The best athletes, let alone football players, are those that transcend eras. These are the guys who would find a way to excel no matter what period of NFL history they happened to partake in. In retooling the “Monsters of the Midway”, a nickname for the transcendent 1940s Bears, I’ve come to that delicate balance of a complete team that (mostly) can play across any section of Chicago’s football history.
In this final installment of All-Bears historical fantasy teams that a portion of us on the Windy City Gridiron staff have participated in over the last month, here’s the breakdown of my Monsters of the Midway position by position.
From All-Pro Hall of Fame pass rushers, to some of the most underrated athletes and men in the trenches the Bears have ever seen: this is a dynamic roster from top to bottom.
Quarterback: Johnny Lujack
Fun fact: the Bears have only had three First-Team All-Pros at quarterback in their history. Joey Sternaman (who played in the earliest iterations of the NFL in the 1920s), Sid Luckman, and the perennially under-appreciated Lujack.
He’s forgotten now, but Lujack was once the successor to Luckman following the golden age of Bears’ football in the 1940s. A three-time National Champion, Heisman winner, and Associated Press Player of the Year at Notre Dame, Lujack was widely seen as the best up-and-coming player in 1947. Fortunately, the Bears and George Halas were the ones to draft him with the No. 4 overall selection of the 1948 NFL Draft.
In the short time the two were a couple, Lujack made magic happen for Chicago. Even if the team results didn’t match up to the legendary Luckman.
Over the course of four seasons, Lujack was the top quarterback in the NFL with three First-Team All-Pro selections. He led the league in passing yards and passing touchdowns in 1949. As a display of his tremendous legs (which helped him play safety from time to time), Lujack also led the NFL in rushing touchdowns in 1950. He was the most electric athlete in football. When was the last time you could say any of this about a Bears’ passer?
For comparison’s sake, the Bears going from Luckman (who still occasionally played quarterback for Chicago) to Lujack was like the Packers going from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers. That’s in terms of maintaining elite quarterback play consistently and running roughshod over everybody else at the position.
The unfortunate aspect of Lujack’s career, despite a rocket arm and making defenses pay with his legs, was that his body could only withstand so much punishment. It’s why he played only four seasons with the Bears, cutting short what could’ve been an all-time great run of quarterbacking the league had ever seen. To deny what he accomplished in the short time that Lujack did feature in the NFL, would be shortsighted.
Running back: Neal Anderson
The Bears’ all-time leading rushers in order: Walter Payton, Matt Forte, and ... Anderson.
No one in their right mind would argue the status of Payton. However, Forte’s distinction would seem to imply that he was a superior player to Payton’s successor in the late 1980s in Anderson. Forte’s 8,602 rushing yards in eight seasons came on 2,035 carries. Anderson’s 6,166 rushing yards in seven seasons came on 1,515 attempts: almost 500 less opportunities to make something of Forte.
Now, to be fair, Forte was renown for being a workhorse, and there was the question that maybe Anderson couldn’t have handled the same punishment. In the realm where he did receive the same chances, Anderson’s efficiency over Forte can’t be questioned.
The same generally goes for Anderson as a receiver over Forte, at least in terms of offensive scheme inflation. Anderson was renown for being a proficient pass catcher out of the backfield, averaging roughly 40 receptions over the duration of his Bears career: except for his rookie season. In a more pass-happy NFL, it’s not a stretch to say these numbers would’ve translated well for the talent in the manner that Forte was applied for Chicago from 2008 to 2015.
In my offense, the 5-foot-11 and 210 pound Anderson is the perfect failsafe for Lujack and company.
Receivers: Brandon Marshall, Bobby Engram, Dick Gordon
Lujack needs some capable targets to the get the football to. There’s no one better in Bears history in that regard than Marshall.
Over the course of three seasons from 2012 to 2014, Marshall had the greatest run as a Bears’ receiving threat: especially from 2012 to 2013. 2012 in particular is the most dominant a Bears’ receiver has ever been as Marshall amassed 118 receptions, 1,508 yards, and 11 touchdowns. The 6-foot-5 and 232 pound was a technical machine that punished defensive backs, and no one else in Chicago’s history can touch his highest peaks.
To complement Marshall, comes in Engram: who for two years from 1998 to 1999 had at least 64 receptions in a non-elite Bears’ passing offense. The quintessential possession receiver that made many a play on crucial third downs.
And finally, purely by design, is Dick Gordon in the slot: one of the most underrated Bears receivers to step onto a football field. Back in 1970 and 1971, Gordon caught a combined 114 passes, 1,636 yards, and 18 touchdowns. Simply unheard of statistics for any wideout at the time. That two-year stretch with the Bears earned him a First-Team All-Pro selection in 1970 and Pro Bowl berths in both years. If only his football career had lasted longer.
