Dave Wannstedt needed linebackers.
The new Bears head coach was fresh off coordinating the Dallas Cowboys’ defense to the best in the NFL, finishing 5th in points allowed, 1st in yards, and bagging an astounding nine turnovers against the Bills in a 52-17 Super Bowl plastering.
The Dallas linebackers — Ken Norton, Robert Jones, Vinson Smith, and kind of Charles Haley — played brilliant football all year, straight on through to the season’s final points, a 9-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Norton to close the Super Bowl. Now in Chicago, Wannstedt inherited a linebacking corps losing the retiring Mike Singletary, who was flanked in 1992 by the underwhelming Jim Morrissey and John Roper.
And so in the first month of the new era of true NFL free agency, Wannstedt’s Bears signed Seahawks linebacker Joe Cain, a restricted free agent, to a multi-year deal, reported at two years, $1.3 million.
One year later, Cain was one of five high-profile free agents starting in the playoffs for the Bears, along with two big veterans acquired via trade.
Last week, Ryan Pace thrilled Bears fans with a number of free agent signings, including wide receiver Allen Robinson and tight end Trey Burton. In 10 months, these two players might well be the latest Bears free agents to help take the Bears to the playoffs. Like most teams, our last four playoff squads were anchored by stars from the draft, but defined in some ways by free agents.
You’re never going to build an entire team exclusively thru free agency. That’s not the idea. But along with adding key players here and there to a roster either blooming or in need of one last piece, the key value of free agency is culture. If you can add key players who bring not just talent but leadership, you’ve won. And if you can use free agency to add talent and leadership AND fortify a key position group in such a way that imbues your locker room with a newfound confidence — well, now you’re cooking.
The Bears have reached the playoffs five times with four teams in the modern free agency era. Here is a look back at how free agency helped those teams reach the playoffs.
2010 — 11-5, division champs, NFC championship game
Big signings: Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor, Brandon Manumaleuna
Contracts: Peppers, $91.5m/6 — Manumaleuna, $17m/5 — Taylor, $12.5m/4
Other key signings: Tim Jennings
Biggest culture change: The Peppers Impact
After reaching Super Bowl XLI, the Bears missed the playoffs three straight years. They needed a stronger pass rush, a new backup for Matt Forte, and a blocking tight end for Mike Martz. They landed Vikings backup running back Chester Taylor and Chargers tight end Brandon Manumaleuna.
The prize piece though, hands down, was Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers. He was so important that Lovie Smith flew to his home in Charlotte for an early morning meeting.
Another signing that received much less attention proved the second-most important after Peppers: Colts cornerback Tim Jennings.
These signings helped spur the Bears to an 11-5 record and division championship. Of the 22 Bears starters in the NFC championship game, seven were free agents, including 2009 signee Pisa Tinoisamoa and 2007 signee Anthony Adams. And, of course, Jay Cutler came in 2009 via trade.
“We weren’t looking to make a splash,” Jerry Angelo said. “We were looking to win. We prepared for a lot of scenarios. Fortunately for us, (this) was the one we wanted to pursue first.”
2005/2006 — two division championships and a Super Bowl appearance
Big signings: Thomas Jones, John Tait, Ruben Brown (2004); Muhsin Muhammad, Fred Miller (2005)
Contracts: Tait, $33m/6 — Muhammad, $30m/6 — Miller, $22.5m/5 — Jones, $10m/4 — Brown, $4.5m/3
Other key signings: Roberto Garza, 2005 — Ricky Manning Jr., Brian Griese, 2006
Key trade that felt like a signing: Adewale Ogunleye in 2004
Big signing that didn’t work: Jonathan Quinn, 2004
Smaller signings that worked: Robbie Gould, 2005
Biggest culture change: Bruising offensive power
The first iteration of the Lovie Smith Bears had a defense built nearly exclusively through the draft — and an offense built predominantly through free agency.
Including big 2003 free agent Desmond Clark and fullback Jason McKie whom they signed off of waivers in August of that year, eight of the team’s 11 offensive starters in Super Bowl XLI arrived via free agent signings. The wave started on the first day of free agency in 2004, when new offensive coordinator Terry Shea — formerly the quarterbacks coach of the Chiefs — targeted Buccaneers running back Thomas Jones to be our version of Priest Holmes.
The Bears signed Jones as soon as free agency started, completing the deal at 1 a.m.
That same day, they signed Chiefs backup quarterback Jonathan Quinn to back up Rex Grossman. Two days later they signed Chiefs tackle John Tait to an offer sheet of $33 million over six years (the Chiefs declined to match), and the next month grabbed perennial Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown from the Bills.
In our interview last year, Jones told me that in 2005 when rookie Cedric Benson held out, he and the offensive linemen felt ownership of the offense.
