Quarterback Woes Doom The 1986 Chicago Bears

The talk of a dynasty was freely in the air for the 1986 Chicago Bears as the season began. They were coming off a 1985 season where they simply demolished the NFL and won the Super Bowl. The ’86 Bears were awfully good in their own right, but quarterback instability proved to be their undoing in the end.

Start reading today. 

Defense was the team’s calling card and even with celebrated coordinator Buddy Ryan gone to Philadelphia as the head coach, Chicago still played the best defense in the NFL. They were anchored by future Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary, who was 1st-team All-Pro. So was linebacker Wilbur Marshall and the third prong of the linebacking corps, Otis Wilson, had eight sacks.

Chicago’s front four was ferocious, led by Pro Bowler defensive tackle Steve McMichael on the interior, with ends Dan Hampton and Richard Dent coming off the edge. The three combined for 29 ½ sacks. And with this kind of pressure coming on the quarterback, the secondary was liberated to be aggressive. Corner Mike Richardson intercepted seven passes and strong safety Dave Duerson made the Pro Bowl.

In 1985, the Bears combined the top-ranked scoring defense in the NFL with the second-best scoring offense. The health of quarterback Jim McMahon, an issue even in the best of times—he only started 11 games in the ’85 regular season–, was a major problem throughout 1986.

McMahon only started six games, and head coach Mike Ditka ran out everyone from Mike Tomczak to Steve Fuller to bringing in Doug Flutie at season’s end. Had the year gone on any further, Ditka would have undoubtedly summoned Rick Sutcliffe from the Cubs to start a few games.

But when all else failed, Ditka could always give the ball to Walter Payton. Nearing the end of his career, the Hall of Fame running back enjoyed another stellar season in 1986. He rushed for over 1,300 yards, his 37 catches were second-most on the team and he made the Pro Bowl. Payton ran behind an offensive line anchored by 1st-team All-Pro tackle Jimbo Covert.

Willie Gault, the receiver and former track star, gave the Bears some field-stretching capability and he caught 42 passes for 818 yards. But Gault was the only receiver to really make an impact. The rest of the passing game went to Payton, fullback Matt Suhey and tight end Emory Moorhead. The offense slipped to 13th in the league in points scored.

Chicago opened the season at home with the Cleveland Browns, a team that made significant improvements and reached the AFC Championship Game this season. The Bears lost a fumble in the end zone and spotted the Browns a 7-0 lead. Chicago turned it around behind 113 yards from Payton, a 58-yard Pick-6 from Marshall and won 41-31. But the leaky pass defense and the lack of pressure on the quarterback was an early concern.

Buddy Ryan made a celebrated return to the Windy City in Week 2, and Tomczak made his first start. It would take Ryan until 1988 to get the Eagles winning, but he made the defense tough immediately. Chicago had to grind out a 13-10 overtime win behind 177 rushing yards from Payton.

A Monday Night visit to lowly Green Bay was up next. Chicago hadn’t played well in Lambeau Field the year before, trailing into the fourth quarter. They struggled again this year, trailing 12-10 after three quarters. But again, they rallied. Butler hit a 52-yard field goal for the lead. McMichael recorded a sack in the end zone for a needed safety. Fuller got his chance at quarterback and tossed a 42-yard touchdown pass. The Bears won 25-12.

McMahon was healthy for a road game at Cincinnati that would prove to be one of the most impressive displays of the seasons. The Bengals were an improved team that won ten games and the Bears simply dismantled them. McMahon was 13/22 for 211 yards and three touchdowns, including a 53-yard strike to Gault that gave Chicago a 21-0 lead by the second quarter. The defense completely shut down emerging Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason and the final was 44-7.

The Minnesota Vikings, the closest thing Chicago had to competition in the NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North plus Tampa Bay), came into Solider Field next. McMahon was a difference-maker again, going 12/19 for 204 yards. Little-used receiver Keith Ortego caught six passes for 157 yards. Payton ran for 108 yards. The defense sacked Viking quarterback Tommy Kramer seven times, two each from Duerson and McMichael. The result was a 23-0 shutout.

McMahon was erratic the following week against the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans), but he still made his 13 completions go for 208 yards. Five different defenders were able to sack Warren Moon and the Bears churned out a 20-7 win. But a quick return trip to Minnesota brought an early end to the undefeated season—the defense allowed a couple long TD passes early and with McMahon down for the count again, Chicago had no response. They lost 23-7.

