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Throwbacks: ’85 Bears Caught In A Miami Vise

I love reading old articles, and reading old articles about football history is a particular passion of mine. This is the second installment of a new feature at Football Perspective: reviews of historical articles. Today’s content is four articles in one, all published in the Chicago Tribune on December 3rd, 1985. Hours earlier, the 12-0 Bears lost as 2-point favorites in Miami to the 8-4 Dolphins, 38-24, ending Chicago’s perfect season. You can read all four articles here: I recommend you read them before going on.

The four articles are “Bears squeezed in Miami vise” by Don Pierson, “Only thing Bears lost was hint of immortality” by Bernie Lincicome, “No McMiracle in late show” by Bob Verdi, and “Dolphins roll out anti-blitz offense” by Ed Sherman.

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Bears squeezed in Miami vise (Pierson)

The Bears convinced the National Football League they are perfectly human Monday night when the Miami Dolphins ruined their perfect season and preserved history for themselves with a 38-24 victory.

The Bears’ 12-game winning streak and dreams of an undefeated season turned to a nightmare with a 31-point onslaught by quarterback Dan Marino and the Dolphins in the first half.
….
The noisy Orange Bowl crowd of 75,594 counted down the seconds and hailed the 1972 Dolphins as the last unbeaten (17-0) team.

Walter Payton got his record-breaking eighth 100-yard game in a row only because the Bears called time out three times in the final minute when the Dolphins had the ball. Payton finished with 121 yards in 23 carries and curiously carried only 10 times in the first half.

“Walter Payton is the greatest football player to ever play the game. Other people who call themselves running backs can’t carry his jersey,” said Ditka.

Good news football fans: you can watch the full game on Youtube. And it is pretty weird if you watch the end of the game. In a move that would be ridiculed today, the Bears called timeouts on defense to force the Dolphins to punt in order to let Chicago hand off to Walter Payton a few more times. Payton had rushed for 100 yards in 7 straight games, tied with Earl Campbell and O.J. Simpson for an NFL record. With a minute left, Payton had 21 carries for 98 yards, but after Chicago got the ball back, he went ahead and broke the record … with the Bears trailing by 14 in the final seconds (and with, of all people, Simpson in the booth calling the game). A minute later, you can hear the loud crowd chant down the final few seconds.

The other interesting notes from Pierson’s article was the way Miami schemed against this historic defense, and the reaction of the Bears players after the game. Some of these quotes only come in this version of the article, so this may have represented an updated version.

With William “the Refrigerator” Perry facing All-Pro center Dwight Stephenson in the “46” defense, the Bears had trouble pressuring Marino up the middle. When he rolled right, he broke containment and killed the coverage.

Even the ’85 Bears couldn’t contain Marino.

“They must have studied the film of last year’s NFC title game when (49er quarterback Joe) Montana hurt us by getting out of the pocket,” said safety Dave Duerson. The Dolphins also isolated wide receivers on linebacker Wilber Marshall, and Marino’s strong arm and quick release found targets on quick slanting and crossing patterns.

“There’s no question we helped them on their way,” said center Jay Hilgenberg. “But the only thing that matters is the last game of the year.” “They were a better team than us,” said tackle Jimbo Covert. “Tonight. It ain’t the end of the world. On this day in history, they were better. Five or six weeks down the road, we might be better than them.”

“I don’t think it affects the achievements of the 1985 Bears,” said safety Gary Fencik. “We have to take it as a positive. We’re not infallible.”

Only Thing Bears Lost Was Hint Of Immortality (Lincicome)

MIAMI — So much for immortality.

Not to underrate history, but the Bears did not lose a season in the Orange Bowl Monday night, they merely lost a game, and they already have so many.

“Hey, we’re human,” said linebacker Otis Wilson.

And the Bears had worked so hard to make the world think otherwise.

“The interesting thing,” said coach Mike Ditka, “will be to see how we bounce back from this. Things have been going pretty good for us. We haven’t been in this situation.”

“This is not a catastrophe,” said linebacker Mike Singletary.

“If it had to happen,” said tackle Steve McMichael, “I’m glad it happened now.”

“You never get anything good out of losing,” said center Jay Hilgenberg.

“We’ll still be in the Super Bowl,” Wilson said. “And we’ll win that.”

