By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
For most of the 1985 NFL regular season the Chicago Bears seemed like destiny’s darlings, getting off to a torrid start and finishing as the first 16-0 team in NFL history; their performance in the NFC playoffs only served to reinforce the impression that they were fated to finish the year as Super Bowl champions. But when they got down to New Orleans to meet the underdog New England Patriots in Super Bowl 20, fate would throw them a rather nasty curve...
In Week 13 of the 1985 season the Bears’ quest for a 16-0 regular season brought them, rather fittingly, to Miami to face the only other team that had achieved a perfect regular season record, the Dolphins. A dozen or so alumni from that historic 1972 team were on the Miami sidelines in a blatant ploy by Dolphins head coach Don Shula to psych out Chicago. However, the ploy backfired; Bears head coach Mike Ditka had come up with a psych job of his own, switching from the zone defense the Dolphins had been expecting to a 3-4 system which caused Miami quarterback Dan Marino to throw two interceptions during the second half. The Bears ended up winning in overtime 37-31 on a 65-yard TD rush by receiver Walter Payton, who before his playing days were over would go on to set the NFL career rushing yardage record.
Having survived a head-to-head showdown with one of the league’s elite franchises, the Monsters of the Midway then proceeded to feast on one of its worst teams, stomping the living guts out of the Colts in Indianapolis in Week 14; Chicago already held a 17-3 lead by the end of the first quarter, were ahead 24-6 at halftime, and ended up winning 48-13. From there, Ditka’s bruisers went toe-to-toe with the New York Jets in Week 15 and came away with another convincing win, topping Gang Green 37-10 in a game that saw New York commit a rash of defensive errors in the second and third quarters.
Now the only thing standing in the way of a perfect finish for "Da Bears" was a road tilt with one of their traditional archrivals, the Detroit Lions, in the season finale. And as it turned out the Lions, then stumbling toward the end of a characteristically awful 7-9 season, wouldn’t be much of an obstacle; Detroit first-string quarterback Eric Hipple fumbled twice and had a crucial pass attempt intercepted during the third quarter as the Bears steamrollered to a 38-17 win that officially clinch a perfect regular season record for the Monsters of the Midway.
After that, a Bears Super Bowl championship seemed a foregone conclusion-- and Chicago’s performance in the divisional playoffs and the NFC title game did little to discourage that belief. Indeed, the fact that the Bears beat their first two playoff opponents, the Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Rams, by a combined score of 45-0 fed into the idea that the AFC title game in Miami between the Dolphins and the visiting New England Patriots would essentially be a fight for second prize. The general attitude of the American sports media was summed up by a Sports Illustrated cover the week before the Super Bowl; showing a mockup of a Super Bowl championship banner flying over Soldier Field in downtown Chicago, the cover was captioned "Why Fight It?"
Predictably, such comments didn’t sit well with Patriots head coach Raymond Berry or his players-- who took their frustrations out on the Dolphins in the 1985 AFC Championship Game. Miami, who prior to that game had beaten the Pats eighteen straight times at the Orange Bowl, scarcely knew what hit it; the New England defense basically had Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino for lunch, sacking him twice in the first half alone and intercepting him four times en route to a 48- 13 blowout of Miami. Then, about a week before the Super Bowl, when the Bears and Patriots were making the rounds of the media circuit with the usual interviews and promotional appearances, Chicago QB and resident loudmouth Jim McMahon proceeded to pour gasoline on an already raging fire; during a guest appearance on a sports talk show on New Orleans’ number one AM radio station, he took a page out of Joe Namath’s playbook and guaranteed that the Bears would win Super Bowl 20.
That in itself would have aroused the Pats’ ire, but McMahon then waved the proverbial red flag in front of the bull by adding Chicago’s final margin of victory over New England would be at least 50 points if not higher. In one of the Patriots’ first team workouts following McMahon’s radio appearance, New England starting defensive tackle Brian Holloway issued his teammates a guarantee of his own-- that McMahon would end up eating his brash words.
Holloway wasn’t the only one upset by McMahon’s radio boast; the day after McMahon made his guarantee Mike Ditka read him the riot act, vehemently criticizing him for having done the one thing Ditka had repeatedly urged the Bears players not to do and provided the Patriots with bulletin-board material to use as motivation for the Super Bowl. Ditka was right to be concerned; by the time Chicago and New England took the field for the Super Bowl 20 coin toss, the Bears had gone from being 8-2 favorites against the Patriots to being dead even with them. At least one Las Vegas bookmaker even had the odds for the game at 2-1 in favor of New England.
