From 1985 to 1987, the Chicago Bears had become THE team to
beat in the NFL. Under the leadership of the same defensive linemen and
linebackers as played on the '85 team, the defense continued to dominate. This
despite the fact that genious coordinator Buddy Ryan had left the team after
the 1985 season. The offense, however had continual problems in 1986 and 1987.
The quarterback position was never settled, as the team shuffled between Jim
McMahon, Steve Fuller, Doug Flutie and Mike Tomczak. Infighting continued to
get worse between players, compounded both by the Bears' success and the
players strike of '87. Events of the 1987 offseason were sure to make the 1988
season the toughest challenge since '85.
Chicago would enter 1988 without four of their strongest
leaders of the amazing last four seasons. Losing one pro bowler would be enough
to break many teams, but four? Both Walter Payton and Gary Fencik retired after
the '87 finale-the second playoff loss to Washington in as many years. All-pro
linebacker Wilber Marshall had become a "free agent"-in those days, free agency
still meant compensation to the team that lost the player. To add to the insult
of two back-to-back playoff upsets in '86 and '87, the Redskins made a 5-year
$6 million offer to Marshall, which the Bears declined to match. In return,
Chicago received Washington's first-round draft picks in both 1988 and 1989.
Willie Gault was the last key Bear to choose not to return. Gault expressed the
desire to move to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, and the Raiders
wanted another speedster to pair with top '87 pick Tim Brown. Gault was
promptly traded to LA for their top pick in '89, and a third-rounder in '90.
Chicago was deciding to unload much of what got them to the top in '85. This
was a decision that would have paid off had they gotten players of Gault's and
Marshall's in return. They did draft serviceable players in Wendell Davis,
Donnell Woolford, Trace Armstrong, and P.T. Willis, but none of these Bears
gave the production of Gualt & Marshall. So as the 1988 campaign commenced,
not many gave Chicago much of a chance to make the playoffs, let alone advance
deep into them. These expectations made the end result even sweeter to savor.
On opening day, Chicago blew out Miami and Dan Marino 34-7,
after leading 28-7 at halftime. Neal Anderson answered all questions about
replacing legend Walter Payton by rushing for 123 yards and a touchdown. The
following week the team beat Indianapolis, but lost the next week to Minnesota
31-7, the Bears worst home loss in 13 years. The questions then re-emerged. A
Chicago team starting 2-1? The end must be near. Mike Ditka even commented to
the press that "There's no question, we'll be lucky to make the wild-card this
year." Patented Ditka reverse psycology, as Chicago ripped off wins in the next
5 games, including dominating performances against Green Bay, Buffalo, and
Dallas. In the final game of the streak, Chicago hosted San Francisco and Joe
Montana on Monday Night Football. The 49ers drove 88 yards down the field for a
TD on their opening drive. It appeared that it would be a long night. Then the
Bear defense came alive for the remainder of the game, holding San Francisco to
just 125 total yards for the final 3 and 1/2 quarters. Chicago won 10-9 in a
In typical Bears tradition of losing a heart-breaker after an
inspiring victory, the next week Chicago lost at New England. In this game,
Doug Flutie gained his revenge, hitting WR Irving Friar on an 80-yard TD pass
on the very first play of the game. After the New England loss, Chicago was
shocked when Mike Ditka suffered a heart attack. Defensive Coordinator Vince
Tobin took over the reigns and guided the Bears to a 28-10 win over Tampa.
Ditka then quickly returned on November 13th to oversee a win over Washington,
34-14, featuring 5 interceptions by the Bears. Chicago went 3-2 in the final
five regular season games, guided by a mellower version of Mike Ditka, who
preached overcoming adversity as the theme. Significant in the last five games
was the season finale at Minnesota on Monday Night Football. Mike Tomczak
started the game for a continually-ailing Jim McMahon. The game was a back-and
forth battle throughout-but Chicago looked to be in the driver's seat with just
over 2 minutes remaining. They had the ball at Minnesota's 6-yard line,
trailing 21-20, looking to take the lead. Instead of keeping the ball on the
ground with Neal Anderson, who rushed for 122 yards on the night, Tomczak threw
a short screen pass that was intercepted by Walker Lee Ashley and returned 94
yards for a decisive Minnesota touchdown. Thus, the Bears entered the 1988
playoffs with a 12-4 record and home field advantage throughout.
The divisional playoff on New Years Eve featured the third
matchup between Buddy Ryan's Philadelphia Eagles, and Mike Ditka's Bears.
Chicago jumped to a 17-9 lead before a dense fog blew into the area, resulting
in the "Fog Bowl", undoubtedly the worst visual conditions ever in an NFL
playoff game. The Bears won this game 20-12 under starter Mike Tomczak. The
following week, San Francisco would roll into freezing Soldier Field for
Chicago's third appearance in the NFC Championship game in the last five years.
Quarterback was the huge question for Mike Ditka-who would start? Mike Tomczak
had just beaten the Eagles, but Jim McMahon appeared to be healthy. Ditka went
with McMahon, but the Bears lost 28-3, missing the Super Bowl in Miami by one
The moral of the 1988 Bears season was that a team picked by
many to miss the playoffs, that lost 4 key starters from the 1985 Super Bowl
team, still finished with the best record in the NFC. A defense missing many
key players via trades, retirements, and injuries, still finished 2nd in
overall defense, and led the league in fewest points allowed. The team entered
1989 looking to continue its unprecedented success, and after overcoming all
the obstacles of 1988, figured nothing could now stand in their way.