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The 1998 Chicago Bears
by Roy Taylor,
Public sentiment was definitely not behind the Bears organization and head coach Dave Wannstedt going into the 1998 season. Wannstedt (now referred to in a less-than-loving fashion as "Wanny" by fans) was at his high point at the end of 1995, when he was given a 5-year contract extension by McCaskey that would keep him on the team's payroll until the 2000 season. Publicly, Wannstedt was given full support by team management and personnel director Mark Hatley. Some of the blame for personnel gaffes made from 1994-1997 was pushed back on Rod Graves, the departed former personnel man. Speaking of Hatley, the new VP of personnel had started to make a positive mark on the team even before his first draft. His first major free agent move was the signing of little-known defensive tackle Mike Wells from Detroit. He also made it a priority to re-sign Jim Flanigan, Barry Minter, and Erik Kramer. He also hinted that if Rick Mirer wanted to be back with the team for the '98 season, it would be as the backup after taking a pay cut. Things definitely looked to be changing for the better. On draft day '98, Chicago was picking 5th, their highest since 1982. In this draft, there were 4 players head and shoulders above the rest, then the talent dropped off. 2 more losses in 1997 would have meant the Bears could have chosen from Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf, or Andre Wadsworth, but instead, they were staring at RB Curtis Enis, the consensus 5th best player in the draft. Many teams behind the Bears were drooling to pick Enis, and Hatley made his demands known to those teams. Two of them offered the Bears two first-round picks in exchange for their fifth, but Hatley wanted the picks and a player in return. When he didn't get any of those offers, Hatley stood firm and chose Enis. He also made solid picks in S Tony Parrish and C Olin Kruetz in the second and third rounds.
Unfortunately, Hatley's solid drafting would not pay off in 1998, as the team had been driven too far into the ground to turn around so quickly. Hatley remained true to his word, and released Bryan Cox in June, as well as Rick Mirer in training camp when he refused a pay cut. He also picked up speedy kick returner Glyn Milburn from Green Bay for a measly seventh-round draft pick just prior to the season opener. Chicago then proceeded to lose their first four games, until they pulled out a come-from behind victory over Detroit, in their biggest turnaround in a game since 1987. First-round pick Curtis Enis was looking impressive in spot duty, however he was out of shape after holding out for most of training camp. After the team's second win at Tennessee, Erik Kramer was lost for the season for the second time in three years. This left the rest of the season under the direction of Steve Stenstrom, relegated to third-string duty in the preseason until Mirer had been cut. More often than not, Stenstrom looked terrible in his eight starts, of which he only won a single game. The team actually looked as if they might turn the season around when Stenstrom made his first start against the Rams. The team had won 3 of 4 before the bye week, and was looking stronger. But during the St. Louis game, rookie Enis injured his knee, placing him on injured reserve for the remainder of his rookie year.
The team finished 4-12 for the second straight year, and coach Wannstedt looked beleaguered with each additional loss. In December, team president Michael McCaskey gave hints as to what would happen to his coach. McCaskey, who chose to remain out of the public eye as much as possible, was caught at a fundraiser at a downtown hotel. The reporter questioned McCaskey, and the owner gave fluttering praise to his coach. The reporter than stated "As usual, you're going to tell me that you're fully behind Wannstedt, and he'll be back next year, right." At that moment, McCaskey buckled in his stance for the first time, and responded by stating "I didn't say that. Every member of this organization will be held to a high standard, and will be reviewed at the end of the year."
On December 27th, Chicago was hosting Green Bay in the season finale. The feeling on the street was that this was a make or break game for Wannstedt. Rumors had been circulating that the McCaskey family was not happy to see a half-filled Soldier Field, with most of the fans being those of the opposition's. Chicago lost the game 16-13, and Wannstedt and his assistants stayed late after the game in the Soldier Field locker room, drinking and eating pizza, seemingly a goodbye party. McCaskey was caught as he ran to his car after the game. All he would say is that "We will talk about this tomorrow at a press conference at Halas Hall." Only the owner himself know what would be discussed at this press conference.
There was no general feeling in the media as to what would happen on January 28th. The McCaskey family always took a post-season skiing trip, and in 1993, Michael had let Mike Ditka's fate hang until he returned from the trip. At least he wouldn't do that this time. The obvious conclusion was that Wannstedt would be relieved of his duties, as an owner would not call a press conference to praise a coach after back-to-back 4-12 seasons. However, some thought that McCaskey might shake up the assistant coaches by keep the head man. Wannstedt was due 2 more years of guaranteed salary, so it would be a tough decision to make.
The right decision was made, however, as McCaskey did fire Wannstedt as he had Mike Ditka 6 years earlier. Wannstedt addressed the crowd, stating that the atrocious personnel moves weren't all his decisions. He also went on to state that part of his problem may have been in keeping too many Super Bowl Bears around too long, a curious statement considering he only kept several around longer than '94. At this point, many fans breathed a sigh of relief, and looked to an exciting future. © 2000-2014 Roy Taylor