“I set some goals before the season,” Ditka said. “And we’ve accomplished most of them. I thought being undefeated was not unrealistic.

The ’85 Bears have a reputation for being cocky, and it’s easy to see why with quotes like this.  But this was a supremely talented team that deserved to be confident, and hey — they never lost another game.  One of the joys in reading old articles is just understanding the aura around a team like the ’85 Bears at that time.  Chicago was 12-0 entering this game, and while Miami was only a 2-point underdog, that didn’t reflect the hype surrounding the ’85 Bears.

A pal of mine who reviews the Dolphins for a living had told me was making a list of all the reasons he thought Miami would beat the Bears.

He pulled out a note pad about the size of a matchbook.

“I can’t even fill this,” he said glumly.

The Bears do that to people. Even to people who had not yet seen the Bears in full rage. The reputation of the Bears runs far ahead of their hat size these days, the way lightning precedes thunder.

What was remembered was San Francisco and Dallas and other horrible accidents caused by Team Ditka. Not forgotten was the uncomfortable coincidence of two teams beaten by the Bears having subsequently whipped the Dolphins.

A local journal invited Dolphin constituents to advise Don Shula on how best to beat the Bears, as if the collective will of a community could do what no other team had been able to do. The responses bordered on hysterical surrender.

One suggested the Dolphins hijack the Bears’ bus and play a high school team instead. Another believed the best method was to sacrifice Miami’s quarterbacks, offering them from third string to first string so that when Dan Marino entered the game, the Bears would be too tired to hurt him.

A local psychic was consulted to find out if the stars, at least, favored Miami.

She sadly reported that the moon was in Leo and the sun was in Sagittarius, which was bad news–and not for the Bears.

Anti-Refrigerator songs cluttered AM radio, and television ads promised a thorough defrosting.

This is the kind of blather that usually precedes championship games but has greeted the Bears wherever they go.

But you know what — Chicago did live up to the hype.  You can sense that Lincicome thought the hype was too much, which is perhaps easy to say the day after the team lost its first game.

Still, so much insanity seemed a little severe.

It is just that the Bears had become very huge, very fast. They may even one day deserve their immense celebrity.

The Bears had that ominous aura about them. They had become the foremost intimidators in football. They were expected to leave invalids and possibly a widow or two behind.

It may not be a pleasant image for poets or china salesmen, but it suited the Bears just fine. They have three regular-season games left to restore the myth.

The Bears certainly restored that myth and their immense celebrity remains to this day: if not the most popular or celebrated team in history, Chicago at least produced the most popular and celebrated single season team of the decade.

No McMiracle in late show (Verdi) (No digital link available)

This article serves as a reminder of how Jim McMahon was third in the pecking order on the ’85 Bears, behind the defense and Payton.   Up to this point, Chicago had gone 4-0 under Steve Fuller (though McMahon had a come-from-behind win off the bench against the Vikings) and 8-0 under McMahon, but reading these articles, you don’t get the sense that Miami got a “cheap win” by facing Fuller instead of McMahon (who, oh by the way, was in the middle of a personal 22-0 stretch as a starter).  Fuller had not played well statistically, but he had started the three previous games which were Bears blowouts by the scores of 24-3, 44-0, and 36-0!  In other words, the injured starting quarterback wasn’t really a story.

In this article, McMahon notes that he could have started, but wanted to be smart and healthy for the playoffs (he ended up entering the game after Fuller was injured early in the 4th quarter). The most fun tidbits in Verdi’s piece come after the fold: it’s worth your time to read McMahon’s comments on the Chicago media, his thoughts on a comparison to the ’84 Cubs (who lost the NLCS 3-2 after being up 2-0), and hearing him speak about the cold relationship with his head coach.

Dolphins Roll Out Anti-blitz Offense (Sherman)

Thanks to Duper and his teammates, the 1972 Dolphins–the only team to go through a season undefeated–can rest easy again. The 1985 version preserved the alumni’s record for another year.

“I’m very pleased,” said Dolphins’ coach Don Shula. “It doesn’t mean as much to these guys, but it means a lot to the older guys. It’s important to us. We’d like to see that stay in the record books for a while.”

