The Chicago Bears of Mike Ditka were as good as it got in the NFL from 1984-88. In that five-year stretch they won the NFC Central each year. They played in three NFC Championship Games, including 1988. And their 1985 Super Bowl championship team was one of the most iconic squads of its generation. That’s what made the collapse of the 1989 Chicago Bears such a surprise.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been—the ‘89 Bears started three rookies on the defensive side of the ball. All three proved to be at least decent players—defensive tackle Trace Armstrong, linebacker John Roper and corner Donnell Woolford. But it introduced considerable inexperience into the unit that was the focal point of the Bears’ success.
Chicago still got a great year from two-time Defensive Player of the Year Mike Singletary, as the middle linebacker again made 1st-team All-NFL. But Singletary was the only Pro Bowl player on a defense that ended up a poor 20th in the league in points allowed.
Offensively, the Bears were pretty good in spite of what was now familiar instability at quarterback. Mike Tomczak got eleven starts and Jim Harbaugh the other five. Both were mistake-prone and collectively, finished with a TD/INT ratio of 21-25. Even in an era not as friendly to passing as ours is today, this was pretty bad.
What Chicago could do was run the football. Neal Anderson was in his third year as the starter since taking the baton from the legendary Walter Payton in 1987. Anderson ran for nearly 1,300 yards. Jay Hilgenberg anchored the offensive line and was 1st-team All-Pro at center. The Bear running attack was enough to spearhead an offense than ended 10th in the NFL in points scored.
The season opened with a high-profile home game against the Cincinnati Bengals, who had come within 34 seconds of winning the Super Bowl in 1988. Both teams had high hopes again this year and the game did not disappoint. Neither did the Bears—Anderson rushed for 146 yards and Tomczak’s 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end James Thornton was the difference in a 17-14 win.
Another big game at Soldier Field was on deck in Week 2. The Minnesota Vikings had been in the playoffs in both 1987 and 1988 and with a talented defense, most observers were waiting for them to step and dethrone the Bears in the NFC Central. The fact the Vikes were a (-1.5) road favorite with Chicago coming off a big win shows how much respect Minnesota had.
The Bears put the challengers right back in their place. The game was tight and physical for three quarters, with Chicago holding a 10-7 lead. Then the floodgates unleashed. The Bears exploded for four touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone. Lemuel Stinson’s Pick-6 made him one of four Chicago players to intercept Viking quarterback Wade Wilson. The 38-7 win sent a clear message that this division still belonged to Ditka’s team.
A third straight home game awaited against a weak Detroit Lions team and the Bears kept rolling. Tomczak went 17/25 for 302 yards and even though the Lions had a rookie runner named Barry Sanders, Anderson was the most productive back on the field. He went for 116 yards in an easy 47-27 win.
Yet another marquee game was up in Week 4, this one on Monday Night in Philadelphia. The Eagles had won the NFC East in 1988, would make the playoffs again this year and been eliminated by Chicago the previous January in a divisional playoff game remembered most for the fog that set in and dramatically obscured visibility in the second half.
More than that though, the Eagles were coached by Buddy Ryan, who had been the defensive coordinator for the ‘85 Bears. Ryan was beloved by players, but the disdain he and Ditka had for each other was no secret.
It was the ‘89 Bear defense that made the plays on this night though—they forced six turnovers, including intercepting Randall Cunningham four times. Defensive tackle Richard Dent recorded three sacks. Chicago built a 20-3 lead, saw it cut to 20-13 in the fourth quarter and then sealed the game when Tomczak threw 36 yards to Thornton.
To say there was no sign of any trouble in Chicago would be an understatement—the Bears were 4-0, were up two games in the NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North plus Tampa Bay) and had won three showcase games, any one of which would have been enough to validate the season’s opening quarter. The Bears looked like the best team in football.
The city of Chicago was juiced up on the second weekend of October. Not only were the Bears rolling, but the Cubs were in the National League Championship Series and playing out in San Francisco. The Bears suffered a letdown against a lousy Tampa Bay team, losing 42-35 and the Cubbies lost three straight to the Giants and never got the series back to Wrigley.
From the football perspective, it didn’t seem like a turning point—more like an understandable letdown after spending all of September playing pressure-cooker games. When the Bears hosted a playoff-bound Houston Oilers team and took a 28-19 lead into the fourth quarter, it seemed like order was about to be restored. But six turnovers did Chicago in, Warren Moon led Houston to a pair of touchdowns and the Bears lost 33-28.
