The 1994 Chicago Bears pose in their throwback uniforms
in a sepia tone photo for the annual team poster.
In 1994, the Chicago Bears' young head coach continued to
imprint his deep stamp on the team. Native son of the same area as his
predecessor, the legendary Mike Ditka, Dave Wannstedt wielded personnel control
that Ditka could only dream of, and used it to mold his roster the way he saw
fit. By the end of Wannstedt's sophomore season, the young Bears team would
have seen surprising highs, surprising lows, and a finish that was every bit as
rewarding as it was frustrating.
Wannstedt's eventual downfall in Chicago would ultimately be a
result of his personnel decisions. But his poor personnel decisions seemed to
focus more on draft choices than his free agent signings. February 1994 brought
the second year of free agency in the NFL, and the Bears were poised to
overhaul their offensive roster.
The 1993 Bears had finished near the top in NFL defensive
rankings-and near the bottom in offense, so it was obvious where the Bears
would focus the majority of their attention. Wannstedt and his personnel
advisors publicly stated that they thought the team was a few years away from
contending for a Super Bowl. The plan was to build from the core of the team
out. No major free agent splashes on a player deemed to be the best as his
position in the game (thus overpaid) would be made until a solid overall team
was in place. Then, if the team determined that one player may make the
difference, the team would spare no expense to sign that person.
As a result of this philosophy, the Bears spent widely but
modestly on free agent offensive players. In a year in which Green Bay
quarterback Brett Favre was a restricted free agent, meaning the Bears could
have thrown the bank at him to see if the Packers might possibly not match the
deal, the Bears refrained. Instead of pursuing the top free agent receiver in
Dallas' Alvin Harper, the Bears found a less expensive alternative.
The first decision made was the release of quarterback Jim
Harbaugh. The seven-year Bear veteran had signed a five-year contract worth
over $12 million with the Bears in 1993, becoming the richest Bear in history.
A year later he was on the street. Such was life in the free agency era of the
NFL. Harbaugh quickly latched on with former Bear personnel boss Bill Tobin in
Indianapolis and would later prove his career was far from over.
To replace Harbaugh, Wannstedt decided to sign Detroit free
agent Erik Kramer, the quarterback Wannstedt had watched take apart his 1991
Cowboys defense in the playoffs. The Bears felt Kramer's quick release and
strong arm were more suited to the west-coast offense they ran than Harbaugh's.
Kramer received a four-year, $12 million deal. Even the Bears' backup of the
previous four years, Peter Tom Willis, wasn't spared. Willis had a chance to
start a game in 1993 against Denver and fared poorly, so Chicago jettisoned
him, replacing him with former first round pick Steve Walsh, who had most
recently played with New Orleans.
Quarterback was far from the only position revamped by the
Bears in 1994. They decided not to resign nearly-legendary halfback Neal
Anderson, who was clearly close to the end of his career. Anderson would retire
after replacing Walter Payton and becoming the Bears' second-leading rusher in
their history. Chicago had traded with Pittsburgh to land Tim Worley in 1993,
and Worley appeared to have all the tools the Bears were looking for. But he
had a history of off-field issues. To be safe, Wannstedt signed New York Giant
backup Lewis Tillman to compete for the starting role.
On the offensive line, the Bears signed Seattle's transition
player Andy Heck to solidify the all-important left tackle position. At
fullback, all-purpose threat Merrill Hoge from Pittsburgh was inked. Patriot
tight end Marv Cook was brought in to team with second-year player Chris
Gedney, and the team eventually traded a fifth-round pick to Pittsburgh (for
the second year in a row) in exchange for receiver Jeff Graham.
In all, the offense would feature seven brand-new starters.
On defense the Bears were satisfied with their [STAT] overall
ranking from 1993, but this did not preclude them from making changes or other
moves to keep players that were beginning to emerge. The team released one of
their first-ever free agent signings, cornerback Anthony Blaylock. Blaylock had
been outplayed by backup Jeremy Lincoln in 1993 and was coming off an injury
that would cause him to file a grievance with the Bears over his release. The
team resigned middle linebacker Dante Jones, who in replacing Mike Singletary
the previous year had excelled.
The biggest changes on defense were with the line. Veteran
Steve McMichael, who had played in more games as a Bear than any other, was
released to save salary as well as pave the way for Wannstedt pick Carl
Simpson. Legendary end Richard Dent was a free agent, and as always he and the
organization were in the midst of acrimonious contract discussions. Wannstedt
wanted Dent to accept the role of third-down pass rush specialist only, and a
salary commensurate with that role. Dent pointed to his 12-sack season in 1003,
arguing he would still produce as a starter. When Dent did not relent,
Wannstedt told the defensive end the Bears would no longer pursue his services,
and this event set the stage for their draft philosophy.
Following the 1994 roster makeover, the 1994 Bears would
feature only three players from the Super Bowl championship team of nine years
earlier: safety Shaun Gayle, kicker Kevin Butler, and guard Mark Bortz.