Why yes, the ’72 Dolphins were even annoying back then. But the other gem in this article is the schematic stuff:

The Dolphins knew they would be shocked if they couldn’t protect Marino. As Marino goes, so go the Dolphins. So Shula designed an attack which had the quarterback rolling out more than usual. The coach also had fullback Woody Bennett watching for blitzing Bears’ linebackers.

“Bennett was a big factor in our blocking scheme,” Shula said. “He picked up Otis Wilson.”

Marino had the time and consequently had the time of his life in the first half. The Dolphins scored on all five possessions to take a 31-10 halftime lead.

Marino completed 14 of 27 passes for 270 yards and 3 touchdowns, and was sacked only 3 times. The biggest stat, though, was the Dolphins’ third-down conversions: five successes in six chances in the first half. Twice they faced third down and 18 yards to go, and twice Marino struck for big plays to continue a scoring drive.

“They have a great defensive team,” Marino said. “They put some pressure on me, but we were able to buy some time rolling out. We were able to get some big plays, and that got us going.”

Finally, one bonus article: you should read the recap of Chicago’s week 2 victory that year. Why’s that? That game helps put things in perspective: the Bears defense played poorly in week 1 after a dominant 1984 season, and began planting the seeds that would become “the ’85 Bears” in this game. The other reason? Their opponent was the Patriots, the team Chicago would beat in the Super Bowl.

Thanks for reading, and again, you can read all four articles here. Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

  • sacramento gold miners

    This was a playoff-type atmosphere regular season game, as the Miami crowd and players fed off of the pregame ceremony, honoring the 1972 team. I remember it well, all the stars seemed to align for the Dolphins that night, and it’s unfortunate we didn’t get a rematch in the Super Bowl.

    Another factor in this game which I haven’t seen discussed, is the disadvantage Chicago had in not seeing the Dolphins before with Dan Marino at the helm. The Bears were very familiar with NFC foe San Francisco, and had decisively beaten them at Candlestick earlier in 1985. I think being unfamiliar with Miami was a bigger problem for the Bears than Miami not seeing the “46”.
    Teams often tried to blitz Miami anyway, so it seems like they were more accustomed to intense pressure.

    Chicago’s defense intimidated offenses, but Miami got off to a fast start, and you could tell the Bears were going to be in trouble. With Marino’s quick release, strong offensive line, and those talented receivers, it was just too much for the Bears that night.

    • Mark Growcott

      It is a shame the Bears and Dolphins didn’t meet again in SB XX, certainly wouldn’t have been the blowout it was and who would have thought at the time that Marino who played in the title game the season before would not reach it again during the rest of his career.

      It is fantastic the full game is available for viewing on YouTube.

      • I think the Bears definitely would’ve won the rematch, but in a strange way, I think a win over Miami in a tighter, yet still decisive game would’ve actually HURT the Myth of the 1985 Bears. Outside of that ridiculous 104-3 three game stretch highlighted by Chase, the Bears in 1985 were no more dominant than the 1986 Giants or the 1984 49ers, yet the Bears team is much more famous. Had they played Miami instead and beat them exactly like the 86 Giants beat the Broncos – tight at halftime, pulling away late – I wonder if the Bears would be remembered as just another dominant 80s champion instead of many people’s best team ever. I think most of their reputation as an unstoppable wrecking machine comes from their complete destruction of the Patriots. There have been worse blowouts in NFL history, but few games have ever visually LOOKED as destructive as the Bears rolling through the Patriots like they were bowling pins.

        • Richie

          It was the domination of the Patriots, plus didn’t they shut out both previous playoff opponents?

          • Correct, but the 84 49ers and 86 Giants also won their NFC Title games in shutouts. And the Giants beat San Francisco 49-3 in the Divisional Round. Though. each of their respective Super Bowl wins, while decisive (and in the 49ers case, more impressive given the opponent), were far less memorable than the Bears clobbering of the Patriots. Side note – the playoffs in the 80s had to be rough to live through first hand. Tons of blowouts. From 1984-1989, the average score of the NFC Title game was 23.2 to 2.7. Ouch.

            • Richie

              Right. But I was suggesting the opposite. If the Bears had still blown out the Patriots by squeaked by in the NFC playoffs, their reputation would be lessened.

