It's a well known fact that while he was a professor at
Harvard, Bears President Michael McCaskey authored a book on the subject of
"managing change and ambiguity."
The title and subject of McCaskey's book, written in 1982, was
very applicable to the man's tenure as team President, and certainly on the
1997 season in particular.
The 1997 Bears had plenty of holes that needed filling, and
began to remake their organization for the future. But in the end, they would
plunge ever farther into what became known as the "Wannstedt death spiral."
As the 1996 Bears watched their peers go to the playoffs,
which culminated with their rivals the Packers winning their first championship
in 30 years, Chicago first analyzed what had gone wrong in the previous season
that was so stocked with hope.
The attitude that prevailed in January 1997 was interestingly
similar to the one that still remains in official Bears circles: the '96 season
went into the tank mainly because quarterback Erik Kramer "broke his neck" and
was lost for the season early in the campaign. The fact is, the Kramer of 1996
was not playing like the Kramer of 1995 even prior to the injury he sustained
at Detroit. In his four games played, Kramer completed less than 49% of his
passes with 6 interceptions and a 1-3 record.
The quandry was, Kramer was entering free agency coming off a
major injury and a down season. The Bears would be taking a gamble if they
re-signed him, but would also be taking a gamble if they brought in someone
else to play the position.
Other holes the 1997 Bears would have to fix in a hurry were
at wide receiver opposite Curtis Conway, a center to replace the departed Jerry
Fontenot, a dependable tight end, and at the linebacker and cornerback
positions due to age. Another hole not to be forgotten was at offensive
coordinator, as Ron Turner had departed to become the head coach at Illinois
following the previous season.
As expected, Wannstedt first hired former NFL quarterback and
49er quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh as his new coordinator. Cavanaugh
planned to continue to run a version of the west coast offense as Turner had
for four seasons, and vowed as his predecessor did to utilize running backs
Rashaan Salaam and Raymont Harris in the same backfield.
In February, the Bears pulled off potentially the biggest
trade in their history, and one that most could see had the potential to be
their worst. Having failed to wrest away Seattle quarterback Rick Mirer for a
second-round pick and players prior to the trade deadline in '96, the Bears
upped the ante the second time around. Chicago agreed to trade their eleventh
overall pick in the first round for Mirer and Seattle's fourth-round pick. NFL
Network reported in 2007 that after Seattle's personnel staff pulled off the
trade, another league insider told the Seattle boss in a phone conversation
that he had "robbed the Bears blind," and couldn't believe he was able to pull
off the theft.
In the free agency period that commenced in March, the Bears
would sign wide receiver Rickey Proehl to replace Michael Timpson, and very
intriguing running back/defensive back/returner Tyrone Hughes from New Orleans.
Hughes was the leading kick returner in NFL history, and it was thought he
could spend time both on offense and defense for the Bears. The large-money
signing on defense was to acquire cornerback Tom Carter, a first round pick of
the Washington Redskins in 1993. Carter would replace long-time Bear Donnell
Woolford, who had had a hard time staying healthy for the past two seasons. It
was reported later that Redskin coach Norv Turner, a friend of Wannstedt's, was
"releived" to be rid of the inconsistent Carter. The corner received a five
year, $15 million deal from Chicago.
Also signing in Chicago was Kramer, who decided to stay in
Chicago to back up Mirer rather than move to Atlanta to back up Chris Chandler.
He predicted that he would win his job back from Mirer, figuring he'd have an
easier time doing that with Mirer than Chandler.
The NFL draft arrived with less interest, seemingly, since the
Bears did not possess a first round pick for the first time since 1978. Seattle
had traded the Bears' pick to move up. Had the Bears not traded for Mirer, they
would have been able to select either tight end Tony Gonzalez or running back
Warrick Dunn, legendary players still active as of 2008. In the second round
the Bears traded up several spots to select USC tight end John Allred, a player
known more for his blocking that receiving skills. Their third-round pick was
massive guard Bob Sapp, and in the fourth round two offensive players were
selected in popular running back Darnell Autry and receiver Marcus Robinson, a
project with skills but limited experience. The six Bears' selections from
rounds five through seven were so questionable that none made the team or did
anything in their NFL careers. Shortly after the draft, USA Today gave the
Bears a D+.
One year removed from signing Head Coach Dave Wannstedt to a
new contract paying him through the 2000 season, McCaskey did announce that he
planned to shake up the Bears' personnel department. This occurred after the
draft, of course. Since the departure of longtime personnel VP Bill Tobin in
1993, the triumverate of McCaskey, Wannstedt and current personnel VP Rod
Graves made all personnel decisions. And exactly during this time, the Bears'
talent eroded, with many high draft picks failing to live up to the billing the
braintrust afforded them.
In typical Michael McCaskey fashion, he announced publically
that he would be hiring a new VP of Player Personnel without telling the
current VP of Player Personnel on staff, Graves. He didn't allow Graves to
interview for his current position, either. McCaskey publically expressed
disappointment when Graves decided to leave rather than interview for a lower
position with the Bears organization. The person McCaskey hired shortly after
the draft ended was Mark Hatley, a member of Kansas City's personnel staff that
had fielded winning teams for years.
