Jim Dooley’s team was 52 years old and winner of eight championships and hurting.
The year was 1971 and Dooley’s Bears had not been to the postseason since winning the 1963 NFL championship. After starting the season 6-3, they got whipped by the Lions and faced what Dooley called a “super-must” game on Monday Night Football: the team had to win out to make the playoffs.
Their opponent, the Miami Dolphins, was in the opposite position in every way. They were young — six years in existence, and only two in the NFL. They were undecorated — the year prior they reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
They were good. On that day, the Dolphins held the NFL’s best record, 8-1-1.
That game in November of ‘71 was the first between these two teams. The storied Bears desperately needed a win. The upstart Dolphins had victories to spare. And what happened? Dolphins 34, Bears 3.
This was the beginning of a short, tortured history for Bears fans, one that proceeds to its 13th chapter this Sunday and one that Bears fans ignore at our own peril. You can’t exactly call it a rivalry, but the history certainly poses an existential crisis to me, at least, and presumably other Bears fans bothered by this breakdown in birthrights.
Because here’s what bugs me about the Dolphins as it relates to our beloved Bears: this is a franchise we’re supposed to trounce. Generally speaking, the big bad Midwestern Bears weather get-off-the-bus-running-and-let’s-get-grimy charter franchise is supposed to mop the floor with a football team from Florida born in the AFL. That has not been the case.
As Bears fans, we take our relationship with certain teams more seriously than others. When we lost to the Packers in Week 1, for instance, we experienced that as more than just one game in the standings. We had identity angst: “Oh no, we STILL can’t beat the Packers.” We lamented the impact that the loss had on our all-time series record. We absorbed the deeper despair of lumbering out of Lambeau with yet another loss.
This is natural with the Packers and certain other teams, because obviously there are divisional rivalries, geographic rivalries and longevity rivalries. The Dolphins fail all three of these, so we don’t pay them much mind beyond the limited scope of our head-to-head matchups.
Yet in the same way that losing repeatedly to Green Bay is bad for our psyche, or becoming underdogs to the Lions is bad for our psyche, this terminal battery at the hands of the Dolphins leaves lasting scars. We simply don’t acknowledge them.
In 12 contests, we have won only four times. Did you hear me? We are 4-8 lifetime against a football team from South Florida. Not one of our four wins offered any lasting merit. We played the Dolphins three times in the 1970s — ‘71, ‘75, ‘79 — losing all three games by a combined score of 111-32. During that time, the Dolphins became an NFL powerhouse, winning two Super Bowls, appearing in a third and notching the NFL’s only undefeated season ever in 1972.
Whose record did they break when they won that Super Bowl? Why, ours of course. We went undefeated in 1934 and 1942, losing the NFL championship each time.
Then we get to the famous match in 1985, as the 12-0 Bears rolled into Miami to face the 8-4 Dolphins.
We all know how that went down: Dolphins 38, Bears 24. With that, we lost our shot at going undefeated and had to forever hear about it from Dolphins fans who can still claim that their ‘72 team was the greatest of all-time.
On opening day 1988, we finally got our first win against Miami, a 34-7 shellacking at Soldier Field. But that was Week 1, and it’s tough to really hang your hat on a Week 1 victory when you’re trying to make up for four losses including the ‘85 game.
“I don’t put too much stock in the first game,” Mike Ditka said after the win. “I said that before in the preseason.”
Our next game against Miami was 1991, also at Soldier. We blew a 13-3 4th quarter lead and lost 16-13 in overtime.
We won a forgettable game in ‘94, 17-14, for win #2 in the series.
We had our most memorable win in 1997, erasing a 33-18 4th quarter deficit to win 36-33 in overtime. This was made both more memorable and less relevant because we were 0-7 at the time.
We lost 27-6 at the end of a doomed 2002.
Our next game against the Dolphins was 1985-lite. That was 2006, with a 7-0 record against a 1-6 Dolphins team led by Joey Harrington. I was in the Soldier Field stands that day. The Dolphins took a 14-3 lead in the 2nd quarter on a Jason Taylor pick-six off of one of the worst balls Rex ever threw, and ran all over us with Ronnie Brown (157 yards on 29 carries) en route to a 31-13 Bears loss, our first of the year.
They got us again, ya know?
In 2010 we beat them 16-0 in the second most boring Bears shutout I’ve ever watched. That was a playoff year and our third straight win, so perhaps this is the most significant win we’ve had against the Dolphins.
That said, when was the last time you reminisced about our sparkling 16-0 blanking of the 2010 Dolphins? You haven’t and you know it.
Lastly, there was the 27-14 loss in 2014, AKA the “Brandon Marshall ‘Unacceptable’ Game.” You remember: Brandon used the word “unacceptable” 17 times in a postgame interview, and probably yelled at Robbie Gould in the locker room.
The next two games of this season were the back-to-back 50-poppers from the Pats and Pack, a three-game stretch that spelled the end of the Trestman/Emery era.
Now add to that these insult-meets-injury scenarios:
- Super Bowl wins: 2-1 Dolphins
- Super Bowl appearances: 3-2 Dolphins
- Don Shula passed George Halas for most wins by a coach in NFL history
- The Bears lost a Super Bowl in Miami
- The Dolphins punked out in the ‘85 AFC championship game, denying us our rematch
Recent history doesn’t do us much better. Yes, the Dolphins have only reached the playoffs twice since 2002, with just three 10-win seasons. But the Bears have only reached the playoffs three times in that span, with four 10-win seasons.
The Dolphins perfectly encapsulate our long, Bear Down nightmare. They represent the gap between our century-long greatness and our 30-year failure. They are the embodiment of the cruel irony that “old school” doesn’t bring new wins. They are the unrequited lust for our own historic stature.
My point, my fellow Bears fans, is that we have to take this game more seriously beyond just a win or a loss. Beyond whether Mitch develops further, Floyd gets a sack, Nagy calls a good game or James Daniels plays well at guard, a deeper, more lasting emotional toll is at stake. We are 3-1 and coming off a remarkable victory. We can fumble that momentum away at the hands of our secret adversaries or keep it rolling.
In doing so, we can shove the Dolphins into the abyss and correct a trend long in need of rectification. It is time to turn the tide against this team. It is time to march them back to their beach.
Jack M Silverstein is Windy City Gridiron’s Bears historian, and author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” He is the proprietor of Chicago sports history Instagram “A Shot on Ehlo.” Say hey at @readjack.