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1985 Bears Coverage: Bears cut Thomas

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 cut Thomas

Kevin Lamb

Originally published Sept. 3, 1985

Bob Thomas had been right all along.

It was nothing to gloat about. He was right because he suspected in May his 10-year placekicking job with the Bears was rookie Kevin Butler’s to lose.

Coach Mike Ditka confirmed that yesterday when he released Thomas for the second time in four seasons. He also cut halfback Anthony Hutchison, defensive lineman Henry Waechter and linebacker Jim Morrissey to reach the 45-man limit.

“Mike said I wasn’t beaten out,” Thomas said. “There really was no reason for it except this was what they were going to do.”

As Ditka said, “It was not a clear-cut decision.”

Thomas was afraid Butler’s fourth-round selection made the decision on draft day. He was shocked, having made 78 percent of his 1984 field goals, and sought Ditka’s reassurance.

“I was told not only would I have to be beaten out, but beaten out convincingly,” Thomas said. “Mike told me he didn’t know if a kicker who kicked 80 percent could be beaten out. It just happened.”

When Butler talked to Ditka and general manager Jerry Vainisi after the draft, he said they told him “it was going to be an open race.”

Thomas wasn’t bitter. He wished Butler and the Bears well.

He spoke evenly. His voice caught on swallowed tears of nostalgia, not rage.

“The Lord wanted me to go somewhere else,” he said.

If anything, the decision was easier to accept, knowing it had been made four months ago.

“I can leave with the knowledge that I wasn’t beaten out,” Thomas said. “The knowledge I did come off a terrific year and also the knowledge that it seems there was nothing I could have done that would have let me stay. There’s nothing I can reflect back on and say, `Boy, if I had done this, I’d still be the Bears’ kicker.’ ”

The decision was Ditka’s alone. He said it wasn’t swayed by Butler’s youth, longer kickoffs or 55-yard field goal range. He just liked Butler.

“I’m not sure we did the right thing,” he said. “We’ve been wrong before. We might be wrong again. But we made a decision on Butler and we’re going to go with it.”

Thomas holds six Bear records, including his field goal percentage last year on 22-for-28 and 11 in a row at the end of the season. Other records: .624 percentage (128-for-205) and 629 points – 41 more than Walter Payton.

“I’ve got some pretty big shoes to fill,” said Butler, who called himself “relieved” and hopes Thomas will get another NFL job.

Ditka said it would be “foolish” for a team with questionable kicking not to sign Thomas. One such team is Tampa Bay, the Bears’ opponent Sunday. Four years ago, Thomas went to Detroit and helped spoil Ditka’s regular-season debut.

“I’d rather Tampa than Green Bay,” he said. “I fear that he’s going to end up in this division.”

“I hate the thought of leaving football with 11 straight field goals,” Thomas said. “I don’t know if I can beat Mark Moseley’s record 23 straight unless I can kick. I’d like to at least go in and miss one before I hang up the shoes.”

Thomas said Ditka was more emotional than he had ever seen him when Ditka broke the news. Ditka praised Thomas’ success and loyalty and said, “The shape he’s in, Bob can probably go on kicking for six more years.”

Ditka said he offered either kicker in trade talks. He considered keeping both to prolong the possibility of a trade but decided it would waste a roster spot and would be unfair to Thomas.

Butler’s youth wasn’t a factor, Ditka said, because “I just don’t think Kevin gets too excited about things. You don’t want your kicker to get too excited about things.”

“I’m excited. Can’t you tell?” Butler deadpanned.

“I think the main thing he’s got to work for is consistency,” Ditka said, “to kick at 80 percent on field goals.”

“My goal is 100 percent,” Butler said. At Georgia, he had a career percentage of 78.6, including 86 percent inside 50 yards and 52 percent from 50 on out.

Thomas never had that much leg strength. But he’ll be remembered for field goals that decided Notre Dame’s 1973 national championship and the Bears’ 1977 playoff berth.

“If there’s one thing I want to be remembered for,” Thomas said, “it’s that I persevered in a city that seems to persevere.”