The Improbable Playoff Run Of The 1979 Chicago Bears

The 1979 Chicago Bears were in the second year of the coaching regime of Neill Armstrong. After a playoff trip in 1977, the Bears had lost Jack Pardee to the Washington Redskins. Armstrong, the defensive coordinator for a Super Bowl team in Minnesota, got the job and slipped to 7-9 in his first season in Chicago. But he made up for it with an improbable run to the playoffs this time around.

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Chicago did it with a defense that ranked third in the NFL in points allowed. Not only was this side of the ball where Armstrong’s roots lay, but there was a rising coordinator in Buddy Ryan. The coaching staff produced this defensive excellence without the benefit of a single Pro Bowler.

There was good young talent in rookie defensive end Dan Hampton who would be a cornerstone of the 1985 defense that won a Super Bowl and took its place among the greatest of all time. Gary Fencik would also be a part of the ’85 team and a Chicago favorite. He intercepted six passes in 1979, as did Terry Schmidt at corner. But for the most part, this was a group where the whole exceeded the sum of the parts.

The offense was led by the great Walter Payton at running back. Payton had already been a league MVP back in 1977 and he rushed for over 1,600 yards in a Pro Bowl season in 1979. Payton was the one source of consistency in an 18th-ranked offense that was otherwise anything but.

Three quarterbacks started at least three games. Veteran Mike Phipps was the primary QB, with ten starts, while younger signal-callers in Vince Evans and Bob Avellini got three starts apiece. Evans had led USC to a Rose Bowl victory in 1976, while Avellini had been the Bear quarterback in the ’77 playoff run, though that was another offense carried exclusively by Payton.

The constricted nature of the Chicago passing game is underscored by the fact that fullback Dave Williams led the team in catches with 42, with Payton being second in with 31. The top true receiver was Brian Baschnagel, who caught 30 balls for 452 yards.

A home game with Green Bay started the season and there were no signs of an impending playoff run. The Bears won, thanks to 125 yards from Payton. But a 6-3 home win over a bad team wasn’t exactly auspicious.

Chicago looked better the next week when Minnesota came to Soldier Field. The Vikings were the standard in the old NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North plus Tampa Bay) and had won nine of the previous division titles. But this was also the first year post-Fran Tarkenton. After spotting the Vikes a 7-0 lead, the Bears got a 56-yard touchdown pass from Vince Evans to James Scott. Payton churned out 126 yards and they won 26-7.

The first loss came in Dallas, the two-time defending NFC champion. Chicago was a nine-point underdog in a late Sunday afternoon kick. Evans threw long touchdown passes to Scott and former Cowboy wideout Golden Richards, and the Bears led 20-17 in the fourth quarter. But Roger Staubach struck last and Chicago lost 24-20.

Payton was shut down the next two weeks in losses at future AFC East champ Miami, and at home to division rival Tampa Bay, who would step up and be a contender for the first time in franchise history. The great running back had only 89 yards combined in the two games and the Bears lost 31-16 and 17-13. Payton picked it back up in Buffalo when he rushed for 155 yards and the classic Chicago formula of Walter and the defense delivered a 7-0 win.

A home game with a decent New England Patriots team saw the running game disappear again. Payton was held to 42 yards in a decisive 27-7 loss. Chicago went up to Minnesota for a rematch and while Payton didn’t run well, he did something with his arm—a 54-yard touchdown pass to Baschnagel. Chicago had leads of 14-3 and 27-17, but Tommy Kramer struck last and the Bears lost 30-27.

Chicago traveled west to face San Francisco. The 49ers were beginning the rebuilding process with Bill Walsh in his first year as head coach and Joe Montana a rookie at quarterback. But the emphasis is on “beginning.” The Niners were an awful 2-14 team and the Bears’ near-escape qualified as an embarrassment. Trailing 27-21, Phipps hit Scott with a 48-yard touchdown pass for the 28-27 win.

Detroit was another 2-14 team and Chicago played much better at home against the Lions, intercepting four passes and winning 35-7. One of the biggest wins of the season to date came at home against the eventual NFC champion Los Angeles Rams.

