"One for the ages" is usually cliche'd, overused hyperbole.
But 30 years ago it was a fitting characterization of the 1985 Chicago Bears, a team-for-the-ages concoction of talent, personality, eccentricity and ego that transcended their sport and stands the test of time as one unlike any other team that came before them or after. No other squad has ever created a phenomenon like the one that swept not only football, but the nation and beyond during — and long, long after the Bears’ run to and through Super Bowl XX that finished Jan. 26, 1985.
Actor and lifetime Bears fan Joe Mantegna, around whom the initial “Superfans” sketch was written, told me while I was writing The Rise and Self-Destruction of the Greatest Football Team in History: “In a way it was like watching a magnesium flare. The thing built up to this one moment in time and then ignited itself with this brilliance. But you knew deep down it wasn’t going to sustain. It was going to give you something great, great heat, for that minute but then it was going away. And you would never have that heat, that brilliance again.”
The Bears transcended the sport. “People liked John Wayne to walk into a bar and announce, ‘Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses,’” Dan Hampton declared. “That was us.”
John Madden, broadcasting Bears games with CBS boothmate Pat Summerall, saw that, “all of America liked the Bears, not just football fans. They were the big, bad guys, but they still managed to be underdogs, too.”
It had been a long time since things had gone Chicago’s way in the world of sports; the White Sox in 1983, the Cubs forever and in 1984, most recently. And the city’s blue-collar image made the Bears easier to like.
America likes rebels. That’s what the ’85 Bears were, too. They had fun, sometimes at the expense of the rest of the NFL, and they made football fun for everybody watching.
They won a Super Bowl in an epic fashion and then faded away on the football field. But in the culture at large, they were (are?) outsized. The iconic Saturday Night Live skit “Superfans” built around them first appeared fully five years after that Super Bowl.
They changed sports marketing in America for all time. They drew women viewers to the sport. Mike Ditka once proclaimed that one billion Chinese could not care less about the Super Bowl. But as Hall of Fame football writer Don Pierson noted, millions of Chinese were enthralled with “Dian Bingxiang” — “Electric Refrigerator” William Perry.
The whole thing spilled over way beyond Soldier Field. “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” was nominated for a Grammy. Perry and tackle Jimbo Covert were late, wildly popular additions to Wrestlemania II. Perry and Payton were together on the cover of Time. McMahon appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, which labeled him a “Rock ‘n’ Roll Quarterback.”
The Bears went to England during the 1986 preseason, and as those there at the time recalled, it was the Beatles in reverse, a sort of sports Magical Mystery Tour. The Bee Gees hosted a party for the Bears in their 800-year-old mansion; Phil Collins and Ringo Starr came around practices looking for autographs.
And when the Bears finally did play the Dallas Cowboys in London, “fans stood in the rain the entire time for this game,” said British journalist David Tossell. “It was a like a Papal visit. You could be in the back of the crowd of a million people, not hear a word he said, but just to be able to say you were there, that was what really counted.”
Madden said that in all his years of broadcasting, the 1985 season was the most fun he ever had. Early during that season, he and Summerall did a Bears game, went back to their hotel and got on the phone with CBS that night: “I don’t care what the schedule says,” Madden said. ”Put us on Bears games from now on.”
A place in history
The best single team ever? You decide.
Talk with Madden found its way around to the greatest teams of all time. I started to mention that the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s had won four Super Bowls with a legion of Hall of Fame players and a defense that —
Madden interrupted me: “That ’85 Bears defense was the most dominant thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Even the Steelers. I went against those Steelers. Those ’85 Bears were more dominant than the Steelers.”
Tom Landry, who faced that Pittsburgh defense in his own Super Bowls, also said that the ’85 Bears were better even the Steel Curtain.
“If they had won two more (Super Bowls), maybe even one more, there wouldn’t even be a debate,” said Hub Arkush, former publisher of Pro Football Weekly, now editor and general manager of Chicago Football and ChicagoFootball.com. “The only teams to compare were the ’70s Steelers and maybe the ’72 Dolphins, but only because the Dolphins were undefeated. But for that one year, nobody comes close.”
The Bears went through that season 15-1 — so how did a “greatest” lose a game? That’s its own story — and then the team from the Second City annihilated the teams from — fittingly somehow — New York and Los Angeles on consecutive weekends, allowing just 118 rushing yards and zero points, total.
In one six-game stretch, the Bears defense scored 27 points. The six opposing offenses over that span totaled 27 points. The Bears’ offense was scoring 143. For that year, the Bears led the NFL in total and rushing defense and were third in passing yards allowed — which annoyed some members of the defense because the only reason they thought they were third was due to teams needing to pass constantly in just about every second half.
Fourteen of the Bears’ 19 opponents scored 10 or fewer points. Eight different defensive players scored that year, not even including Perry scoring on offense.
The broader point was that the Bears were not solely a team with a good defense. The Bears scored 456 total points, averaging 28.5 per game, which ranks them among the top 50 scoring teams in NFL history.
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But all of the fun and marvel surrounding the ’85 Bears meant nothing without not only winning, but also winning in ways as outsized as the personalities.
The Giants brought the NFL’s No. 2 defense, behind only the Bears, and had mauled Joe Montana (four sacks) and the 49ers in the wild-card game. Lawrence Taylor was third in voting for NFL defensive player of the year — behind Mike Singletary and Richard Dent.
But as the 21-0 destruction unfolded, the Bears saw something: “They had this look,” safety Shaun Gayle said, “that they were someplace they had never been before and they had no idea what was happening to them, what this was all about. They had this look like, ‘This is a foreign land, and we don’t know anything that goes on here.’”
