Welcome to Part 4 of the Championship Belt Series on WCG! If you missed the intro, please go back and read Part 1. The concept and “rules” are all explained up top, followed by the first 7 championship belt bouts. Part 2 takes us through the dynasty of the 1940’s all the way up to Bill George and the birth of the Middle Linebacker. Part 3 starts with a new belt holder around the time George Halas lifted the actual championship trophy for the last time and takes us through the most famous Bears team. Part 4 below takes us through the Super Bowl hangover that lasted through the end of the century. Buckle up!
Part 4 –The Aging of the Greatest Defense into a Giant Black Hole
Wilbur Marshall 1986
A dip in Payton’s productivity left him susceptible to losing the belt in 1986. Although some of the woes on offense were due to losing Jim McMahon, Payton’s yards per carry and overall production go down enough to allow us to take a look at the all-time season that Wilbur Marshall enjoyed in 1986. Pro Football Reference, the excellent webpage, calculates an “Approximate Value” of a player’s season. Marshall’s 1986 Approximate Value was so high that only two other linebackers have matched it – Hall of Famers Pat Swilling in 1991 and Ray Lewis in 2000. That’s it.
Marshall was an important piece of the ’85 squad for sure, but he took it to the next level in ’86, piling up over 100 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 5 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, and 2 defensive touchdowns. Meanwhile, his biggest competition, Singletary, had another great season but simply couldn’t match the counting stats of Marshall’s historic season. In honor of arguably the best season in modern history, Marshall enjoys the belt.
Walk up Music: Let the Bodies Hit the Floor, Drowning Pool. “Let the bodies hit the floor/Let the bodies hit the floor/Let the bodies hit the floor/Let the bodies hit the floor/Let the bodies hit the floor/Let the bodies hit the floor.” It’s the ’86 defense. It was insane. It left bodies all over the place.
Top Challenger: Again, we’re working through the giants of this great defense but it’s impossible to ignore Singletary’s run of 1st Team All-Pro honors. 1986 was his 3rd in a row and he already was awarded the Defensive Player of the Year in 1985. It would be easy to just hand the belt to Singletary, but I simply can’t overlook Marshall here.
Mike Singletary 1987-1992
For his part, Singletary was in the 4th year of an impressive 6 straight 1st Team All Pro campaign run in 1987 and he cemented his place in history with his second Defensive MVP award in 1988. Singletary was the centerpiece of the great defenses of the 80’s and held onto his dominance until the end of his career. There is an argument to be made that Singletary is worthy of the belt in ’85 against Payton or ’86 against Marshall, but this is an impressive run that he makes en route to his induction into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
The first thing that comes to mind with Singletary is the crazy eyes and probably the frantic yelling of pre-snap changes at the line of scrimmage. His seven total First Team All Pro selections rival fellow MLB Bill George and are more than teammates Gary Fencik (1), Dan Hampton (1), Steve McMichael (2), and Wilber Marshall (1) earned as Bears combined. He was a fierce tackler and the “quarterback of the defense” in that familiar 4-3 role.
Walk up Music: Insane in the Brain, Cypress Hill. “Who you tryin’ to get crazy with ése? / Don’t you know I’m loco?” I met Mike Singletary once. I asked him a question, he gave me the wide eyes, said something indiscernible, and I thought I was about to get speared. True Story.
Top Challenger: There was plenty of competition on that defense, with Richard Dent and Dan Hampton both playing Hall of Fame careers in front of him. Add to that the Hall of Fame resumes of Jay Hilgenberg and Steve McMichael, and Singletary had plenty of competition. However, his dominance was so consistent and so regularly recognized that it seems unlikely he’d ever lose a popular vote once he wins the belt. I am completely sympathetic to the arguments of the surrounding pieces helping Singletary to his dominance, but he absolutely deserves the belt for his reign.
Richard Dent 1993
With Singletary retired, it opens up one last shot for Dent to claim the belt. Dent put together two great years with the Bears in ’84 and ’85, racking up 34.5 sacks over those two seasons and earning the Super Bowl MVP. You can make a case he had the best season of any Bears player in ’85. Unfortunately for Dent, it’s not just who had the best season on who claims the belt, and while his career was consistently good, he fell victim to some dominant players that defined generations. In ’93, Dent ran it back for one last season of glory, compiling 12.5 sacks and his 4th and final Pro Bowl honor.
Sacks are the measure for the Defensive End position that will always get talked about and Dent is the standard bearer in team history. His 124.5 sacks is the most in a Bears uniform and his seasons of 17.5 and 17 rank 1st and 2nd for single season marks.
Walk up Music: Bulls on Parade, Rage Against the Machine. “With that sure shot, sure to make the bodies drop/…/Terror rains drenchin’, quenchin’ tha thirst of tha power dons/That five sided fist-a-gon.” The pass rush in ’93 was still great and I like the title “Bulls on Parade” – not to mention that basketball Bulls were on victory parade for their first 3-peat.
Top Challenger: Steve McMichael and Trace Armstrong made the ’93 pass rush truly great. McMichael recorded only 6 in ’93 but an incredible 92.5 during his time in Chicago. McMichael would leave the following year and play one season with rival Green Bay. Trace Armstrong looked like an ascending power with 11.5 in 1993 but dipped down in ’94 and finished his career in Miami and Oakland, tallying 106 career sacks.