After Dent refused to work with Wannstedt, the Bears made
Alcorn State linebacker John Thierry their first-round pick (eleventh overall).
Wannstedt's plan was to move Thierry to defensive end, replacing Dent. Thierry
was the exact player Wannstedt wanted, and he felt he had all the tools to
become Chicago's version of Charles Haley, Wannstedt's top end in Dallas. This
was despite questions about the level of competition Thierry faced at the
[division 2] school. Thierry's combine numbers (speed, strength) were off the
charts, and this made Wannstedt's decision.
Wannstedt selected a fellow player from [conference], tackle
Marcus Spears, with a high second-round pick, just before the Cowboys would
select eventual Hall of Fame offensive lineman Eric Allen. In the third,
defensive tackle Jim Flanigan from Notre Dame was taken to replace McMichael.
In the fourth, running back Raymont Harris from Ohio State was taken. The rest
of the draft yielded no players that stuck.
During the 1994 preseason, the Chicago Bears looked fantastic,
for what the preseason is worth, anyway. Chicago showed off its offensive
acquisitions in the opening drive against the Eagles, marching the length of
the field and capping off the drive with a Kramer-to-Conway touchdown pass. In
fact, the Bears finished the prelude to the regular season undefeated for the
first time since 1958.
Prior to the season's opening week, the team released veteran
tight end Keith Jennings and traded linebacker Jim Schwantz to Dallas. The
final cutdowns made room for them to shore up their wide receiver corps-they
did so by signing castoff catchers Nate Lewis and Greg McMurtry.
The Bears opened the '94 regular season at home, defeating the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21-9. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner's unit didn't set
any records under the guidance of its new quarterback, but it was perfectly
balanced, mixing 25 rushes and passes. Leading 14-9 in the fourth quarter,
Chicago sealed the day with the second Kramer to tight end Chris Gedney
touchdown pass of the day.
Chicago would not fare as well in weeks two and three of the
season. In two losses at Philadelphia and versus the Vikings at home, the Bears
were outscored 45-0 in the first three quarters of the games. They did recoup
to score 36 points in the fourth quarter of the games, but fell to Philadelphia
30-22 and Minnesota 42-12.
Against the Vikings, the Bears officially celebrated their
75th anniversary along with the NFL, donning their 1920 throwback uniforms. The
club would wear them in three games this season. The uniforms featured tan
pants, a logoless helmet, and a jersey with orange vertical stripes that
simulated the canvas stripes sewn on the original jersey purportedly to help
players hold on to the ball. Per NFL rules, the jersey still had the players'
full-size name and number on the back. And interestingly, despite no 1920
football player having white shoes at his disposal, the 1994 Bears wore them,
true to Dave Wannstedt's 1993 directive.
During the two losses, cracks began to emerge in the Bear
defense that was ranked 4th overall in the NFL just the previous season.
Certainly it had to be noted that solid veterans in Richard Dent and Steve
McMichael had not been re-signed, safety Shaun Gayle was getting older and
Jeremy Lincoln was beginning his first year as a starter at the critical
position of cornerback.
In week four the Bears wore the same throwback uniform in a
Sunday night game against the Jets in the Meadowlands, but the quarterback was
different. Erik Kramer moved to the bench as he nursed a slightly separated
shoulder, and backup Steve Walsh received his first action of the season. It
would be only the second start for Walsh since the 1991 season. And this first
start led to a Bears victory, 19-7, over the Jets. Walsh didn't approach
Kramer's average of 254 passing yards per game, but he did manage a
conservative game plan, which led to the critical momentum change of the
season. Leading the attack was Lewis Tillman, who rushed for a paltry 96 yards
on 32 carries, but the performance controlled the clock and keyed the victory.
The win over the Jets changed the season's momentum and led
directly to two more victories at home over the Buffalo Bills and New Orleans
Saints. Walsh started these games as well as Kramer continued to heal,
averaging just 167 yards on 27 attempts, but again the ball control of
Tillman's rushing, along with a resurgent pass defense was enough to edge the
Bills 20-13 and the saints 17-7.
The victory over Buffalo, 1993's AFC Champion, was notable for
two plays. Early in the game, free agent fullback (and current ESPN analyst)
Merril Hoge suffered the last of a series of concussions, ending his career. In
his place rookie Raymont Harris was elevated to starting fullback, and Harris
would sparkle by season's end, leading the NFL for most carries without losing
a yard by an NFL running back. Then late in the second quarter, Gedney turned
in what may have been the best catch in the history of football. The tight end
was on the receiving end of a low fastball thrown by Walsh clearly out of the
back of the end zone, but a well-covered Gedney reached out with one hand to
pull in the touchdown. The score ended up being the difference in the ballgame.