Buddy Ryan devised a dozen different fronts and nearly 20 different coverages for the Giants, plus one more with a motive. Dent was in search of a new contract, and his teammates concocted a way to help him out and turn him into the game’s MVP.
The plan was a stunt they dubbed “echo:” Hampton, Steve McMichael and Mike Hartenstine slanting and tying up the entire Giants line while Dent looped around and through a vacated spot on the right side of the New York line.
The result: Dent’s 3 1/2 sacks of Phil Simms accounted for 33 lost yards by the Giants offense, one more than New York’s entire rushing total. Joe Morris had rushed for 1,336 yards and 21 touchdowns but “one time I looked down and thought it was a poster of him,” Otis Wilson said.
The ignominy extended into special teams. With Gayle and the Bears screaming at him, Sean Landeta whiffed on a punt (he claimed it was the wind). Gayle picked up the loose ball and stepped into the end zone for the Bears’ first touchdown.
McMahon threw two touchdown passes to Dennis McKinnon in the third quarter. The Giants ran 11 plays in the quarter and lost 11 yards and converted none of 12 third downs for the day.
Not everyone was buying the Bears, though. CBS and Las Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy the Greek picked the Rams.
Pete Rozelle had fined McMahon for a contraband headband, so McMahon and Walter Payton were in the locker room pregame with magic markers printing “ROZELLE” on white headbands. The commissioner took it well, with a funny note to McMahon, lamenting tongue-in-cheek only that Rozelle hadn’t been able to put out a shoe line to capitalize on his newfound celebrity.
It wasn’t as amusing to the Rams. Ditka proclaimed that some teams are Smiths, some are Grabowskis, “the Rams are Smiths, we’re just Grabowskis." Ryan made it more personal, stating simply that his defense would make Eric Dickerson fumble three times (he lost two). The Rams answered the insults by practicing in shorts and T-shirts in the freezing weather, defensive end Gary Jeter declaring, “We don’t want those guys (at the Super Bowl). They talk too much.”
Turned out to be more than talk. Hampton was asked when he thought the Bears took control of the line of scrimmage: “Kickoff,” he said. When the Rams won the toss and elected to receive, Gary Fencik applauded.
McMahon ran in from 16 yards, and Kevin Butler kicked a field goal late in the first quarter. Dickerson took a third-and-one handoff, Singletary met him in the hole, and “Mike hit him so hard, I don’t think he knew where he was,” Wilber Marshall said.
Wilson would see Dickerson at charity events and such in the years that followed. “He still remembers and brings up that game,” Wilson said, laughing. “He says, ‘I didn’t do nothin’ to y’all, why’d you treat me like that?'”
The game was another mauling, most notable for its final moments. In the fourth quarter Dent crashed in on Dieter Brock and knocked the ball loose with a sack. Marshall grabbed the ball near midfield and headed toward the Los Angeles end zone with Perry, Wilson and others on escort duty.
As if on cue — mythmakers maintain it was the work of George Halas — snow began falling and formed the backdrop for the finish of the game that put the Bears into Super Bowl XX.
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The final act
Final approach to Super Bowl XX began with a furor when Bears president Michael McCaskey refused to allow an acupuncturist favored by McMahon, Wilson and others to come with the team. McMahon was in pain from a hit to his hip in the Rams game, and the state’s Acupuncture Association eventually paid the doctor’s way to New Orleans. McMahon dropped his pants and mooned a news camera helicopter covering Bears practice: “Just showin’ ‘em where it hurt,” McMahon deadpanned.
When McMahon was pilloried for allegedly calling the women of New Orleans “sluts” on a 6:30 a.m. radio program, McMahon scoffed, since there was no way he nor any of the Bears would’ve been up at 6:30 because they were out until 4 or 5 most mornings.
More to the football point, Hampton and others recalled later that while watching TV broadcasts of New England Patriots interviews that week, they saw fear. “After the shutouts against the Giants and Rams, the Super Bowl was just about setting a score,” Hampton said. “We knew it. They knew it.”
What drama there was in the game came on the game’s second play when Payton fumbled and New England recovered at the Bears 19. Three incompletions later, the Patriots led 3-0 on a field goal. Mantegna was too nervous to watch so he taped the game and just popped into the TV room to steal occasional looks. The Payton fumble “proved they weren’t indestructible,” Mantegna said. “And after all, this was Chicago.”
Mantegna and Chicago needn’t have worried. The Bears would score 44 points before the Patriots scored again. On their first nine plays, covering four possessions, the Patriots lost 22 yards and the ball twice on fumbles. With four minutes left in the first half, New England got its first first down. The play that converted was the Patriots’ 18th of the game and only the third to gain positive yards. For the half the Patriots had minus-19 yards of offense — minus-5 rushing, minus-14 passing, all Super Bowl records for a half.
The Bears allowed 132 total yards and were mad; they’d wanted to break the Pittsburgh Steelers’ record of 119, but Ryan put in the reserves — which he named “F Troop” — for most of the fourth quarter and New England managed 37 yards to avoid the humiliation of the first sub-100-yard Super Bowl.
At one point a teammate turned to All-Pro guard John Hannah in the huddle and said, “OK, we can’t run. We can’t pass. Now what?”
At halftime, with the Bears up 23-3, huge portions of the crowd of 73,818 stood up and belted out “The Super Bowl Shuffle.” It was less a Super Bowl than a coronation.