“At that point it was my offense,” he said. “It wasn’t Rex’s offense. Rex wasn’t there the year before. He was injured. I looked at it like it was my offense, Olin Kreutz’s offense, John Tait’s, Ruben Brown’s. The guys who had been there in the trenches, it was our offense. We’re veterans and we want to win a Super Bowl.”
The next year brought All Pro wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, a man who could stretch the field but was also known for his physicality and fearlessness as either a red zone receiver over the middle or a blocker in the run game. The team also added tackle Fred Miller from Tennessee and Falcons guard Roberto Garza, who began the season as a backup but became a stalwart that season and on for a decade.
With injuries to Rex in both 2004 and 2005, it was those powerful players acquired via free agency along with offensive leader Olin Kreutz who gave the Bears offense its identity.
As Kreutz told me last year: “When you find a unit like 2006 or 2001 where the guys are actually good, and you gel? Oh man, you just kill people.”
2001 — 13-3, division champs, bye week
Big signings: Ted Washington, Keith Traylor, Brad Maynard, Daimon Shelton, Fred Baxter
Contracts: Washington, $7.5m/3 — Traylor, $6.3m/3 — Maynard, $5.25m/5 — Baxter, $2.5m/3 (I cannot find figures for Shelton)
Biggest culture change: Washington and Traylor in the middle
The starting defensive tackles for the 2000 Chicago Bears, Jim Flanigan and Mike Wells, were an average 6’2 1⁄2 and 300 pounds.
The starting defensive tackles for the 2001 Chicago Bears, Ted Washington and Keith Traylor, were an average 6’3 1⁄2 and 352.5 pounds.
The difference, to say the least, was noticed. It had three effects. The first was strictly those two guys on their own terms: they were each among the game’s best, and playing next to each other felt like it tripled, rather than merely doubled, their impact.
The second effect was the way their presence created newfound space for reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Urlacher. That was tantalizing for Urlacher, the coaching staff, Bears fans, opponents... anyone who cared about football generally and the Bears specifically.
But maybe the biggest effect of Washington and Traylor was psychological. They changed the way opponents thought about running against the Bears. They changed the way the coaches thought about the defense’s potential. They made us feel like a Super Bowl defense, as they were widely acknowledged as following the blueprint of the Super Bowl-champion Ravens, whose starting d-tackles were an average size of 6’3, 340.
Everyone talks about how Washington and Traylor impacted Urlacher, but other Bears felt the same effect.
“It’s also going to take double teams away from me and free me up to go one-on-one,” defensive end Phillip Daniels said during the preseason. “That’s all they need to do and the rest is on me.”
1994 — 9-7, wild card, road playoff win
Big signings: Andy Heck, Erik Kramer, Lewis Tillman, Marv Cook
Contracts: Heck, $10m/4 — Kramer, $8.1m/3 — Tillman, $3m/3 — Cook, $1.4m/2
Key trades that felt like signings: Vinson Smith in 1993, Jeff Graham in 1994
Allegedly small signing that turned out to be huge: Steve Walsh
Allegedly big signing that didn’t last due to injury: Merril Hoge
Biggest culture change: An offense that moved on from the Ditka years
1993 was the move from Ditka to Wannstedt.
1994 was the move from Ditka’s team to Wannstedt’s team.
The team moved on from running back Neal Anderson and quarterback Jim Harbaugh, their first round picks from 1986 and 1987, respectively. Super Bowl XX starters Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, and William Perry moved on to new teams; fellow starter Keith Van Horne retired. By ‘94, the only members of the Super Bowl Bears still on the roster Mark Bortz, Kevin Butler, and Shaun Gayle.
Replacing these franchise standard-bearers were a bevy of free agents, including two new quarterbacks. Erik Kramer was meant to be the star, and in 1995 produced what is arguably still the best season a Bears QB ever had post-Sid Luckman.
But Kramer floundered in ‘94, and backup Steve Walsh — who signed a one-year deal in ‘94 for $600,000 — became the starter, went 8-3, took the Bears to the playoffs and led them to an upset road win over the division-champion Vikings. We hung tough with the soon-to-be Super Bowl-champion 49ers in the divisional round before getting blown out 44-15, the first and only time I felt proud while getting our butts kicked.
Joe Cain was a bright spot that day. He had six tackles, a forced fumble, and a pass defensed. It was par for his time here, as he remained a defensive leader and impact player for much of his four-year tenure. He helped get it started in ‘93, but in ‘94, everything felt different. We were a new team with a new coach and new quarterbacks. We had a new future. We had new hope. We had a new way. We were ready.
Which season brought the best free agent haul to Chicago?
This poll is closed
1994: Kramer, Walsh, Tillman, Heck, Cook
2001: Washington, Traylor, Maynard, Baxter, Shelton
2004: Jones, Tait, R. Brown, Quinn
2005: Muhammad, Miller, Garza
2010: Peppers, Jennings, Taylor, Manumaleuna
2013: Bushrod, Slauson, M. Bennett
2018: Robinson, Burton, Parkey, Gabriel, Daniel, Lynch