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.
Records barrier for Bears
Originally published Sept. 6, 1985
The Bears were less outwardly enthusiastic through training camp than a year ago. Even the players agree on that.
Where they differ is whether it is cause for alarm. Walter Payton says it might be. Most of them say it isn’t.
“The same drive is there. It’s just not as vocal,” cornerback Leslie Frazier says.
“It’s different,” defensive tackle Dan Hampton says. “Last year we had everything in the world to prove. Maybe we were a little apprehensive about how good a team we were. Now I think a lot of those doubts have been erased.”
History gives the Bears a boldfaced glare, though. When they begin defending their NFC Central Division title Sunday, the Bears also will begin assaulting recent trends.
Since 1978, none of the six NFC Central leaders has been able to repeat.
In that same period, only 14 of 36 NFL division winners have repeated – 39 percent.
Among rags-to-riches teams in that period – teams that won a division after at least three years out of the playoffs – only four of nine even made the playoffs the next year. The Bears are in that category.
On the other hand, seven of the nine teams that had won at least three straight division championships went back to the playoffs. By that standard alone, Miami and Washington are nearly twice as likely to reach the 1985 playoffs as the Bears.
In the Bears’ own past, their previous three playoff teams – 1963, 1977 and 1979 – went on to losing seasons the next years.
The 1964 team went 5-9 while players groused that they weren’t rewarded enough for their success. That scenario was familiar when the 1985 Bears began camp with eight holdouts.
The 1978 team went 7-9 and blamed its turnaround on youth and the abrupt resignation of coach Jack Pardee. The only excuse for the 1980 Bears, also 7-9, was a few holdouts.
“That was a big disappointment,” says safety Gary Fencik, the Bears’ only active 1977 veteran besides Walter Payton and Mike Hartenstine. “There was too great an assumption that this was a good team and things will come easy. But by no means did they come easy the first year.”
The Bears can’t be sure that’s not the case this year until after a few games. There’s a fine line between quiet confidence and careless arrogance.
That makes another good start important, president Michael McCaskey says, “in case there are players still looking for reasons why we can’t be a championship team.”
Coach Mike Ditka saw a lot of that two weeks ago, when he said the Bears had too much selfishness and not enough chips on their shoulders. It bothered him even before camp that off-season weight room attendance was down.
But now, he says he has seen the players pull together over the last two weeks. “If we are successful this year,” he says, “it will be because we played as a team.”
It’s not unusual, Ditka says, for an emotional team in its first championship season to be more businesslike in its second. “The fire’s still burning, but it’s more inside,” he says.
“I think we all realize what we have to do,” Frazier says. “It’s not something that has to be talked about. It’s something that has to be done. Last year, it had to be talked about because we’d never been there before.”
There are four main pitfalls for a team trying to defend its first championship.
Other teams look forward to knocking it off. But even if the Bears no longer can sneak up on people, Fencik says, “We have more talent than our past playoff teams.”
Bad luck. The first successful season often is a lucky season, especially on the injury list. It wasn’t for the Bears, who had to start No. 3 quarterbacks four times. But starters at other positions lost only 17 games to injuries.
“The Cubs are an example,” Fencik says. “They’ve got talent, but bad luck is part of the game. You’ve got to overcome whatever obstacles come to you.”
Payroll dissatisfaction. That was a distraction for much of camp, but didn’t seem to be a factor the last two weeks. But they are starting the season with two ex-starters holding out.
Complacency. Taking success for granted and losing the work ethic and esprit de corps that made it possible in the first place. It is the most common trapdoor at the top.
“It doesn’t have to happen,” Ditka says. “If championships are the most important thing to people, it should never happen.”
Bear players doubt it will happen to them because Ditka won’t let it happen. “He works us hard all the time,” center Jay Hilgenberg says. “And he doesn’t let us fool ourselves.”
Besides, the Bears weren’t satisfied with their success last year. They finished a game away from the Super Bowl
“We got a taste of how it was to be one of the better teams,” wide receiver Dennis McKinnon says. “We liked it. We want to be back.
“Everybody says you can tell the great teams by what they do the year after a successful season.
“This year, we can tell how good we are.”