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The demise of the '85 Bears: 'It's been 30 years of angst'

Packers nose tackle Charles Martin bores in on Bears quarterback Jim McMahon in this fateful play on Nov. 23, 1986. Martin sacked McMahon, then picked him up and violently slammed him to the turf. McMahon missed the rest of that season with a torn rotator cuff. The Bears won that game 12-10 and their final four regular-season games to finish 12-4, but lost to the Redskins 27-13 in their playoff opener, with Doug Flutie at quarterback.

When you strip away the aura of the ’85 Bears — the dominating defense, the larger-than-life hilarity of William “The Refrigerator” Perry, the iconic presence of Mike Ditka, the “Super Bowl Shuffle” and the irrepressible personalities from Sweetness to Mongo to McMahon, the most famous championship team in Chicago’s history is basically known for two things — winning Super Bowl XX and winning only Super Bowl XX.

The Super Bowl in New Orleans was a crowning moment like no other — a 46-10 rout of the New England Patriots that exceeded expectations despite a tremendous buildup of anticipation. But to this day, some players can’t help but feel a tinge of regret. With the makings of at least a mini-dynasty — the three-titles-in-five-years kind if not a Patriots-like 15-year run — the Bears came up empty. They not only didn’t win another Super Bowl, they didn’t even get to another Super Bowl. Didn’t even come close actually. The only time the Ditka-coached Bears even reached the NFC Championship Game, they were outmanned and outclassed in a 28-3 loss to the 49ers in a minus-26 wind chill at Soldier Field in the 1988 postseason.

“The word is angst. And it’s been 30 years of angst,” said Dan Hampton, the Hall of Fame defensive lineman. “We had the best record in football the next year [14-2]. We didn’t have a quarterback that was able to play in the playoff game and we got beat. Same thing the next year we were [11-4] and got beat in the playoffs.

“It is what it is. And yeah, it bothers us. You can always point fingers. But I would have bet a lot of money that that was not the only Super Bowl we were going to play in. But sometimes fate’s cruel. But all I can say is that John Madden, who is the burning bush of pro football … every time I see him he shakes his head and says, ‘That was the greatest team I ever saw,’ which is pretty cool.”

The Bears not only were the best team in the NFL in 1985, they were the youngest. Nineteen of their 22 starters were 28 or younger. Only five players on their entire roster were 30 or older (veteran defensive lineman Mike Hartenstine was the oldest at 32).

The average age of the starters on their vaunted defense was 26.1, including future Hall of Famers Hampton, Mike Singletary (27) and Richard Dent (25). The average age of their offensive starters was 26.5. The great Walter Payton was 31 and nearing the end of the line. But that was a rarity on the ’85 Bears. This team had the brightest of futures.

“We had magic in a bottle on both sides of the ball, and we always talk about what could have been if we could have stuck together,” said wide receiver Dennis McKinnon. “We were like a hurricane that showed up and no one was prepared for how great we could have been.”

And yet, the seasons following the Super Bowl victory ended in disappointment. The Bears were 2-5 in the postseason after winning the Super Bowl — including four losses at Soldier Field. And even though three of the teams that beat them won the Super Bowl (the 1987 Redskins, the 1988 49ers and the 1990 Giants), it’s not like the Bears kept running into unbeatable teams. The quarterbacks who beat them: The Redskins’ Jay Schroeder (1986) and Doug Williams (1987), the 49ers’ Joe Montana (1988), the Giants Jeff Hostetler (1990) and the Cowboys’ Steve Beuerlein (1991). Montana is in the Hall of Fame. But the others aren’t even close.

“[That regret] is a big part of it for me,” center Jay Hilgenberg said. “That’s something I look back on that is frustrating when I look back on my career. We had opportunities to go to more Super Bowls. The two losses to the Redskins, we had home-field throughout — I look back at those games more than I actually do the Super Bowl.”

