1987 Chicago Bears: Another Division Title & Another Missed Opportunity

The 1987 Chicago Bears were a part of the 1984-90 high point of the franchise’s modern history, an era that included the 1985 run to a Super Bowl trophy. In the 1987 the Bears won a fourth consecutive division title and were a 2-seed in the playoffs. But they were also a part of an unfortunate string of three consecutive years that ended with home playoff losses and gave a “what might have been” component to this otherwise successful timeframe.

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Instability at quarterback was the big problem in 1986. Jim McMahon was a solid quarterback when he was healthy, but that wasn’t very often. In 1987 he only made six starts (of a possible 12 games due to a players’ strike). Head coach Mike Ditka used a first-round draft pick on a quarterback and it’s fair to say that Jim Harbaugh has made his mark on the game at all levels. But that would come later. For 1987, Ditka continue to turn to Mike Tomczak, a mediocre veteran who combined average production with poor turnover rates.

Walter Payton had defined not just the offense of the Chicago Bears, but was the face of the franchise and in many ways the face of NFL running backs. By 1987 he was the league’s all-time leader in rush yardage. But he was also at the end of the line at age 33 and struggled to 3.7 yards-per-attempt in 1987, one of the worst YPAs in the league. Fortunately, this was another spot where Ditka had thought ahead and drafted Neal Anderson out of Florida a year earlier. Anderson split time with Payton and outperformed the legend, ranking fourth in the NFL in yards-per-carry at 4.5 and leading the team with 47 catches.

The fact Anderson led the team in catches, with Payton coming in second with 33 underscored the problems in the passing game. Chicago had a terrific deep threat in Willie Gault and Dennis McKinnon was a respectable wideout. But there wasn’t real depth or consistency with this group and the quarterback instability only made it worse.

What Chicago did have was an offensive line—Jay Hilgenberg was an All-Pro center. Jimbo Covert had been gotten the same honor the year before at left tackle. They led a line that opened enough holes and provided enough pass protection for the Bears to still rank ninth in the NFL in points scored.

And if Chicago was going to be a Top 10 offense than they were going to win a lot of football games. Even though the defense wasn’t nearly as dominant as the previous two years they still ranked fourth in the league in points allowed.

Defensive tackle Steve McMichael and linebacker Mike Singletary were each 1st-team All-Pro. Wilbur Marshall was a Pro Bowl linebacker and Dave Duerson got another Pro Bowl nod at strong safety. For some reason Richard Dent was left out of the postseason honors but the outstanding defensive lineman rang up 12 ½ sacks in the shortened schedule.

The season-opener was a high-profile home game with the New York Giants, a battle of the last two Super Bowl champs and both renowned for ferocious defenses. Neither team really played well. The Bears allowed a blocked punt for a touchdown and also gave up a Pick-6. But the Giants would struggle to a losing season this year and Tomczak rallied Chicago with two long touchdown passes, one a 56-yarder to Gault. McKinnon finished it off when he took a punt on his own 6-yard line and ended up with a touchdown return. The Bears won 34-19.

Anderson established himself in the backfield the next week at home against lowly Tampa Bay. He had 16 carries, basically split with Payton who had 15. Anderson rushed for 117 yards while Payton struggled to a 24-yard day. Anderson’s running was the difference in a 20-3 win.

After Week 2 there was a players’ strike. Unlike 1982, when a strike shut down play for seven weeks, the owners were ready this time. They had replacement players ready to step in. The Week 3 games would be canceled, but for the three weeks after that it was replacements who took the field in the National Football League.

Mike Hohensee, a product of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, got the call at quarterback. The Bears got blowout wins over the Eagles and Vikings in the first two weeks of replacement football. They were also running the football, overwhelming the Viking replacements for 185 rush yards behind former BYU running back Lake Hiemuli and Anthony Mosley.

Prior to the final replacement game on October 18 against New Orleans, Hohensee removed himself due to an injury. Ditka was furious and it cost the quarterback a chance to stay with the regulars when they came back. He had a backup by the name of Sean Payton—wouldn’t it have been ironic had Payton gotten an NFL start against the Saints? But Ditka brought in Steve Bradley who wasn’t as successful. Chicago lost a home game 19-17, but they had at least survived this bizarre chunk of the schedule as the regulars returned.

