Every day of the 2015 Chicago Bears season, Chicago Sun-Times Sports will revisit its coverage 30 years ago during the 1985 Bears’ run to a Super Bowl title.
Bears’ Fisher in struggle to hang on
Originally published Aug. 13, 1985
PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – In all four of his seasons, the final cut has given Jeff Fisher a close shave.
“This year,” he says, “will be harder than most.”
This year, he has to make the Bears’ 45-man roster instead of the 49-man roster of the last three years. This year, there may not be room for a guy who’s good to have around because he backs up at a lot of positions in the secondary and runs hard on the kicking teams.
“The roster reduction is going to make things pretty scary,” Fisher says.
Never mind that Fisher’s livelihood is an owner’s petty cash. The owners are trimming their budgets furiously to keep their fortunes afloat.
“Cutting back to 45 players can save us close to $1 million in 1986,” Bears president Michael McCaskey says.
It’s not that the average NFL salary – let alone that of the last four players on a roster – is $250,000. McCaskey is counting not only salaries and fringe benefits, but potential earnings for players whose careers will be stemmed by the smaller roster.
The move is purely economic. But reducing roster size will have untold other ramifications, many of which will cost money.
Pittsburgh Steelers president Dan Rooney, for one, has said, “Cutting the roster is penny-wise and dollar-foolish, in my opinion.”
Younger men on spot
The players most affected will be in their first or second seasons. Bear defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan calls them “the marginal player you’re always looking to replace anyway.”
But as Miami coach Don Shula told The Sporting News, a typical team’s last four players have been its No. 3 quarterback and three young players who work on special teams while they learn their regular positions.
Shula said Pro Bowl wide receivers Mark Duper and Mark Clayton were those kinds of players as rookies. After spending money to sign and coach a promising player, Shula said cutting him is not financially wise.
Most teams, including the Bears, will replace those youngsters on kicking teams with veteran starters. Kicking teams have a high risk of injury. If a $200,000 player is hurt doing something a $70,000 player could have done, that costs more money.
From the last season with 45-man rosters, 1981, to the first full 49-man season, the end-of-season injured-reserve lists dropped 16 percent.
Smaller rosters don’t just make starters more vulnerable to injuries on kicking plays. The coaches won’t be able to rest them as much through the game, to keep them fresh for the fourth quarter. Fresh players are less likely to become injured.
To many purists, it would be good news if the smaller rosters force offenses and defenses to back away from substituting three or four players every down. But the effect there will be minimal. That coaching habit is firmly in place.
“Offenses aren’t going to stop using four wideouts on passing downs,” Ryan says. “So we can’t afford to stop using six defensive backs.”
Smaller rosters may cost the NFL’s older players as many jobs as its younger ones. For example, the Bears could carry ninth-year tackle Andy Frederick and second-year tackle Tom Andrews on a 49-man roster. With 45 men, they’ll have to choose.
Andrews is promising, but he’s not as reliable as Frederick in case a starter is injured. Veteran reserves are important on a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
“You’re going to have to consider more factors,” coach Mike Ditka says. “If the talent’s equal for two players, you’re going to have to look at the younger guy.”
The way the Bears’ roster broke down last year, they’ll probably have to start this season with one fewer player at running back, wide receiver, the offensive line and linebacker or defensive back. “It’ll make it harder to practice,” says Ditka, “especially with receivers.”
It’s generally assumed that smaller rosters benefit weaker teams at the expense of stronger ones because San Francisco’s 46th player must be better than Buffalo’s 45th. But the most useful players won’t go on waivers until the final cut, the week of the season openers.
By then, it’s too late for a talented castoff to learn a new team’s offense or defense. The Jeff Fishers of the NFL have their greatest value to the teams they’re on now, the teams that might not be able to keep them.