A trip to Cleveland for Monday Night football did nothing to halt the slide. Harbaugh and Tomczak both played and neither performed well, negating a decisive edge in rush yardage. The Browns of the late 1980s were a good team and the ‘89 team made the AFC Championship Game. The Bears lost this one 27-7.
It was time for some real urgency with yet another playoff team, the Los Angeles Rams, coming into Chicago. The Bears again won the battle in the trenches—Anderson ran for 80 yards, while the Rams’ normally productive runner Greg Bell was held to 32. Harbaugh came on in relief of Tomczak and played well, going 10/13 for 157 yards. The Bears took a game that was 3-3 at the half and methodically churned out a 20-10 win.
The glow of September might have been gone, but Chicago was still in good shape. They were still 5-3, had played through a brutally tough schedule and still the safest bet to win the division. Especially with a game at Green Bay coming up.
NFL fans conditioned to Packer excellence over the last thirty years—especially against the Bears—wouldn’t recognize the world of 1989, where Green Bay was usually inept and Ditka owned this rivalry. The ‘89 Packers were 4-4, but against a significantly weaker schedule than what the Bears had seen. So it was no surprise that in this game Chicago would win the rush yardage battle, 133-69, the turnover margin 2-zip and get five sacks, two of them from Roper.
What was a surprise is that they couldn’t finish Green Bay off and Chicago clung to a 13-7 lead late in the game. The Packers faced a fourth down on the Bear 14-yard line. What happened next is a play that lives in Bears’ infamy. Chicago fans insist that Green Bay quarterback Don Majikowski was over the line of scrimmage before throwing the winning touchdown pass. How insistent are Bears fans? The team media guide to this day has an asterisk next to the result—a 14-13 win for the Pack. I think the officials got the call right and that, at minimum, it was close enough that the Windy City could have let this one go after two decades. But then, I’m originally from Wisconsin and though not a Packer fan, I was sympathetic to their cause.
The Bears took out their anger on the Pittsburgh Steelers, another playoff-bound team in an impressive 20-0 road win. The rushing margin in this one was a thunderous 203-54 and with a revenge game against lowly Tampa Bay up next, Chicago could really reclaim some momentum.
Instead, the Buccaneers came north as an (-11) underdog and stunned Chicago 32-31. Four turnovers helped put the Bears in a 29-17 hole. Harbaugh appeared to save the day, connecting with Wendell Davis on touchdowns from 26 and 52 yards. But the defensive problems again surfaced, with the Bucs driving for a field goal and the win.
THE FINAL COLLAPSE
A Redskins-Bears game in the 1980s was must-see television. The teams met three times in four years in the playoffs. With Chicago at 6-5 and Washington at 5-6, both teams were at risk of missing the postseason and this late afternoon kick with Pat Summerall and John Madden —then the top broadcast team in the NFC—on the Sunday after Thanksgiving–was no exception.
Only the Bears essentially didn’t show up in old RFK Stadium. They were carved up by Mark Rypien, who threw for 400 yards and the final was an embarrassing 38-14. The strength of the rest of the NFC realistically eliminated Chicago from wild-card contention, but they were still only a game back in the Central Division race.
That made Sunday Night Football in the Twin Cities a must-have game. The Bears again turned in a poor game, with Tomczak going 13/33 for 180 yards. The 27-16 final was never really competitive. And the free-fall kept going.
Chicago lost to Detroit 27-17. A visit from Green Bay was a cruel reminder of how the two teams had taken opposite paths out of the controversial finish in Lambeau Field—the Packers were coming on strong and were the team battling the Vikings for supremacy in the Central. Chicago put up a little resistance, turning the ball over five times in a 40-28 loss. The season ended the next week in San Francisco against the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers—again the Bears turned it over five times and lost 26-0 to a team that already had the 1-seed clinched.
Chicago’s 6-10 season was as shock to the system, but the good news for Windy City sports fans is this—it was an aberration, not the onset of a pattern. The following season, Ditka made Harbaugh the starting quarterback. The defense re-established itself and the Bears returned to the top of the NFC Central. The end of the 1989 season was just a bizarre sideshow in the story that is the Mike Ditka era of Chicago Bears history.