The 1990 Chicago Bears came into the season looking to show they were still the same team who had dominated the old NFC Central from 1984-88. The 1989 season had been marked by calamitous collapse, where a 4-0 start turned into a stunning 6-10 finish. Mike Ditka handed the reins to a new quarterback and the Bears reasserted themselves in 1990.
You may have heard of the 27-year-old who got the quarterback job—a guy by the name of Jim Harbaugh. He had a good offensive line in front of him, anchored by Pro Bowlers Mark Bortz and Jay Hilgenberg, to go along with a quality veteran left tackle in Jimbo Covert. Neal Anderson ran behind them for a 1,000-yard Pro Bowl season and Harbaugh was an effective enough manager for this offense to rank 10th in the league in 1990.
Defense was what defined the Chicago Bears in the Ditka Era though, and it was the defense that had unexpectedly failed the team in 1989, dipping to 20th in what was then a 28-team NFL. Muscle in the trenches brought them back. Richard Dent got 12 sacks at defensive tackle and made the Pro Bowl. Trace Armstrong added 10 sacks of his own and the great middle linebacker Mike Singletary delivered another Pro Bowl campaign. The defense returned to form and ranked 9th in 1990.
The Bears won their first three games and two of them came over the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, who had battled for the division title the year before. Chicago went to Lambeau Field in Week 2, forced five turnovers and won 31-13. The Bears hosted the Vikings a week later and relied on a balanced running attack from Anderson and fullback Brad Muster to muscle out a 19-16 win.
Those games set the tone for the NFC Central race (the four current teams of the NFC North plus Tampa Bay), as Green Bay and Minnesota both fell by the wayside quickly. Chicago rolled on to a 9-1 start that included a couple more wins against teams whose ship the Bears were basically passing in the night.
The Rams had been a playoff perennial in the 1980s and the Bears were only a two-point favorite on Sunday Night in Soldier Field for Week 6. Harbaugh went 18/25 for 248 yards and led a 38-9 rout. Denver had gone to three Super Bowls in the previous four years behind John Elway. Chicago went to old Mile High Stadium and won 16-13 in overtime, behind six sacks of Elway and 110 yards rushing by Anderson. Los Angeles and Denver faded this season and Chicago was one of the teams taking their place at the table.
In spite of being 9-1, the Bears had a playoff problem. The San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants were both undefeated. Furthermore, 1990 was the first year the postseason expanded from five teams per conference to six—meaning that the 3-seed Chicago was in would have to play a first-round game for the first time.
After a blowout loss in Minnesota, Chicago clinched the division on December 2 when Anderson caught a 50-yard touchdown pass in overtime to beat the Lions at home, and then the Packers fell later that night. But any hopes for a bye took a big hit, when the Bears lost 10-9 to the Redskins in spite of intercepting Mark Rypien five times.
The regular season ended on a skid, with four losses in the final six games, but the biggest loss was that Harbaugh separated his shoulder in Detroit on December 16 and was lost for the year.
Mike Tomczak was in at quarterback and Chicago had an easy playoff draw in the first round, getting New Orleans who had stumbled in at 8-8. The game was ugly, but the Bears controlled the line of scrimmage. Anderson for 110 yards, the Saints couldn’t get their own running game going and with over 37 minutes of possession time, Chicago won 16-6.
They went to the Meadowlands as a seven-point underdog against the Giants, who had also lost their quarterback when Phil Simms went down. Jeff Hostetler was a more able backup though and New York was better than Chicago at the power running and ball-control game. The Bears rushed for 27 yards and lost 31-3.
1990 was still a comeback year and the message was sent that the NFC Central was still Mike Ditka’s backyard. The Bears had one more playoff trip in them in 1991 before this era in franchise history ran out of steam.