The first major indicator of just how bad things would really be for Chicago in Super Bowl 20 came midway through the first quarter, when on 4th and 1 the Bears fumbled at the New England 48-yard line just as they were about to execute a run play that potentially could have put them in position for a game-tying field goal or a touchdown pass that would have given Chicago the lead.
Two plays later, Patriots starting quarterback Steve Grogan lobbed a spiral pass to receiver Stanley Morgan which Morgan caught at the Bears 30. Ditka and his defensive co-ordinator, Buddy Ryan, were flabbergasted at this turn of events; even their worst-case scenarios hadn’t envisioned New England being in position to make a score so early after a turnover. Nor had they anticipated the end run Morgan’s teammate Irving Fryar would execute on 3rd and 3 to put the Pats inside Chicago’s 10-yard line.
Hoping to derail the New England drive before it got any further, the Bears defensive line targeted Grogan with the objective of sacking him or forcing a Pats turnover. This tactic promptly blew up in their faces-- Grogan handed the ball off to running back and third-string QB Craig James, who exploited a gap in the Chicago defenses to dash into the end zone for a 10-0 New England lead. The Bears’ dream season was slowly but surely turning into a nightmare....
....a nightmare that got measurably worse when wide receiver Willie Gault had to leave the game with a twisted ankle six minutes into the second quarter. While Gault’s regular season performance might have been overshadowed by that of his legendary teammate Walter Payton, he was still an important part of the Bears offense; with him out of the lineup, Jim McMahon had one less scoring option available.
Kevin Butler hit two field goals to cut New England’s lead to 10-6, but that did little to calm Ditka’s nerves; Chicago was still on the short end of the score in Super Bowl 20, and the Patriots were riding a wave of momentum thanks to the Craig James TD. With just over five minutes to go in the second quarter, New England running back Tony Collins added to that momentum with a 51-yard TD run which put the Pats ahead 17-6. At the two-minute warning, Patriots kicker Tony Franklin hit a 32-yard field goal to stretch New England’s lead to 20-6.
The demeanor of the two teams was a study in contrasts as they walked to their respective locker rooms at halftime. The New England players left the field with a cheerful, relaxed stride, while the Chicago players trudged off like death row inmates marching the "last mile" to the execution chamber; even the most casual observer could tell at that point whose side the momentum was on. A similar contrast was evident in the two head coaches’ halftime speeches; Berry’s was cool and poised, Ditka’s a frantic red-hot tirade that at the peak of its fury could be heard in the corridors outside the Bears locker room. The Patriots, a star-crossed franchise usually associated with playoff futility, a team which had once had a head coach who nearly electrocuted himself at his debut press conference, was on the brink of succeeding where some of the NFL’s most storied teams had failed.
The third quarter opened with Patriots inside linebacker Steve Nelson intercepting Jim McMahon on 2nd and 5 at the Chicago 47-yard line. That interception set up a 39-yard field goal which put New England ahead 23-6; McMahon was indeed eating his words, and thanks to the Pats’ defensive line he was also eating sizable chunks of the Superdome turf-- at the time of the interception he’d already been sacked twice that day and would go on to have a Super Bowl-record five sacks notched against him before the day was over.
8:10 into the third quarter, the Bears finally caught a break when fullback Matt Suhey caught a 43-yard spiral from McMahon to cut the Patriots’ lead to 23-13; on Chicago’s next possession, Butler hit a 54-yard field goal to shrink that lead down to 23-16. It seemed like the Bears were finally making a comeback and starting play like the juggernaut that had won sixteen straight games in the regular season and two consecutive playoff matchups going into the Super Bowl.
But once again fortune deserted Chicago. With about five and a half minutes left in the third quarter, Patriots cornerback Raymond Clayborne pounced on a Bears fumble at the New England 27-yard line; following that turnover, Steve Grogan put together a long, grinding series of short-yardage pass plays that ate up clock time and ended in a 12-yard touchdown run by Irving Fryar which put the Pats ahead 30-16. Everything that could go wrong for the Bears, was going wrong, and to a degree the most cynical pessimist among Bears fans wouldn’t have dared anticipate.
The third quarter ended with veteran Pats left guard John Hannah bulldozing his way to the Bears 27-yard line to set the stage for yet another Tony Franklin field goal. With Chicago trailing 33-16 to start the fourth quarter, it was hard to see how things could get much worse for the Bears...