So what went wrong? As Hampton said, fate was cruel to the Bears. But there’s little doubt that the forcefulness of the personalities — from Ditka on down — that contributed to their success also played a part in their demise:

1. Jim McMahon couldn’t stay healthy

The Bears were 37-5 with McMahon as the starting quarterback in the regular season from 1984-88. But he played only six games in 1986, seven in 1987 and nine in 1988 because of various injuries.

The most costly was in 1986, when McMahon had season-ending surgery for a torn rotator cuff after being violently — and almost criminally — slammed to the turf by the Packers’ Charles Martin in November.

That led to Ditka’s ill-fated decision to start Doug Flutie in the playoffs against the Redskins. Flutie, who had thrown two touchdowns in a meaningless season finale against the Cowboys, was 11-of-31 for 134 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in a 27-13 loss.

McMahon started against the Redskins in the 1987 playoffs and the 49ers in the 1988 playoffs, but both times he was coming off a month layoff because of an injury and was ineffective. He threw three interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter, against the Redskins in a divisional game in 1987 when the Bears lost 21-17 after leading 14-0.

2. Buddy Ryan’s departure

Who knows how long the combative Ditka and Buddy Ryan could have co-existed after winning the Super Bowl. But Ryan’s absence was felt after Ryan left to become the Eagles’ head coach. The Bears led the NFL in total defense and set a league record for points allowed under Vince Tobin in 1986. But the defense rarely had the bite it once had under Ryan that opponents feared.

“It was evident,” Hampton said. “We went to more of a bend-don’t-break style. Even when we set the NFL record for points allowed, we still weren’t as explosive as we had been. We played bend-don’t-break. And when you get into the playoffs and your offense can’t score, you go, ‘Wow. It would have been great if we could have been more productive, more explosive on the defensive side.’ But we’re players. We’re not coaches.”

3. Injuries, retirements, defections took a toll

The Bears decline actually started in the Super Bowl, when starting cornerback Leslie Frazier suffered a career-ending knee injury on a reverse on a punt return (that didn’t even count because punt returner Keith Ortego had called for a fair catch and was penalized for trying to advance).

By 1987 the injuries were starting to pile up. McKinnon missed the entire season with a knee injury. Hampton, linebacker Otis Wilson and cornerback Mike Richardson each missed multiple games with an injury. In 1988, the Bears lost Payton and safety Gary Fencik to retirement and Pro Bowl linebacker Wilber Marshall to free agency (rather than pay Marshall $5 million over six years, the Bears received two first-round draft picks — getting wide receiver Wendell Davis and defensive end Trace Armstrong). And more injuries — Wilson suffered a virtual career-ending knee injury in the preseason. Perry, who missed part of training camp to get treatment for an eating disorder, suffered a broken arm against the Vikings and played only three games. After Dent suffered a broken leg late in the season, the Bears’ defense played the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game with just five of their 1985 starters.

4. Mike Ditka

Ditka’s no-nonsense, often-unfiltered combative style that helped mold the Bears into a championship team also undoubtedly played a part in the Bears’ undoing once the team had reached the top.

Ditka clashed with Wilson, Dent, Perry and even Fencik among others. He irked most of his offensive starters in 1986 when he chose the recently signed Flutie over Mike Tomczak and Steve Fuller to start the playoff game against the Redskins. His command of the team was further fractured when he publicly chided his striking players as “egomaniacs” and “prima donnas” during the 1987 players’ strike.

As was often the case, Ditka did his best to smooth things over. But, with McMahon unable to stay healthy and the defense losing steam, the Bears would never be what they were. By the time they lost to the Cowboys in the 1991 NFC playoffs with Jim Harbaugh at quarterback after winning the NFC Central at 11-5, only eight of the 22 starters from the 1985 Super Bowl team remained. A year later, the Bears went 5-11 — losing eight of their last nine games. The only victory in that span was a spirited 30-6 upset victory over the playoff-bound Steelers in a game dedicated to Singletary, who was honored in a pre-game ceremony in his last home game.

It would be the last gasp of a golden era of Bears football. Two weeks later, Ditka was fired. And the demise of the 1985 Super Bowl Bears was complete.