An uninspiring 13-7 win over a poor Detroit Lions team at least put Chicago back in the winning column. Marshall returned a fumble 12 yards for a 1st-quarter touchdown and that was the only time the Bears saw the end zone. McMahon played and was mistake-free, but couldn’t get the ball downfield. He would be out again by the following week and when the caliber of competition improved, the Bears got caught again.

A Monday Night visit from the Los Angeles Rams was a rematch of the 1985 NFC Championship Game. Both teams had backup quarterbacks in. Both teams had great running backs, but Payton was not able to get anything going for the third straight week, held to 61 yards. Meanwhile, Eric Dickerson ran for 111 yards. The defense had to do it again and almost did, holding a 17-10 lead in the third quarter. But they surrendered a long touchdown pass and a fourth-quarter field goal that resulted in a 20-17 loss.

Ditka turned to Tomczak at quarterback and the Ohio State product led Chicago to road wins at Tampa Bay and Atlanta. An early 37-yard touchdown pass to Gault got things going against the woeful Buccaneers, while Payton ran for 139 yards in the 23-3 victory. The Falcons were an average team and Tomczak gave them an early Pick-6 that resulted in a 10-0 deficit. The defense held Atlanta to 80 passing yards and Chicago eventually fought its way back for a 13-10 win.

McMahon was back in uniform for a home date with Green Bay on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. In a sloppy game, the Bears survived 12-10 the most important play came when McMahon was sacked by Green Bay’s Charles Martin. The Packer defender picked McMahon up and in a blatant cheap shot threw him down hard on his shoulder. The quarterback was finished for the season. Green Bay, even as a bad team had always given Chicago fits. Now a dirty play resulted in the Bears’ hopes for a repeat title basically ending.

Tomczak returned to the fold for a home date with the subpar Pittsburgh Steelers. He went 19/30 for 235 yards, but also threw two interceptions. Payton had a hard time finding running room, needing 31 carries to get 90 yards, but he tied the game 10-10 with a fourth-quarter touchdown run and Chicago won in overtime. The running game then completely overwhelmed Tampa Bay, with a balanced attack resulting in a 245-50 rush advantage and producing a 48-14 win.

There were two games left and at 12-2, Chicago had easily salted away the NFC Central. They were also locked into at least one home game for the playoffs. The New York Giants were also 12-2 and would hold the edge on a tiebreaker that came down to common opponents—the Bears loss to the Vikings was the difference in the fight for the #1 seed. Chicago would need to win out and get help.

But they help they really needed was at quarterback and Ditka made a desperation gambit. Two years earlier, Doug Flutie won the Heisman Trophy at Boston College and authored one of the most memorable moments in the history of sports, his desperation pass to Gerald Phelan that beat Miami on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Flutie’s lack of size led the NFL to pass on him and he went to play in Canada. Ditka now decided it was time to turn the keys to the car that was the defending Super Bowl champions over to him. It was an insane decision and it didn’t work.

Chicago still beat Detroit on Monday Night, though they trailed 13-3 after three quarters before scoring 13 unanswered points. The season finale in Dallas was meaningless—New York had won on Saturday of the final weekend to clinch the top seed. Flutie’s good numbers—8/14 for 152 yards for a 24-10 win over a collapsing team gave some false hope to the Bear faithful.

Just how over his head Flutie was became apparent when the Washington Redskins came to town two weeks later. Chicago had everything going for them—while Washington was an exceptionally good wild-card team at 12-4, they were also beat up after their playoff win over the Rams. With the game on a Saturday, the Redskins were also on a short week. The Bears were a (-7) favorite, but completely imploded.

When Chicago’s Dennis Gentry returned the opening kickoff to the Washington 35-yard line, and the Flutie offense responded by going three-and-out it was a bad sign. It got worse. Flutie finished 11/31 for 134 yards and threw two interceptions. The Redskins defense, not worried about the pass, focused on Payton and shut him down. And the Chicago defense finally cracked in the second half.

The Bears led 13-7 at halftime, but gave up 20 points after intermission while doing nothing offensively. The repeat bid ended with a 27-13 loss that was as gloomy for Chicago fans as the weather was on the dank day in the Windy City.

When a team goes 14-2, it’s unfair to call the year a disappointment. But if there were ever a time it seemed appropriate to even think such thoughts, it was with the 1986 Chicago Bears. The hopes of a dynasty never got going. This year was the first of three straight seasons that would end with home playoff losses. The Bears of the late 1980s were excellent football teams, but the inability of McMahon to stay healthy cost them a shot at being a dynasty.