After moving into the brand new state-of-the-art Halas Hall in
Lake Forest, the Bears departed for Platteville, Wisconsin and their 14th
training camp there. While the Bears practiced, Cavanaugh and the rest of the
coaches got their first indications that Mirer may not have been the
quarterback they hoped he would be. The Bears travelled to Ireland to face the
Pittsburgh Steelers for their first overseas game since 1991, then played two
on the road. The August 16th preseason game in Chicago was postponed to the
following night due to a monsoon-like thunderstorm on the lakefront. Perhaps
the Bears wished they hadn't rescheduled the game at all, when star receiver
Conway injured his shoulder, a break that would sideline him for much of the
In the preseason finale, the new coach of the New Orleans
Saints, Mike Ditka, returned to Chicago for the first time and defeated his
former employers. After the loss to the Saints, the Bears ended the preseason
with a 2-3 record. Two other interesting developments of the preseason were the
annointing of Kramer as the team's starting quarterback over Mirer, and the
fact that Hatley cut third-round pick Sapp before the guard even got to the
regular season. Interesting times these were indeed.
The schedule Gods did not shine happily on the Bears in 1997,
as their opening game took place in Lambeau Field on Monday Night Football
against the reigning Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers. Bears officials
brought in legendary retired linebacker Mike Singletary to give the team a
pep-talk the week before the game, and according to the Chicago Bear Report
the visitors talked about the importance of "landing the first punch." To
everyone's surprise, the Bears did just that and jumped out to leads of 8-0 and
11-3. But alas, the Packers overpowered the Bears 38-24 in the end. For the
Bears, the game featured a 122-yard rushing performance by Raymont Harris and a
68-yard touchdown run. It also featured a tirade by linebacker Bryan Cox, who
drew two 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties while launching his helmet.
Wannstedt was featured heavily on the sidelines trying to calm Cox down to no
avail. As the year went on and Cox's petulent behavior increased, it become
more and more apparent that '97 would be Cox's last in Chicago. Cox had related
to the media in the offseason that he prepared himself for games by visualizing
opposing players raping his wife and harming his family; in retrospect it seems
he needed something more graphic to inspire his play.
Speaking of petulence, defensive end Alonzo Spellman's welcome
would gradually be worn out in Chicago this season as well. During the prior
offseason, Spellman's hidden mental illnesses had started to creep into public
view. First he called the Tampa Bay Buccaneers "terrible" following the Bears
loss to them the previous season and guaranteed the Bears would beat them twice
in '97. He then guaranteed he would lead the league in sacks. Spellman ended up
getting dinged midseason, and would be suspended by the team for failing to
follow up with rehabilitation. Third-year pro Carl Reeves would eventually
supplant Spellman as the starter, and an irreversable rift developed between
the club and the player they had invested $12 million in just a year before.
The rift would also mark the beginning of Spellman's plunge into the abyss that
continues to trouble him a decade later.
The loss to the Packers may have been expected, but not
necessarily the results or circumstances of the next six weeks of the season.
The Bears hosted the Minnesota Vikings in the home opener the
following week, and actually led the Vikings 24-20 in the game's waning
moments. But with just moments left in the game, cornerback Walt Harris lined
up three yards deep in the end zone with the Vikings threatening at the Bears'
9. Minnesota quarterback Brad Johnson fired an easy touchdown pass right in
front of Harris, and the Vikings won. Defensive coordinator Bob Slowik was
questioned how he could possibly instruct his defender to line up in the end
zone while attempting to prevent a touchdown, and he agreed he did not call a
The following week the Bears were obliterated at home by
Detroit, 32-7. Kramer was pulled in this game and yielded for the first time to
Mirer, then was shown laughing on the sidelines (see sidebar story). Lost for
the season was Salaam, who would later admit to smoking copious amounts of
marijuana as he rehabbed the remainder of the season.
The next two weeks the Bears traveled to New England and
Dallas, and despite trying a new pressure defense, lost both games. Mirer
played hideously in the games, and anyone watching could readily conclude that
the pick sent to Seattle had been a waste. In the eight quarters of those
games, Mirer engineered just 6 points, 200 yards passing and three
On October 5th the Bears hosted Mike Ditka and his Saints in
the coach's first regular season return to Chicago's lakefront. Mirer started
his third game in a row, but their were indications that Wannstedt may give his
acquisition the hook if his performance didn't improve. Again Mirer threw for
just 58 yards on less than 50% efficiency, and after halftime Kramer replaced
him. The Bear veteran rallied his team to score 14 points in the final period,
and the Bears looked as if they would get their first win of the season over
their old legendary coach. But late in the fourth quarter Wannstedt's other big
acquisition, cornerback Tom Carter, fell down while covering Saints receiver
Randal Hill. Hill grabbed a bomb from quarterback Heath Schuler and ran for an
89-yard touchdown pass, sealing the Saints' 20-17 victory.
The 1997 Bears were 0-6 at this point and next hosted the 4-2
Packers in a rematch at Soldier Field. Bears fans had some hope despite the
mismatch, mainly because Kramer was again the starting quarterback. Trailing
24-17 late in the fourth quarter, the Bears nearly pulled off a shocker by
scoring a touchdown, bringing the defecit to one point. Then Wannstedt made
perhaps his landmark decision of stupidity in his Bears tenure: he elected to
attempt a two-point conversion and a win instead of kicking the extra point and
forcing overtime. A swing pass from Kramer to Harris was incomplete, Kramer
dropped to his knees and slammed his helmet, and the Bears fell to 0-7, their
worst start since 1969.
Following the bye week the Bears did get their first win over
Dan Marino's Miami Dolphins, in a game that was moved to Monday Night due to
the MLB World Series. In the seesaw battle, the Bears prevailed on a pass to
wide receiver Chris Penn, acquired by Hatley from the Kansas City Chiefs in a
trade, then a quick overtime.
But after the win over Miami, the Bears returned to their
losing ways. Prior to losing to the Washington Redskins, the Bears cut popular
defensive tackle Chris Zorich, who promptly signed with the Redskins before the
The Bears finished the '97 season by winning three of their
last five games, usually an encouraging sign for a team hitting bottom. But
most observers would have agreed that it looked like the Bears were far from
hitting that bottom.