The Chicago Bears were only two years removed from the end of the Mike Ditka era, and just three years removed from that era’s last playoff appearance. In the mid-1990s, this was still a fan base that was accustomed to success. Dave Wannstedt had been hired to replace Ditka. And in Wannstedt’s second year, he delivered playoff success.
Wannstedt had made his name as defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys when they won the Super Bowl in 1992. And it was defense that keyed the success of the 1994 Chicago Bears. This was not a lineup with great talent—not a single Pro Bowl player. But the Bears had a pretty good defensive line. Trace Armstrong and Alonzo Spellman had seven sacks apiece on the ends, while Chris Zorich and Albert Fontenot were a strong presence in the middle. Cornerback Donnell Woolford intercepted seven passes. The Chicago defense ranked 10th in the league for points allowed.
The offense also didn’t have Pro Bowl talent, and in this case the final results matched up with that. The quarterback job started with Erik Kramer, who was interception-prone. It went to Steve Walsh, who didn’t make big plays. The defense-first Bears found more success with the mistake-free Walsh, but they weren’t going to win games throwing the football.
Nor was the running game anything to write home about. Lewis Tillman ran for over 800 yards, but at a meager 3.3 yards-per-carry. Raymont Harris added 464 yards, but was also sub-4 on yards-per-carry. On the receiving side, Jeff Graham’s 68 catches led the team, and Curtis Conway was a decent second option. But the quarterback instability held them back. Chicago’s offense ranked 24th in what was then a 28-team league for points scored.
The Bears opened the season at home against a subpar Tampa Bay Buccaneers team. Any problems with quarterback play were not evident. Kramer went 18/25 for 212 yards. He opened the scoring by hitting Chris Gedney on a 10-yard touchdown pass. Kramer and Gedney later connected on a 37-yard scoring pass. Chicago won 21-9.
A Monday Night trip to mediocre Philadelphia was a complete disaster. The Bears dug themselves a 30-0 hole, before Kramer padded his stats with three garbage-time TD passes in a 30-22 loss. The horrid play continued at home against the Minnesota Vikings. The Bears were pounded on the ground and assaulted through the air. They couldn’t move the ball. They trailed 35-0 in the fourth quarter and lost 42-14. If you’re doing the math as you track this narrative, Chicago has now fallen behind by a combined 65-0 over two games and not scored a meaningful touchdown.
Kramer was also injured in the Viking debacle and Walsh took over for a Sunday Night trip to face a bad New York Jets team. Chicago again fell behind, but after the last two weeks, a 7-0 deficit was more than manageable. The defense settled down. Tillman ran for 96 yards. The Bears forced three turnovers and committed none. It was enough for a 19-7 win. These first four weeks hadn’t been pretty, but Chicago was still 2-2.
The Buffalo Bills were the four-time defending AFC champions. Even though that dynasty would end with a December fade, they were still very much a contender in Soldier Field on October 2. Chicago trailed 13-10 in the fourth quarter, but Walsh rallied them with ten fourth quarter points and pulled out a big 20-13 win.
A home game with the mediocre New Orleans Saints followed a similar trajectory. The Bears were down 7-3 in the third quarter. But Walsh was steering clear of mistakes, finishing 16/26 for 174 yards. Tillman ran for 96 yards. It was enough for the tide to turn and for Chicago to win 17-7. They went into the bye week at 4-2 and feeling good.
Kramer returned for a visit to Detroit. The passing game opened up a bit, with Graham catching seven passes for 136 yards. But so did the mistakes—Kramer threw three interceptions. Chicago fell behind 14-0. A push to come back was thwarted when they allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown. The result was a 21-16 loss.
On Halloween night, the Bears hosted their ancient rival, the Green Bay Packers. Around the league, it was “Throwback Day,” as all teams wore old jerseys. Chicago and Green Bay were dressed out of the 1920s and a Midwestern downpour that Monday Night gave the game more of an old-timey feel. Kramer threw two interceptions and was pulled for Walsh. The Bears were outrushed 223-94. And they took an embarrassing 33-6 loss.
Now back to .500 at the midway point, Chicago made their return trip to Tampa Bay (prior to 2002, the Buccaneers shared the NFC Central with the four current teams of the NFC North). Walsh played well and went 19/32 for 205 yards. A balanced running game produced 178 yards. The defense toughened back up, and the Bears won 20-6.
Chicago stayed down in Florida for a game with the playoff-bound Miami Dolphins. Walsh’s mistake-free brand of football again kept the Bears in it while the Dolphins beat themselves with double-digit penalties. It was enough to allow Chicago kicker Kevin Butler to hit a late field goal for a 17-14 win.
The Lions were contenders, and they rolled into Soldier Field on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving. The Chicago defense shut down the great Barry Sanders, holding him to 42 yards. Tillman carried 32 times for 126 yards. Walsh broke a 10-10 tie in the third quarter by hitting Graham on a 30-yard TD pass. The Bears won their third straight, 20-10.
