It looked like a turning point in the 1989 season-the
6-4 Bears climb back from a 19-point fourth quarter deficit to pull ahead of
Tampa. But it turned out to be the season's last breath as Chicago lost
on a last-second field goal.
The Chicago Bears entered the 1989 season on the heels of the
most successful previous four seasons any team has ever had. From 1985-1988,
the team won a world championship, four straight NFC Central division titles,
made two NFC Championship game appearances, and won 52 games out of 63. But
1989 would turn out to be a wounded campaign filled with wounded Bears, due to
age, attrition, injuries and years of failed draft picks catching up with the
In the winter of 1989, after San Francisco defeated Cincinnati
for their third Super Bowl title, NFL owners and players ratified a new free
agency plan. The plan would force teams to designate 37 players as "protected",
with the rest becoming free agents able to sign with any team during the months
of March and April. The first 1989 winds of change began to blow when the team
left long-time veteran Super Bowl champion players Otis Wilson and Mike
Richardson unprotected. Al Davis' Los Angeles Raiders signed both players, but
neither would make the club that year and would be forced to retire. Another
veteran of note unprotected was linebacker/defensive end Al Harris, who signed
with Buddy Ryan's Philadelphia Eagles.
Changes to the organization and team continued throughout the
spring. Longtime offensive coordinator Ed Hughes was "promoted" to the title of
Assistant Head Coach, which simply meant that assistant Greg Landry took over
as offensive coordinator while Hughes was relegated to coaching receivers. Head
coach Mike Ditka announced at this time that that starting quarterback position
was up for grabs, meaning incumbents Jim McMahon, Mike Tomczak and 1987
first-round pick Jim Harbaugh would battle for the starting role. McMahon had
started the previous NFC Championship game but couldn't muster the team to more
than three points, so his long-standing starting job was by no means safe.
What was good news for the Bears was that for the second
straight season, they owned multiple picks in the first round of the draft.
1988 had brought young offensive talent in receiver Wendell Davis and running
back Brad Muster, and in 1989 it was thought that urgent help would be needed
on defense, with the loss of Wilson, Richardson and Harris. Additional depth on
the defensive line was needed as well, given that William Perry and Richard
Dent had missed significant time in 1988 due to injury.
Not only did the Bears have two first-rounders in 1989, they
actually had three. They owned their own pick, number 25, and also had the 11th
pick from the Raiders as part of the 1988 Willie Gault trade, and the 12th from
Washington for Wilber Marshall following the 1987 season. On draft day, the
Bears selected Clemson cornerback Donnell Woolford 11th overall, then spent the
12th pick on Florida defensive end Trace Armstrong. Feeling good about the
first two picks, and needing additional depth, the Bears traded the 25th pick
to the Miami for the Dolphins' high second and third-round picks. Additional
wheeling and dealing gave the Bears a whopping 20 selections over the draft's
12 rounds. Roughly eight of those players made the team and contributed. One
that didn't was ninth-round pick Byron Sanders from Northwestern. Byron's
brother Barry had been selected by the Detroit Lions with the third overall
selection, and went on to slightly more acclaim during his career.
In Armstrong, Woolford and the John Roper, a linebacker
selected with the second-round pick obtained from Miami, the Bears had their
replacements for Wilson, Richardson and Harris. Chicago used the other pick
obtained from Miami on offensive lineman Jerry Fontenot. Were it not for the
two picks obtained from the Dolphins, and the two first-rounders the Bears
would have had virtually nothing long-term from this twenty-player draft.
But it wasn't the 1989 draft that would harm the 1989
Bears-although the '89 draft would have a lot to do with the demise of the team
leading up to Mike Ditka's dismissal three years later. One of the nails in the
'89 coffin were failures high in the 1985-1988 drafts. A second-rounder was
blown in 1985 on cornerback Reggie Phillips, released in 1988. 1989's second
2nd round pick was tackle Dave Zawatson, who didn't make the 1990 roster.