....but they did. Kevin Butler missed his next two field goal tries and Jim McMahon, who’d gone through most of the game with a bull’s-eye on his chest, was benched in favor of second-string Bears QB Steve Fuller. Not that it did much good: on his first play of the game Fuller got nailed for a safety by defensive end Kenneth Sims to put Chicago in a 35-16 hole. Buddy Ryan and Mike Ditka, whose working relationship had long been awkward at best, got into a vehement and bitter shouting match over who was primarily to blame for the debacle overtaking the Monsters of the Midway, and had it not been for the intervention of Bears left tackle Jimbo Covert, the two might have actually come to blows.
Patriots linebacker Brian Holloway, who by himself accounted for two of the five sacks against Jim McMahon in Super Bowl 20 and would go on to be named the game’s MVP, drove the final stake through the heart of Chicago’s Lombardi Trophy hopes with a 61-yard interception return that gave New England a 42-16 lead. In the final three minutes of the game Bears defensive tackle William "The Refigerator" Perry provided one of Chicago’s few bright spots of the day when he made an interception return of his own to cut the Pats’ lead to 42-27, but it was the last gasp of a dying team. When the whistle blew to officially end Super Bowl 20, it signaled the start of celebrations in Boston and mourning in Chicago.
Berry and his team returned from New Orleans to an enthusiastic welcome at Logan Airport; Mayor Kevin White, then in the final days of his Boston political career, hosted one of the most lavish parades in the city’s history to celebrate the Patriots’ first Super Bowl title. At O’Hare Airport, meanwhile, you could count on your fingers and toes the number of people who showed up to meet the vanquished Bears. And at least one man on the Bears payroll was conspicuously absent from the team’s flight home to Chicago-- Buddy Ryan, incensed by what he considered Ditka’s blatant disrespect towards him during their third quarter argument in Super Bowl 20, had already taken a separate flight back from New Orleans and was at that very moment drafting a press release announcing that he would resign as Bears defensive coordinator effective at 12 noon the next day.
The resignation might have seemed sudden to those not familiar with the prickly relations between Ryan and Ditka, but for those who’d followed the soap opera since Ryan’s arrival in the Windy City back in 1978 it was just the inevitable epitaph of a strained partnership that was bound to end badly anyway.
Raymond Berry, on the other hand, would stay as head coach of the Patriots until 1991, when he was fired following a lackluster 4-11 season. His successor, Rod Rust, turned out to be even worse, however; Rust mismanaged the Pats to a horrible 1-15 record and would resign in disgrace at the end of the regular season. By then Steve Grogan, who was arguably New England’s most successful quarterback until Tom Brady came along, had retired to await his inevitable enshrinement at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. While he waited, he and Brian Holloway were both named to the Patriots’ 30th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1993.
Holloway finished his NFL career with the Oakland Raiders in 1989 but would return to the Pats in 1995 as an assistant defensive co-ordinator; in 2001 he would earn his second Super Bowl ring as a Patriot and first as a coach when, as head defensive co-ordinator under Bill Belichick, he fashioned the defense that enabled New England to pull off a 23-17 upset win against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl 36.
Though Patriots fans would have to endure many years of heartache before they finally took home the brass ring again, they were a good deal more fortunate than their brethren in Chicago, who saw the Bears go from being on the verge of a 19-0 season to being eliminated in the first round of the divisional playoffs to not making the NFL playoffs at all. After Mike Ditka resigned as Bears head coach following the 1992 season, Chicago kept finding itself on the short end of the stick when it came to playoff contention; it would take until 2006, when Rex Grossman engineered a comeback victory against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl 41, for the Bears to finally get hold of their first Super Bowl championship.
Of all the Chicago and New England players who were involved in Super Bowl 20, the one whose NFL career endured the longest was Jim McMahon; ironically, McMahon, at one time considered the face-- and, some would suggest, the mouth --of "Da Bears", would play his final NFL game in 1996 as a member of their archfoes the Green Bay Packers. William "The Refrigerator" Perry also retired with a Bears archrival, finishing his career with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1994.
Both Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan, who followed up his tenure as Bears defensive co-ordinator with head coaching stints in Philadelphia and Arizona and a brief tenure as defensive co-ordinator in Houston, left the NFL coaching ranks in the late 1990s-- Ditka to concentrate on his various high-profit business ventures, Ryan to manage a horse-breeding farm in Kentucky.