Arizona was in the hunt on the playoff fringe and Chicago’s game in the desert was a battle. They led 16-6, but an unlikely mistake by Walsh—a Pick-6—let the Cardinals pull even. But the Bears escaped in overtime, 19-16.
Chicago was riding high at 8-4. They led a packed NFC Central. Minnesota was at 7-5, while Green Bay and Detroit were 6-6. Getting one of the top two seeds and a first-round bye was unrealistic—the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys were by far the powers of the entire league. But the Bears were in great shape for a division title and a 3-seed.
The stage was set for a big Thursday night visit to Minnesota. It was a chance to take firm control of the NFC Central. Walsh threw an early Pick-6, and the Bears still trailed 13-7 into the third quarter. But the quarterback heated up—he finished 24/33 for 233 yards. Graham returned a punt for a touchdown. The problem was that the Bear secondary also started getting carved up by the great Warren Moon. The battle went back and forth all the way to overtime, tied 27-27. The secondary was beaten one more time in OT, a 65-yard touchdown pass that resulted in a 33-27 loss.
A visit to Green Bay was a complete train wreck. For the second time this season, the Packers pounded the Bears on the ground. The deficit in rush yardage was 257-27. For the fourth time this year, Chicago suffered a complete humiliation—this time the final score was 40-3.
At 8-6, the Bears had slipped behind the Vikings in the division race. There were three wild-card spots available. Detroit was also 8-6. Green Bay was 7-7, as were the New York Giants, Arizona, and Philadelphia. It was a chaotic race to the finish.
That made a visit from the lowly Los Angeles Rams an absolute must-win. Chicago still looked sluggish early, trailing 10-3 in the second quarter. But with a 163-37 edge in rush yardage, they gradually took control and won 27-13. While most of their fellow contenders also won, the Eagles lost. Given that Chicago had lost to Philadelphia head-to-head, the Eagles falling by the wayside was significant.
The season finale was at home against the New England Patriots. The Patriots were a hot team, having come from 3-6, to win six straight. They were playing to get in the postseason. Chicago’s scenarios ran the gamut. The Bears, like most of the league, were playing on Christmas Eve Saturday. The following night, the Lions were playing in Miami. The Monday Night finale saw the Vikings hosting the 49ers. Here’s the simplest explanation of the scenarios Chicago fans were kicking around in their head:
*If Chicago won, they would be in the playoffs. Plain and simple.
*They were third in line for the division, meaning the Lions and Vikings would both have to lose.
*If the Bears won and just one of Detroit or Minnesota lost, Chicago could get the 4-seed and host a wild-card game.
*If Chicago lost, they needed help. Someone, between the Cardinals, Giants and Packers, would have to lose.
On a cold early afternoon in the Windy City, neither offense could move the ball. Butler missed one field goal and had another blocked. The Bears trailed 6-3 in the fourth quarter and ultimately lost 13-3. But good news came elsewhere—Arizona had lost in Atlanta. Chicago had hung on to the 6-seed, then the final spot in the bracket. They were going to the playoffs.
The wild-card round was basically an NFC Central Tournament—the Bears were going to Minnesota, who ended up winning the division, while Green Bay hosted Detroit. New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday, and the Chicago-Minnesota game was the final matchup of Wild-Card Weekend.
An early Viking field goal had the Bears down 3-0 after a mostly quiet first quarter. In the second quarter, Chicago—a six-point underdog—started to move. Tillman ran for a touchdown. Walsh hit Keith Jennings with a nine-yard scoring pass. Minnesota answered with TD of their own, but missed the two-point conversion. The Bears led 14-9 at the half.
Walsh was playing well and would finish 15/23 for 221 yards. Harris ran for a 29-yard touchdown pass and Chicago now led 21-9 in the third quarter. Minnesota’s attempt to answer bogged down in a field goal attempt, and the lead was still nine points going into the final period. Walsh hit Graham with a 21-yard touchdown pass. In the meantime, the defensive line was starting to tee off and Armstrong would sack Moon twice.
With the score 28-18, Bear defensive back Kevin Minniefield made the final big play. He scooped up a fumble and raced 48 yards to the house. It was the capper on a day where Chicago won the turnover battle 4-2. They had surprised everyone by not simply winning, but manhandling Minnesota 35-18.
There were no expectations when the Bears went to San Francisco the following Saturday. Chicago was a 15 ½ point underdog and this 49er team would ultimately win the Super Bowl. The Bears scored first on a Butler field goal. But they were in a 30-3 hole by halftime. Walsh would be replaced by Kramer, but it really didn’t matter. San Francisco was too good, and the final was 44-15.
Even so, it looked like the Bears were back. They had returned to the postseason and advanced when they got there. In spite of some of the embarrassing moments along the way, it was still as good an outcome as anyone could have hoped for.
The bigger disappointment is with the fact that in a six-year tenure, this ended up being the only time Wannstedt would make the playoffs in Chicago. And an even bigger disappointment is that, save for a few years of success with Lovie Smith in the mid-to-late ‘00s, the Bears have completely fallen off the map of the NFL. The 1994 Chicago Bears hoped to be the start of something. Instead, they proved to be at least the temporary end of something.