the lines, then write stories, don’t just string quotes together.
And I learned how to do the beat-writer job from getting my butt kicked every day by Dan, wondering too many mornings, “How did he ever get THAT?” and making it a goal to get something, anything that Dan didn’t have.
But this is all just context.
The top five – Payton, Butkus, Nagurski, Luckman, Sayers – are spot-on “right.” Luckman or Nagurski 4-3 or 3-4, whatever, but that’s splitting hairs, like who’s the better composer, Beethoven or Mozart? Nagurski is my own No. 3 as well.
Ditka at No. 6 works; an all-time NFL great who redefined a position. The tweak here would be to move Brian Urlacher from the No. 14 where Dan and Don placed him, up to No. 7. That spot was accorded Bill George, and George rates roughly there in this writer’s assessments; George also redefined – created, actually – a position, and at 6-foot-2, 237 pounds, was every bit the physical equivalent of Lance Briggs, Ray Lewis, Danny Trevathan and such. I saw Bill George play; dominant.
But the Urlacher boost comes from an evaluation as one of the two or three best pure football players this observer has seen. Also redefined a position; he WAS the designer middle linebacker and NFC rookie of the year for both the one-gap, speed-based Cover-2 of Lovie Smith, and was NFL defensive player of the year in the two-gap, massive 4-3 scheme of Greg Blache. George created the middle linebacker role as an answer to quarterbacks dropping short passes over the middle guard; Urlacher was better in coverage and faster all around.
Urlacher belongs at No. 7, and everyone then just drops down one slot: George 8, Bulldog Turner 9, Doug Atkins 10, Danny Fortmann 11, Dan Hampton 12, Richard Dent 13, Jimbo Covert 14. Hampton higher because he was the best player on the greatest defense in history? No; Dan himself told me that Wilber Marshall was the single best player on that unit.
(Fortmann raised some eyebrows, but having interviewed the HOF guard and many of his surviving teammates in 1990 for a story on the 73-0 game, he belongs as one of the four members of the 1940 team in the top 11.)
The question with Jay Cutler’s No. 85 ranking isn’t why not higher, but rather why so high?
Cutler wasn’t even the best quarterback on the roster through all of his eight Bears seasons. Coaches in 2013 wanted to leave him on the bench when he was ready to return from a torn groin muscle and stay with Josh McCown. They were overruled.
But Cutler failed even to qualify for then-general manager and Jay-champion Phil Emery’s “elite” designation (any quarterback with a winning record). Cutler was 51-51 as a Bear. Talent wasn’t the problem; but the list wasn’t about talent so much as what was done with it. Cutler was the same middle-of-the-pack guy when he was throwing to Earl Bennett, Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, Roy Williams and Kellen Davis in 2011 as he was with Martellus Bennett, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte a couple years later.
Not sure I see Bill Wade (No. 69) as a top-70 player. A competent quarterback, but Tommie Harris (73), Kyle Long (74) and Akiem Hicks (75), for instance, all rate considerably higher than “competent”….
Alex Brown bumps Doug Plank (99) out of the top 100, but I like Pat Mannelly, one of the truly great specialists as a long snapper, finishing off the list. AB was under-appreciated as an edge player, who bulked way up to fit the Blache two-gap lineman mold, then prospered back at his 250-260-pound range once Lovie Smith arrived. Brown was simply a better football player than Plank….
William Perry was an interesting case. Teammates, beginning with Jay Hilgenberg, who went against Fridge daily, said Perry could have annihilated him at will, could’ve done in a long list of O-linemen. But Perry just didn’t have that gene, which is why he was never a Pro Bowl performer. Or on the top-100 list….Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.