McMahon was healthy for the trip to Tampa Bay, although the defense was rusty. The Bears allowed a couple quick TD passes and dug themselves a 20-0 hole. But a missed extra point would be huge. Chicago eventually got four turnovers and McMahon opened up with a 17/24 for 195 yards performance. His 6-yard touchdown flip to Anderson pulled out a 27-26 win.

An almost identical script played out the next week at home against another bad team, the Kansas City Chiefs. Two quick touchdown passes stuck the Bears in a 14-zip hole. Gentry turned the tide this time with an 88-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Then McMahon got warmed up, finishing 23/34 for 287 yards and three TDs in a 31-28 win.

McMahon continued to play well in Green Bay, but Chicago continued to struggle with poor opposition. It took a 52-yard field goal from Kevin Butler to pull out a 26-24 win. The flirtations with danger caught up with them the next week in Denver. On a Monday Night against the team that had reached the Super Bowl the previous year and would do it again in January, the Bears fell 31-29. McMahon threw for 311 yards, three touchdowns and had his team up 29-21 in the fourth quarter. The proud defense couldn’t contain John Elway as he rallied the Broncos.

The loss seemed to wake Chicago up and they came home to pummel Detroit on the ground, enjoying a 178-30 edge in rush yardage. Defensive back Shaun Gayle added a 20-yard interception return for a score and McMahon found McKinnon from 31 yards out in a 30-10 romp. The Bears closed November with another win over the Packers. Chicago again futzed around for a while and it was tied 10-10 at the half, but the defense locked in and they won 23-10. Ironically, the final points of this game were again a 52-yard field goal by Butler.

December was at hand and the division-rival Vikings were also playoff-bound. What they were not was a viable contender for the title of the old NFC Central (the current NFC North teams plus Tampa Bay). Even though Minnesota would get on a January run, they would barely scrape into the postseason. Chicago had firm command of the division race when they went to the old Metrodome on December 6.

The Bears won 30-24, but it came at a price. The defense continued to be leaky, giving up 300 passing yards. But more important is that McMahon was knocked out. Tomczak played well in relief, going 6/12 for 96 yards, hitting Dennis Gentry on a 38-yard touchdown pass and rallying the team from a 24-20 deficit. But no one in Chicago relished going into another playoff year without McMahon.

A showdown game awaited in San Francisco on Monday Night. The Bears and 49ers were both 10-2 and the winner had the inside track to the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs. Chicago proved to have bigger problems. Tomczak threw four interceptions and the result was a 41-0 humiliation on prime-time.

Turnovers were a persistent problem all year. Chicago’s turnover ratio of 24-44 was the second-worst in the league. And it didn’t get better at home against playoff-bound Seattle. The Bears turned it over five times, Tomczak was sacked four times and even though the game was tied 14-14 in the third quarter, it got away from Chicago in a 34-21 loss.

When Chicago took the field the next week in the Los Angeles Coliseum against a weak Raiders team there was a home game at stake. If the Bears won, they got the 2-seed. If they lost, that home game in the divisional round would go to the Washington Redskins (The playoff format of the time was three division winners and two wild-cards, what MLB uses today).

It was an ugly game and no one found the end zone. But Payton dug deep and showed the heart of a legend, grinding out 82 yards on 20 carries. It was enough to help Chicago scrape out a 6-3 win.

For the third time in four years the Bears played the Redskins in the divisional playoffs. In 1984, Chicago had announced their arrival as a true elite team when they won on the road against the then two-time defending NFC champs. In 1986 the Redskins got payback when they came to Soldier Field and ended the Bears’ repeat bid.

The return of McMahon for this game buoyed Chicago hopes. But he didn’t play well in the 4-degree weather. Even though the Bears outrushed the Redskins 110-72 and built a 14-0 lead in the second quarter, McMahon threw three interceptions. Combined with a special teams breakdown that allowed a punt return for a score, it added up to a 21-17 loss.

Payton played well in defeat, gaining 85 yards on 18 carries. But his tremendous career came to a surprise end. The fact the Vikings had upset the 49ers the day before—meaning the Washington-Chicago winner would host the NFC Championship Game—made it even more difficult to swallow. As the Redskins went on to reach the Super Bowl and then rout the Broncos, it was fair to think the Bears might have done exactly the same thing had only they survived this game.

Chicago continued to be good in 1988, winning another division title and this time advancing in the playoffs. But an NFC Championship Game loss in Soldier Field continued the homefield struggles in January. The Bears were an awfully good football team in the latter part of the 1980s but there were missed opportunities. None more so than in 1987.