Tight end: Desmond Clark
Before there was Greg Olsen, Martellus Bennett, Adam Shaheen, and Trey Burton, was Clark. A blocking tight end of the highest order who became one of the most valuable balanced weapons for one of the Bears’ two lone NFC Championship teams.
When the Bears acquired Clark in 2003, he immediately showed his value catching 44 passes for 433 yards. Three years later, when they were a legitimate championship contender, Clark’s 45 receptions for 626 yards and six touchdowns could’ve had him reasonably profiled as Rex Grossman’s favorite security blanket.
Where he showed his value beyond that, was setting the edge for Thomas Jones and company in the running game. A physical bruiser beyond his years, watch many of Jones’ highlights in Chicago and you’ll see Clark paving the way. Clark wasn’t a superstar, but he was capable, and slots in well into a Chicago offense already stocked with versatile weapons.
Offensive line (from left to right): Ed Healey, Cody Whitehair, George Trafton, Al Baisi, Lee Artoe
Unlike my peers, I decided to go with a heavy old school look for my front line. After all, the Bears can be credited with having some of the first truly great offensive linemen in NFL history. So it’s only fair to have them headline and assist my playmakers.
In Healey, you have a five-time All-Pro, 1920’s All-Decade team member, and the NFL’s first true blindside protector. As a recognition of his greatness, Healey was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s second class in 1964.
The exploits of Whitehair in the modern era are well-known at this point. He’s considered the current anchor of Mitchell Trubisky’s Bears and has been versatile enough to play both guard and center. I feel comfortable with him at guard, while recognizing his potential for transcendence on the interior and playing him in between two Hall of Famers.
That second Hall of Famer is another of the NFL’s inaugural special offensive lineman in Trafton. A “local kid” who was actually born in Chicago and went to Oak Park River Forest High School, Trafton helped set the tone for the earliest iterations of the Bears. As the man in the middle, he is credited as the first player to actually snap the ball with one hand. He went on to play for the Decatur Staleys, and eventually Bears, from 1921 to 1932. In that time, he was a six-time All-Pro and was later an 1920s All-Decade Team member.
Next to Trafton at right guard, is one of the more shorter-lived talented Bears’ offensive linemen in Baisi. As part of the dominant early 1940s Chicago teams, Baisi made two Pro Bowls in 1940 and 1941. He took a break after being drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II and returned in 1946 to feature on the Bears’ 1946 NFL championship team: which he isn’t credited for in the Bears’ media guide. Similarly to the credit he doesn’t nearly get enough of as a player overall.
Finally, at right tackle, is Lee Artoe. A three-time Pro Bowler and 1942 All-Pro selection during his tenure with the Bears, Artoe was arguably Chicago’s top offensive lineman in their dynastic years. Another World War II veteran, Artoe would’ve been recognized as one of the all-time greats if not for the break with the war.
Defensive line: Dan Hampton, Ted Washington, Julius Peppers
Now, here comes the fun part.
Want to punish the modern best quarterbacks in football? Look no further than the structure of my 3-4 defense.
There’s the Hall of Famer in Hampton at one defensive end slot, widely regarded as one of the best Bears to ever play. The list of accomplishments Hampton garnered at both end and tackle say more than enough. A six-time All-Pro (First or Second-Team), four-time Pro Bowler, 1982 Defensive Player of the Year, and member of the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade Team: Hampton was the needed anchor of one of pro football’s greatest defenses put together in 1985.
In the middle, you have the beefy Washington (6-foot-5 and 375 pounds!). Known as a prolific eater of space, Washington played a huge role in both creating space for the early Brian Urlacher in 2001, and generally being an elite talent on his own. For his efforts in 2001, Washington was rewarded with a worthy First-Team All-Pro selection.
And opposite of Hampton, comes one of football’s most freakish athletes in Peppers. That’s because of his stature at 6-foot-6 and 295 pounds. It’s not often you find a former college basketball player at defensive end that translated so well to football like Peppers.
A surefire future Hall of Famer, Peppers proved instrumental in guiding the Bears back to relevancy in 2010 after a short unsuccessful dry spell following Super Bowl XLI. Peppers made the Pro Bowl three of the first four seasons he played with the Bears (2010 to 2012), was a First-Team All-Pro selection in 2010, and Second-Team All-Pro pick in 2012. No one can deny the havoc Peppers wreaked for Chicago in his short time as a player here. And, the mayhem he’ll cause with Hampton and Washington directly beside him.
Linebackers: Leonard Floyd, Warrick Holdman, Dante Jones, Phillip Daniels
Is it way too early to include Floyd in any All-Bears historical team (especially as my first pick)? Probably (definitely). Should we be denying his bendy and speedy talent as an edge rusher, especially when having the fortune of working with Peppers and Hampton? Absolutely not.
The third-year Bears’ pass rusher works fantastically on stunts. With Peppers and Hampton in the fold, the sack numbers for Floyd should be astronomical as an offensive line doesn’t know who to block or scheme for on any given play.