              • Definitely an argument for that too. I wonder what the reputation of a team like the 2013 Seahawks will be years from now – particularly if they never win another title. They had a playoff run similar to what you’re describing – two tight(ish) home wins in the conference playoffs and a complete destruction in the Super Bowl. That might give us our answer.

                • How about the ’02 Bucs?

                  • They would seem to be an example of a team who’s Super Bowl blowout win boosts their reputation to a level that perhaps is better than they really were. Though the most famous part of that game is the three defensive touchdowns, so maybe everyone rightly remembers them as a historically great defense that was capable of carrying a below average offense to a championship.

                    • sacramento gold miners

                      Those Bucs teams just had more talent on the defensive side of the ball, with a better offense, they may have won another SB. Trent Dilfer never developed into the franchise QB they hoped, and people may forget Warwick Dunn wasn’t on that 2002 club.

                • Richie

                  If they don’t win another Super Bowl, I think they may be considered a disappointment, considering their defense has been so good for so long.

            • And it wasn’t any better in the Super Bowl!

              ’84 49ers won both the NFCCG and SB by 22+ points.
              ’85 Bears won both the NFCCG and the SB by 24+ points.
              ’86 Giants won both the NFCCG and the SB by 17+ points
              ’89 49ers won both the NFCCG and the SB by 29+ points.

  • I love “sacked only 3 times” to describe a Marino game.

  • So do folks like this sort of stuff? It’s actually more time consuming than a general article, which might be surprising to folks. But I do think they’re fun

    • I’m relatively new to the site (been lurking for several months), but I love it. I think you storytelling history from time to time is a good offset to your statistical analysis.

    • I actually read it thinking, “This must have taken an eternity to write,” which is kind of funny when you say it might be surprising that it’s more time consuming than a general article.
      I did enjoy it.

    • I liked the Staubach one a lot, but I found this one pretty dry. I think I’d be more interested in articles that focus on a player than on a team or a game.

      I’m now tempted, though, to break out my tape of this game — yes, I still have a VCR — which I haven’t watched in over a decade. The Dolphins took control so quickly, it really wasn’t all that dramatic. I do remember that Marino was great, and that the Bears’ offense looked lost without McMahon.

  • TN

    I love this later quote from Jim McMahon: “Ditka had no idea how many yards he needed. He sends in a pass play and I said, ‘Look boys, there’s going to be screaming and hollering here in a minute, but we’re going to get this man his yards.'”

  • Just some various little thoughts:
    Dan Marino rolling out???!!!! I admittedly only really saw him as an older player, but it’s almost hilarious to imagine an offense based on that guy rolling out–he was just so slow. I’m sure he was faster in 1985 and of course speed isn’t all that matters for rolling out, but picturing the 1996 Dan Marino rolling out to his right to affect the defense actually makes me laugh.
    It seems kind of strange that 13 years after the obnoxious undefeated team, the same coach was still there. And he wasn’t nearing the end of his career, either. I do know, of course, that Shula coached forever, but for some reason it still feels a little weird because those feel like teams from very different eras and yet there he still was.
    In the newspaper for the recap of the Bears’s week two win, there is a story about game five of the championship match between Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov. Yes, chess was on page two of the newspaper, even when it was only between two Soviets. (In case anyone else wondered, yes this is the match when Kasparov became the youngest world chess champion ever, eventually beating Karpov 13-11.)
    I read the post, read the linked articles, and typed this much before realizing the pun of the title. I thought it was a weird title but now I realize it’s a terrible pun as well.
    McMahon says Steve Fuller “[has] got the best backup quarterback job in the country. He knows, the way I’ve been going, he’s [going to] play half the games.” Amazingly, he was just about exactly right about his own health–he played 24 of the 49 non-replacement games the Bears played after 1985. (He did play in one of the replacement games as well, but it seems most logical just to throw those all out in discussing McMahon’s health.) Fuller, however, only got two more starts and was done after 1986. Mike Tomczak was the main recipient of the playing time McMahon missed the rest of the way, though Doug Flutie and Jim Harbaugh got some time as well. Sean Payton was also a replacement player on the ’87 Bears.
    An anecdote to support that psychics are just as fake predicting football games as anything else!
    I see Jerome Holtzman below the football articles and shudder at the thought of the damage he has (unwittingly) wrought on baseball.