Third-round busts were James Maness in '85, David Williams in '86, the pick
traded for Doug Flutie in 1987, and Ralph Jarvis in '88. Fourth-round picks
such as Paul Blair ('86) and Sean Smith ('87) weren't much better. The 49ers
built their late-decade dynasty around middle-round picks like Tom Rathman,
Charles Haley and John Taylor during those years, while the Bears failed to
restock as the Super Bowl team aged. This, along with letting Pro Bowlers like
Marshall and Gault leave, would force their ultimate downfall for more than a
Training camp 1989 opened with the usual holdouts that were
common in the 1980's, even though without true free agency players had no real
leverage. Steve McMichael held out briefly in hopes of renegotiating the
contract he had signed the previous season, and William Perry, Dave Duerson and
Shaun Gayle missed several days before signing. The most notable holdouts were
the first round picks, Armstrong and Woolford. The former missed the first
three weeks of camp, while the latter didn't sign until after the first
preseason game. These holdouts would trigger a unique change in Bears draft
philosophy the following season.
Prior to the season when asked about Jim McMahon's status,
Ditka said the Bears had not shopped McMahon and had no intentions of trading
him, but would have to listen to offers if anyone called. This was obviously a
smokescreen, as Armen Keteyian reported in his 1992 book Monster of the Midway
on Mike Ditka that McMahon asked his agent Steve Zucker to seek out trade
before the mud came off his cleats after the 1988 NFC Championship loss. It is
anyone's guess who called who, but McMahon was ultimately dealt to San Diego
just days before the Chargers traveled to Soldier Field for a preseason meeting
with the Bears. Chicago received a third-round pick that upgraded to a 1990
second-rounder based on the quarterback's performance. McMahon's parting words
were that the Bears were doing their best to dismantle the Super Bowl team, and
he was correct.
Harbaugh would create a stir several years later by accusing
Tomczak of relaying playcall hand signals to McMahon on the opposite side of
the field during that preseason game, bringing to the surface a rift that
always existed between the three former teammates.
Very shortly after the McMahon trade, Hughes retired from the
team, stating that coaching just wasn't fun anymore. He stated for the record
that losing McMahon didn't have anything to do with the decision, but the
former offensive coordinator was a staunch McMahon supporter, and his words
didn't convince anyone.
With McMahon gone, Tomczak started the season at quarterback,
with Harbaugh backing him up. Ditka felt good enough about the duo that he
didn't keep a third quarterback on the active roster. Seventh-round pick Brent
Snyder from Utah State, a native of Joliet, IL joined the practice squad, a new
group in the NFL that season.
First up for the Bears and entrenched starting quarterback
Tomczak in 1989 were the defending NFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals at Soldier
Field. It was the defending AFC Champs versus the NFC runners-up, and the Bears
endured 20-17, despite Tomczak throwing an interception on his first pass
attempt of the season. Defensive lineman Dan Hampton, playing in his eleventh
season, sacked Bengal quarterback Boomer Esiason twice and blocked a field goal
attempt. He also displayed refreshing candor in his postgame interview. Asked
to comment on fullback Brad Muster's fumble with 1:29 left in the game, Hampton
said "if I had a knife, I would have stabbed him."
The following week Chicago hosted the Minnesota Vikings, who
had swept the Bears the previous season. The Bears and Vikings stayed close the
first three quarters, with Chicago holding a 10-7 fourth-quarter lead. In the
final period, the Bears busted out with four touchdowns, ultimately beating the
The Bears moved to 3-0 with a win in the season's third week
at Detroit, a game in which the offense racked up 542 net yards and 47 points.
