The Chicago Bears were the gold standard of the NFC Central from 1984 thru 1991. In that eight-year stretch, the Bears made the playoffs seven times, won the division six times and were a memorable Super Bowl champion in 1985. With Mike Ditka at the helm, the franchise was colorful and successful. The 1992 Chicago Bears season marked the end of the good times, with a second-half collapse and the departure of Ditka.
Defense was the foundation of Ditka’s teams, but the 1992 unit slipped to 22nd in the league in points allowed. There were still some notable players—defensive tackle Steve Michael and end Richard Dent, holdovers from the Super Bowl team, combined for 19 sacks. They were joined by a good young defensive end in Trace Armstrong and a ball-hawking corner in Donnell Woolford. But the legendary Mike Singletary at middle linebacker was the only player to get Pro Bowl recognition in ‘92.
The running game typically defined Ditka’s offenses, but Neal Anderson and Brad Muster combined couldn’t quite get to 1,000 yards this season. There was a decent receiving combination, between Wendell Davis (54 catches/734 yards) and Tom Waddle (46/674) and Darren Lewis a respectable third running back.
But quarterback play was mediocre. Even though Jim Harbaugh had led this team to the playoffs before and though he might become a big name in later years as a head coach, he wasn’t very good in ‘92. He was below the league average in both completion percentage and yards-per-attempt. Only the fact he ranked a strong ninth in interception percentage kept him as a viable NFL signal-caller.
The bottom line for the offense—no Pro Bowl players and they ranked 16th in what was then a 28-team league in points scored.
Chicago had been edged out for the division title the previous year by Detroit, so it was a high-profile game in the early afternoon window when the Lions came to Soldier Field to open the season. In a great back-and-forth game, Detroit’s Barry Sanders ran for 109 yards. Harbaugh played well, going 19/30 for 227 yards and a couple touchdowns. The QB eventually won a back-and-forth game with a six-yard TD toss to Davis that delivered the 27-24 win.
A week later, on the road against a good New Orleans Saints team, Chicago led 6-0 at the half. Then the roof fell in. They gave up a couple defensive scores and the secondary was burned for a couple long touchdown passes. The result was a 28-6 loss. A week later on Monday Night against the New York Giants, the Bears continued their second half struggles for the home crowd, turning a 14-7 halftime lead into a 27-14 loss.
The Atlanta Falcons had made the playoffs in 1991 and their visit to Chicago suddenly loomed as important if the Bears were to avoid digging an early hole. Harbaugh responded, going 18/24 for 280 yards and no mistakes. The running backs were productive, Anderson getting 80 yards receiving and Muster rushing for 96. Chicago won 41-31 and got back to .500.
Minnesota had a new head coach in Dennis Green and was off to a 3-1 start when the Bears paid a visit on the first weekend of October. The Chicago defense seemed in control, forcing four turnovers and holding a 20-0 lead after three quarters. All the Bears needed to do was play smart football and they had a quarterback who at least knew how to avoid the big mistake.
Until today that is. Harbaugh threw a Pick-6 in his own end, the momentum turned and Chicago lost 21-20. They went into the bye week at 2-3 and two games back of the Vikings.
The two weeks out of the bye made it seem like everything was settled down, as Chicago dismantled a couple divisional foes in Tampa and Green Bay (the Buccaneers were in the NFC Central prior to 2002, joining the four current teams of the NFC North).
Harbaugh made big plays at home against Tampa, turning 13 completions into over 300 yards, including an 83-yard TD strike to Anthony Morgan. The result was a 31-14 win. And a visit to Green Bay saw Chicago seem to quell some early momentum the Packers were showing with first-year quarterback Brett Favre. Harbaugh went 16/23 for 194 yards, spread the ball around and the Bears pulled away to a 30-10 win.
Chicago was back up to 4-3 and ready for a Monday Night date at home with Minnesota. This was a game the Bears had to have if they were going to stay in the division race. But this game picked up where the previous matchup left off. That’s with Harbaugh throwing Pick-6’s (two on the night) , the offense committing four turnovers and the Bears losing 38-10. Over the final five quarters of Bears-Vikings football in 1992, Chicago was outscored 59-10.
Even if the division race had gotten away from them, the playoffs were still a strong possibility at 4-4. The Bears hosted another .500 team in the Cincinnati Bengals for a must-win Sunday Night Game. Holding a 21-14 lead in the third quarter, Chicago got a kickoff return for a touchdown from Lewis and seemed in control. But they turned the ball over four times and ultimately lost 31-28 in overtime.
The meltdown continued against a woeful Tampa team, in Chicago no less. The Bears dug themselves a 20-0 hole as kicker Kevin Butler missed a couple field goals. Those proved costly when a fourth quarter rally came up short in a 20-17 loss.
Green Bay was coming into town next and Chicago fans got a taste of what the next 16 years of their football life would be like—getting tormented by Favre’s Packers. He threw an early TD pass to Sharpe, the Bears couldn’t run the ball and the 17-3 loss never seemed in doubt.
The losing continued against two AFC teams, the Cleveland Browns and Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans). The Browns were an improving team under second-year coach Bill Belichick and they shut down the Chicago run, forced four turnovers and sent the Bears to a 27-14 loss. The Oilers were bound for the playoffs with Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon. For the second straight game, Chicago’s own defense couldn’t get any turnovers and lost 24-7.
No one was under any illusions that the season was shot when the 4-9 Bears hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers, who would end up as the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs. For one brief moment on a December day, Chicago woke up the echoes of the Ditka glory years.
The Bears pounded the ball on the ground and ran for 212 yards, with balanced contributions from the entire backfield. They held a potent Steeler running attack to 35 yards. Chicago got five sacks, including two from McMichael and they won the turnover battle four-zip.
The end result was a 30-6 win. At least this lost season had a fitting end to the home schedule. And it would prove to be a fitting final win for Mike Ditka as Chicago Bears head coach.
Chicago’s offense didn’t score a touchdown for seven quarters on the road in Detroit and eventual Super Bowl champion Dallas to wrap up the year. They lost 16-3 to the Lions and trailed the Cowboys 27-0 in the fourth quarter before scoring a couple cosmetic touchdowns. They ended the year at 5-11.
It was time for a change in Chicago. Ditka stepped down and though he briefly resurfaced for an unsuccessful tenure in New Orleans, he’ll always be remembered for his work on the Bears sidelines. Even though Chicago has had some good teams since then, including going to a Super Bowl in 2006, those have been sporadic and unsustained. Chicago is still seeking the sustained consistency of the Ditka Era.