On October 23, the Bears traveled to Detroit with another
change at quarterback, but without a running back. Veteran Tim Worley, acquired
via trade in 1993, had been a pleasant surprise the previous season. But after
rushing just nine times in 1994, Worley missed the team plane to Detroit. After
the game it was announced that Worley was being placed on the reserve/non
football injury list, and his Chicago and NFL career was over.
And the coaching staff decided to re-insert Kramer as the
starter at quarterback, following Walsh's three-game win streak. While Kramer
again out-passed Walsh with 309 yards and 2 touchdowns, including a 77-yard
bomb to Jeff Graham, the Bears lost the game 21-16, falling back to 4-3 on the
Following the Detroit loss, Halloween loomed, but not just any
Halloween. This holiday featured a Monday Night Football matchup between the
Bears and the Packers in their throwback uniforms. Additionally, the Bears
organization planned to retire the uniform numbers of legends Gale Sayers (40)
and Dick Butkus (51). This was notable, as the Bears had resisted efforts to
retire these for years. Already with 11 retired jersey numbers, the Bears
risked running out for all players they fielded.
This would be no ordinary Halloween, in that it featured a
Monday night matchup between the NFL's two oldest franchises, but also
weather-wise. Gale-force winds howled, sheets of rain whipped horizontally, and
an American Eagle commuter flight crashed
in the area due to the
weather. And under the direction of Kramer, and the object of the wrath of
opposing quarterback Brett Favre, the Bears were equally brutal.
Sayers and Butkus did get their jerseys, covered in plastic to
protect them from the elements, retired at halftime, while the Bears were down
just 14-0. The score ended up 33-6, after the Packers rushed for 233 yards to
the Bears' 94. Favre participated with his legs more than his right arm,
scrambling 36 yards for a touchdown on a broken play late in the first half.
Kramer completed just 5 of 10 passes for 34 yards and was pulled for Walsh
before the end of the game.
Following Kramer's Monday Night benching, the short-lived
Steve Walsh era in Chicago began. Walsh continued to direct a slightly less
conservative offense than 1993's version, but still very conservative
nonetheless. And the Bears kept winning-four games in a row to be precise.
Starting in Tampa Bay, then moving to Miami where Chicago was the prohibitive
underdog. The following week at home, Tillman outrushed Barry Sanders and the
Bears won 20-10. On November 27th, the Bears beat Buddy Ryan's Arizona
Cardinals 19-16 in overtime. Chicago was 8-4 and leading the NFC Central.
Next up was a Thursday night contest in Minnesota against the
7-5 Vikings for NFC Central dominance. The game may have been the most
back-and-forth battle witnessed by Bear fans in several years. Down 13-7 at the
half, Chicago roared back to score 17 in the third, then allowed 11 in the 4th.
The game went into overtime, but on the second play of sudden death, Cris
Carter raced 65 yards for a touchdown, virtually taking first place away from
Following the second Viking loss of the season, much of the
team's momentum seemed lost. Chicago traveled to Green Bay the following week
and were pummeled 40-3 in frozen Lambeau Field. On December 18 the Bears
defense held Ram rusher Jerome Bettis to 7 yards on 8 carries, beating the
visitors 27-13. In the season's final week, the Bears could clinch their first
playoff berth since 1991 with a win over the Patriots, or depend on help from
other teams if they lost.
Lose the Bears did, 13-3, playing poor football. But
miraculously, they did clinch a playoff berth when the New York Giants upset
the Dallas Cowboys. "It's tough to be excited today, but I think tomorrow when
we wake up and assess the whole year, we'll know that we're still alive and
we'll go from there," Head Coach Dave Wannstedt said.
While the Bears were indeed glad to be alive, they faced the
toughest challenge of any playoff team, being lowest seeded and having to
travel back to Minnesota, where they hadn't won any game since 1991. In fact,
since the Metrodome opened in 1982, the Bears were 5-8 overall.
But Steve Walsh and the Bears were up to this challenge.
Proving as many teams have in the past that it's very hard to defeat any team
three times in a given year, the seven-point underdog Bears upset the Vikings
35-18. In the playoff win, only the Bears' second of the decade, all phases of
the team performed strongly. Rookie fullback Harris led the team with 67 yards
rushing, a 5.2 average, and scored a touchdown. Walsh threw for 221 yards and
two touchdowns. The defense did allow the Vikings' Warren Moon to pass for 292
yards, but they also forced two sacks and interceptions when they needed them
The playoff win cast the Bears into San Francisco, where the
49ers had dominated the NFL in 1994. Bears fans and players had high hopes that
Chicago might pull off an upset as double-digit underdogs. But they didn't. The
49er's massive array of stars was too strong for the young Bears, who after
falling behind 30-3 at halftime, lost 44-15.
In a strange twist on a season that was rescued by Walsh, the
backup quarterback, "new backup" Kramer played the second half and outperformed
Walsh. The move would foreshadow things to come the following year.
Unfortunately, the playoff berth would not foreshadow the success, or lack
thereof, Dave Wannstedt would have in Chicago.