The Bears' expected strong start set up a miracle matchup for ABC's Monday
Night Football, as the 2-1 Eagles traveled to Soldier Field to face the
undefeated Bears. The week preceding the game was filled with the drama of the
Despite brash talk from Ryan, the Bears prevailed
27-13 and embarrassed the visitors on many fronts. Ditka used his usual sarcasm
following the game, stating "I'm not surprised (about the 4-0 start), but I
think a lot of people must be surprised, that we beat Cincinnati, Minnesota,
Detroit and Philadelphia. We must be awfully lucky."
As good as the Bears had looked in the season's first four
weeks, the fifth week would begin to show the cracks in the team's facade. The
veteran Hampton started and played in the Eagles' game, but after which it was
revealed he would be traveling out of state to have his knees, which had
already endured countless operations, scoped. The loss of Hampton would turn
the fortunes of the Bears' 1989 season, and its most dramatic event would not
be revealed until the 2005 release of John Mullin's book The Rise and Self-Destruction of the Greatest Team in History.
Uncharacteristically for the 80's Bears, following the 4-0
start, the team suffered three straight losses for the first time since 1981.
At Tampa in week five, the Bears lost to the Buccaneers for the first time
since the 1982 season, 42-35. The following week against Houston in Chicago,
they fell again 33-28, despite leading by nine points with less than five
minutes remaining in the contest. And the following week at Cleveland they lost
27-7 on Monday Night Football, failing to reprise their evening strength as
they had against the Eagles at home. Defensive line depth was at the crisis
point as reserves John Shannon and Tony Woods had to start at the defensive end
Following the Cleveland loss, with the Bears at 4-3 and
hanging on to hope, according to Mullin, Ditka approached Hampton and asked if
he was going to play or just sit out the season. Hampton responded that he had
no contract the following season, and if not for some pledge to secure at least
one more year's salary, he didn't feel he could risk completely wrecking his
knees. Ditka then took Hampton in to see team President Michael McCaskey.
Ditka and Hampton explained to McCaskey that the defense felt
Hampton was vital to any chances of resurrecting the season. Indeed, they had
gone 4-0 with Hampton and 0-3 without him. Even playing injured against
Philadelphia made a difference. Hampton offered to play the rest of the year
injured if McCaskey would sign him for one more year at the same salary he was
making in 1989. McCaskey refused, and Hampton had no choice but to rest the
remainder of the season.
Hampton was clearly the key injury that impacted the 1989
season, but he was by far not the only injured Bear. In actuality only two
members of the defense-Mike Singletary and Steve McMichael-started all 16 games
for the team.
Even without Hampton, the Bears would win two of their next
three to run their record to 6-4 with six games remaining. Sandwiched in the
middle of the stretch was a trip to Green Bay to face the Packers, which they
had beaten eight straight times. With seconds remaining the Bears led 13-7, but
Packer quarterback Don Majkowski threw a touchdown pass to Sterling Sharpe to
tie the game. It was immediately ruled that Majkowski was over the line of
scrimmage when he threw the pass, but the ruling was reversed by instant replay
on the most questionable replay reversal in replay's history. For years, the
Bears' media guide carried an asterisk that read "instant replay game" in
After beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-0 on November 12th,
the 6-4 Bears hosted the rematch of the Buccaneer series. Behind Harbaugh, now
the starter, the Bears fell behind 29-10. In the fourth quarter, Tomczak
entered the game and threw three touchdown passes, giving the Bears a late
31-29 lead in dramatic fashion. But true to their 1989 form, the defense gave
up one more scoring drive and Chicago lost, 32-31. The next week the Bears lost
38-14 at Washington, and Ditka was livid. He declared that Woolford, his top
rookie cornerback, couldn't cover anyone, and predicted his team wouldn't win
another game that season.
He was correct. The 1989 Bears lost their final six games, and
the season ended with a 26-0 blanking at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl
During the season, McCaskey declared publicly that his coach
didn't require any sort of vote of confidence from the owner. "I definitely
want him back next season," he said.
Historical quotes courtesy Chicago Tribune and Chicago Bear