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The 1999 Chicago Bears
by Roy Taylor,
As 1999 began, the Chicago Bears searched for a new coach for the second time in the decade. As Michael McCaskey had done to Bill Tobin in 1993, this year he asked Mark Hatley to put together a list of 5 candidates for McCaskey to interview for the position. The list included offensive coordinators Sherm Lewis of Green Bay and Joe Pendry of Buffalo, and defensive coordinators Dave McGinnis of Arizona, Dick Jauron of Jacksonville, and Gunther Cunningham of Kansas City. The Bears also interviewed Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, and were given permission to interview Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick and Jets defensive coordinator Bill Belichick.  It became wildly speculated that McGinnis was the leading candidate, and he was the last of the group to be interviewed. Haslett would go on to coach the Saints, Billick would take the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2000, and Belickick would, well, become a coaching legend in New England.  A wild saga was about to unfold on the second-t0-last weekend of January 1999, a situation that would at first lead some to call the Bears organization the laughing stocks of the league, then set the course for their revival.
On Thursday January 21st, McGinnis was in town for his interview. That evening, McCaskey contacted McGinnis about contract terms, and the Arizona coordinator told him that basically he would need to think about it. The Bears job was McGinnis' dream; he had coached for Chicago under both Ditka and Wannstedt from 1986-1995. First thing in the morning on the 22nd, McCaskey notified the Bear's PR Department to call a 1:00 press conference announcing the hiring of Dave McGinnis as the 11th Head Coach in Bear history. Wannstedt's voicemail was even changed at Halas Hall to "Dave McGinnis, Head Coach". Apparently, the only person that hadn't been told about the hiring was McGinnis, who was furious that the team would do this before he had agreed to contract terms. The press conference was postponed all afternoon, and finally cancelled at the end of the business day. The Bears indicated that they still expected to have an announcement on McGinnis the following day, and the media was back in force on the 23rd, waiting for news. McCaskey's father Ed even came into the office to try to plead with McGinnis to reconsider as it became apparent he didn't want to work under the type of management that was displayed the day before. As McGinnis was walking through O'Hare on his return flight to Phoenix, bidding farewell to Chicago and his dream, a new head coach was being introduced to the media at Halas Hall. It was Dick Jauron, who had grown up in Peoria, IL, and had been to Bears training camp in Rennsaleer, IN, when his father coached at St. Joseph's college. Incidentally, not long after the McGinnis fiasco, Michael McCaskey was replaced as team president by Ted Phillips, and for the first time, a non-Halas or McCaskey would be running the day-to-day operations of the team.
Jauron wasted no time in assembling his coaching staff, and made waves by naming Gary Crowton, head coach at Louisana Tech, his new offensive coordinator. This move was significant in that Crowton employed a wide-open offensive scheme, using the shotgun on first and second downs, 5 receivers, three tight ends, anything to try to create mismatches on the defense. It would be the first time the NFL would see such a wide-open offensive scheme, and many questioned Crowton's razzle-dazzle offense at the pro level. Going into the draft, it wasn't any surprise that the Bears were looking to take one of the 5 quarterbacks that would go in the first round. Once again, the Bears were just out of position to get one in the top three. As Chicago's name was called on their seventh pick, Mark Hatley pulled a rabbit out of his hat, and traded his pick to Washington for the 12th pick in the first round, along with third, fourth and fifth rounders in '99, and a third in 2000. At 12, the Bears picked their man in lefty QB Cade McNown from UCLA, and amassed talent with the extra picks throughout the rest of the draft. Just prior to training camp, Chicago surprised the NFL by releasing veteran QB Erik Kramer, especially with McNown unsigned and only journeyman Shane Matthews capable of starting. McNown held out for most of camp, allowing Matthews to entrench himself as the starter for '99. Jauron did make an interesting decision, however, announcing that McNown would get at least one series a game to gain experience.
On September 12th, the Bears won their season opener for the first time since 1996 in beating Kansas City. Chicago had rolled up an impressive 20 points and scored on every possession in the first half. KC did almost come back, but Chicago held on. After the game, Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham lashed out, saying the "razzle dazzle" offense would be figured out, and it wouldn't mean anything. The Bears then lost their next two games against Seattle and Oakland, but the offense under Shane Matthews remained impressive. A slimmed-down 225 pound Curtis Enis was also playing well both running and catching the ball out of the backfield. On October 3rd, Iron Mike Ditka, Ricky Williams, and the Saints came to town and dominated the Bears through most of the game. Down 10-0 with less than 3 minutes remaining, Matthews hooked up with Curtis Conway for 2 touchdowns, and Chicago pulled the game out, 14-10. Ditka slammed his headset to the ground as his season began to unravel. The following week, the Bears traveled to Minnesota, and beat the Vikings in their best performance of the season. However, the red-hot Matthews pulled his hamstring severely, and would end up missing the most of the next four games. Cade McNown started the next two games, losses at the hands of Philadelphia and Tampa. Matthews attempted to start the Halloween game at Washington, but left in the first half after he aggravated the hamstring again. The Bears were humiliated in Washington, which turned out to be the last Bears game legend Walter Payton would be able to see. It was announced that Payton passed away from liver cancer on November 1st, and the nation mourned the passing of a wonderful person. After a week of memorials, the team traveled to Green Bay, and beat the Packers for the first time since 1993 on a last minute, blocked field goal by Bryan Robinson.
A new start emerged in Jim Miller after the Green Bay game. Miller started the next three games, passing for over 400 yards in 2 games, and over 300 in the other. Miller, however, was suspended for taking an over-the-counter supplement banned by the NFL, and sat out the remainder of the season. The Bears lost the final four games of the season, but still enter 2000 with more promise than they have had in a decade. © 2000-2014 Roy Taylor