The Bears fell behind 23-14 and were outrushed 245-82, as the L.A. tandem of Cullen Bryant and Wendell Tyler decisively outperformed Payton. But the Bears won the turnover battle 3-zip, Phipps threw for 239 yards and wide receiver Rickey Watts caught six passes for 147 yards. Chicago scored 13 points in the fourth quarter and stole a 27-23 win.

Phipps continued to play well in a third straight home win over the New York Jets, going 12/18 for 117 yards and no interceptions. Chicago again won the turnover battle 3-0 and they took the football game 23-13.

All was right with the world when the Bears made a Thanksgiving Day visit to Detroit. They picked the national stage against a lousy team to turn in a clunker of a game. They generated nothing and lost 20-0. The notion of making the playoffs seemed preposterous right now. At 7-6, Chicago was two games back of Tampa Bay in the NFC Central. The NFC East had a pair of 8-5 teams in Dallas & Washington, each chasing Philadelphia, who was 9-4 and the two wild-card spots that were available. And if Chicago was in the picture at 7-6, then so was New Orleans with the same record.

There was no slack when the Bears made a visit to Tampa Bay to start the stretch run. The defense delivered, intercepting Doug Williams five times, with two apiece from Fencik and Schmidt. The division race was tightened, although all three NFC East teams won. The good news was that New Orleans lost, as did Minnesota who slipped to 6-8 and were no longer in the Chicago rearview mirror.

The Bears went to Lambeau Field and nearly laid another egg at an inconvenient time. They trailed 7-6 in the fourth quarter and the Packers were driving. Linebacker Tom Hicks made perhaps the play of the season, a 66-yard Pick-6 that swung an eventual 15-14 win. Tampa Bay also lost, so even though Chicago didn’t own the tiebreaker with the Bucs, thanks to Tampa’s superior division record, the Bears still had a shot at the NFC Central.

In the NFC East, the Cowboys had beaten the Eagles and all three teams were 10-5. Dallas and Washington would play in the season finale for the division title, while Philadelphia had clinched a wild-card berth.

Chicago had two paths to the playoffs. Each started with the need to beat a bad St. Louis Cardinals’ team at home. If Tampa Bay lost at home to mediocre Kansas City, the Bears took the division. The path to a wild-card was tougher—the Bears would need the Redskins to lose. And even given that, Chicago had to make up point differential, which was much higher in the tiebreaking process in 1979. That meant the Bears needed to defeat the Cardinals by at least thirty for the Washington-Dallas game to even matter.

As a young Redskins fan, I sat in front of my TV set and watched in shocked horror as the Bears piled up the points in the early afternoon game It was 21-6 in the third quarter, when Watts busted an 83-yard kickoff return and then caught a 35-yard touchdown pass from Phipps. The Chicago defense turned it loose and sacked two St. Louis quarterbacks nine times. The Bears allowed only seven completed passes, so a Cardinal pass had a higher likelihood of ending with a sack then with a completion.

The final was 42-6, enough to make the late afternoon game from Dallas meaningful. And it would be Chicago’s only path, as Tampa Bay survived Kansas City 3-0, with a fourth-quarter field goal in a game played amidst a monsoon.

Ironically, it was Pardee who now stood in the Bears’ way, and the Redskins looked to be rolling, as John Riggins had a big rushing day and Washington had leads of 17-0 and 34-21 in the fourth quarter. But Staubach, playing his final season, broke Redskin hearts one more time with two consecutive drives that stole a 35-34 win. At the age of nine, I sobbed and sobbed, even as we decorated the family Christmas tree. Bears fans cheered and cheered. They were going to the playoffs.

Chicago went to Philadelphia for the wild-card round and led 17-10 at the half. Then mistakes did the Bears in. An 84-yard run by Payton was called back for illegal motion, and the Eagles tied the game on the next possession. The Bears responded with a good drive before Phipps threw an interception in the end zone. The Eagles scored a touchdown to take the lead. Another turnover set up a field goal to make it 27-17 and one last interception sealed Chicago’s doom.

It was still a highly successful year. The disappointment, at least from Armstrong’s vantage point, is that it did not sustain. Two mediocre seasons followed and he was fired to pave the way for Mike Ditka and a great era in franchise history.