As far as inside linebackers, you can’t get more underrated in defensive field generals than Jones and Holdman. Jones, to this day, had one of the most remarkable seasons by a Bears linebacker when he accumulated 189 tackles, and seven turnovers in the 1993 season. Those tackle numbers are something Chicago greats like Urlacher, Mike Singletary, and Dick Butkus never came close to. The 1993 Jones fits in perfectly.
Then with Holdman, he wasn’t a superstar for Chicago by any means. But, he steadily did his job and held down the middle for the Bears for five seasons. Next to Urlacher in 2001 especially, Holdman had 93 tackles, nine passes defensed, and three forced fumbles.
Finally, as the outside linebacker opposite Floyd, you can’t forget Daniels’ pass rush work in his first three seasons in Chicago (2000 to 2002). Those three years saw Daniels produce 20.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Nothing remarkable, but solid. On my Bears’ front that already features so many legendary pass rushers, those versions of Daniels should be poised for even better numbers at attacking quarterbacks.
Cornerbacks: Donnell Woolford, Kyle Fuller
If you have an elite pass rush, more than likely your secondary improves by proxy. In my frame of mind, why not buoy my pass rush with two stellar cornerbacks anyway. Naturally, I expect bushels of turnovers.
In Woolford on one side, you have the man who is fourth all time in interceptions for the Bears’ franchise with 32 in seven seasons. You have a 1994 All-Pro, and 1993 Pro Bowler. More than anything, you have a guy who made quarterbacks pay for testing him as Woolford averaged almost five interceptions over his Bears’ career.
To complement Woolford, is the current Bears’ No. 1 corner in Fuller. Fuller only recently enjoyed a consistent wire-to-wire professional season in 2017, as he was second in the NFL in passes defensed with 22 last year. That being said, the 26-year-old seems to have found a place of stability that should see him rise into the upper echelon over the next few seasons. Fuller is renown for his aggressiveness when called upon, and that factors in well on my attacking defense.
Safeties: Mark Carrier, Chris Harris
Fun fact: Carrier’s rookie season in 1990 is the best year a Bears’ defensive back has ever had in terms of interceptions. As a green rookie, Carrier picked off an incredible 10 passes, set several records, and became a lynchpin as the last line of defense for Chicago. While he never kept up the insane production over the next six years, Carrier would make three Pro Bowls from 1990 to 1993, was a Second-Team All-Pro selection in that rookie 1990 season, and First-Team All-Pro in 1991.
Impressively, during that four-year stretch, Carrier never had less than 89 tackles (he had 122 in 1990). This showed his versatility as a ballhawk and excellent tackler in the box.
Try and test Carrier once you’re pressured by Hampton, Peppers, and company. You’re not getting the ball back with the instinctive hard-hitting safety closing in.
Beside Carrier is Harris: a starting safety on each of the last three Bears’ playoff teams in 2005, 2006, and 2010, respectively. Harris’ Chicago career can be summed with an interception of Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLI, and a Second-Team All-Pro selection in 2010. These happened cross two separate stints no less!
In this defense, Harris is a solid player that more or less only has to do his job while surrounded by elite athletes across the board.
Special teams: Todd Sauerbrun, Brendan Ayanbadejo, R.W. McQuarters
Unfortunately, WCG staff members mandated that I pick a kicker or punter. I don’t anticipate punting with these Monsters of the Midway and will go for it on almost every fourth down.
If I have to punt, I’m in good hands with Sauerbrun. Sauerbrun was a First-Team All-Pro punter in 1996 for the Bears and has the fourth-highest career net punt of any other Chicago punter at 34.1.
To boost my return game, I have one of the best pure special teams players of this generation in Ayanbadejo. The Swiss Army Knife of Dave Toub’s genius schemes, Ayanbadejo was the unsung hero as Devin Hester created all the headlines in the mid 2000s. Though, he was recognized with three Pro Bowl honors from 2006 to 2008. We wouldn’t have the same memories of Hester, or stop other teams from having their own Hesters, without Ayanbadejo’s efforts.
In this instance for my Bears’ historical team, Ayanbadejo gets to work with the underrated McQuarters. In five seasons in Chicago, McQuarters played every cornerback role, safety, and was most successful as the Bears’ punt returner in 2003: where he had 37 returns for 452 yards, and a touchdown.
With these Monsters of the Midway, classify McQuarters as a utility man. He’s a capable backup in the secondary in case of injury, and in nickel packages. If he’s not playing defense, he’s creating headaches in the return game.
Overall, I look forward to watching these fresh Monsters of the Midway rampage their way through this All-Bears league of football. Something tells me a collection of Hampton, Anderson, Lujack, Marshall, Peppers, Woolford, and some of the greatest Bears’ offensive linemen, among other players: can’t be overcome.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.