Mark Carrier 1994
Richard Dent and Steve McMichael left Chicago at the end of the ’93 season for other teams. Carrier, on the other hand, made his 3rd Pro Bowl in his first four seasons in ’93. The former Defensive Rookie of the Year, Carrier was a more of a hitter from his Free Safety spot than a center fielder during this time with the belt, never recapturing that 10 interception rookie year.
The thing about a good safety is that they can only do so much if everything in front of them falls apart. With the pieces of the dominant mid-1980’s defense retiring or moving on, Carrier became the best player on a bad unit for much of his later Bears career before leaving the Bears for the Lions.
Walk up Music: Man in the Box, Alice in Chains. “I’m the man in the box… / Won’t you come and save me? / Save me.” Seems like a good song for a safety on a depleted defense.
Top Challenger: Donnell Woolford was a good corner and it’s a close battle between the two secondary standouts but Carrier has the advantage of earlier success. 1993 was Woolford’s best season and his career ranks 4th in team history with 32 career interceptions. Woolford, like Carrier, left after 1996.
Author’s note: Recently, NASA released the first pictures of a black hole, a great accomplishment in modern science. What confused me was that we’ve already seen what a black hole looks like – the Chicago Bears from 1995-1999. No Pro Bowl players in that timeframe with the exception of Glyn Milburn in 1999 as a returner and certainly not anyone with a particularly distinguished or outstanding career. So, for each of the next five seasons, each person holds onto the belt for a single year and their reign is so tenuous that it’s almost as though it never happened. We will commemorate this era with the run of disaster movies that ran on the silver screen in the back half of the 90s. I think this whole era deserves a special walk up song - Paint it Black, Rolling Stones. “I want to see it painted, painted black / Black as night, black as coal / I want to see the sun, blotted out from the sky / I want to see it painted, painted, painted, painted black.” It’s what I’d like to do when I think of this era…
Erik Kramer 1995
You may be forgiven if you are unaware that the completely forgettable 9-7 campaign in 1995 also gave us the single season record for yards and TDs by a QB. Kramer’s 3,838 yards and 29 TDs stands as a rather sad single season record for the franchise. Through the 2018 season, the yardage mark ranked 230th in NFL history for a QB. At the time, it was a welcome development in the Dave Wannstedt era, but likely a result of the collapsing defense and the need to throw to get back into pretty much every game. Still, Kramer got the record and deserves to hold the belt for a year. For those of you wondering how this sterling campaign wasn’t rewarded with a Pro Bowl honor, some guys named Brett Favre, Warren Moon, Steve Young, and Troy Aikman somehow got the nod over Kramer. What a snub.
While Kramer missed most of the 1996 season, he managed to eclipse 3,000 yards again in 1997. Some of his heroics that season (overtime win at Miami, back to back wins against Buffalo and St. Louis in completely meaningless games at the end of the year) buoyed the Bears record to 4-12. That 4-12 record earned the Bears the 5th overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft. The Bears drafted Curtis Enis, who played for 3 years and averaged a Trent Richardson-esque 3.3 yards per carry. The 3-13 Indianapolis Colts drafted Peyton Manning, who went on to beat the Bears in the Super Bowl in 2006 and became one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game. Thanks, Erik.
Walk up Music: Supermassive Black Hole, Muse. “Oh baby, don’t you know I suffer? / Oh baby, can you hear me moan? / You caught me under false pretenses / How long before you let me go?” I can’t resist continuing the black hole theme. At least this song makes for a great entrance.
Top Challenger: Kramer’s best receiver that year was Jeff Graham. The possession receiver caught 82 balls for 1,300 yards in his second and last year in Chicago. Graham played for 5 teams during his 11 year career, none better than his 1995 season.
Curtis Conway 1996
Conway may not have had the career that Bears fans hoped for, but he was clearly the best player on the 1996 team. Soaking up 143 targets, Conway led the team with 81 catches for 1,049 yards and 7 scores catching passes primarily from a 38 year old Dave Krieg. Conway’s career is mostly defined by terrible QB play and the inability to stay healthy and on the field. Not a good combination for a Wide Receiver.
It’s tough to blame Conway for those circumstances and in 1996, posting his second straight 1,000 yard season, it appeared like good things were ahead for the former #7 overall draft pick. Conway moved on to play for three more teams, eventually posting his best season in 2001 with the Chargers.
Walk up Music: Still Fly, Big Tymers. “Whassup Fresh? It’s our turn, baby.” One of the few things I personally remember about Conway was the image of him driving away in a sweet sports car in Platteville, Wisconsin during training camp. Avoiding the autograph line like the plague, Conway seemed to like the flashier things in life. Still Fly captures that attitude… plus one of the Big Tymers is wearing a Gale Sayers jersey in the video for “This is how we do.”
Top Challenger: Alonzo Spellman led the team in sacks and in pure intimidation. 6’4” and 290 with crazy eyes, Spellman looked like he had the wingspan of a pterodactyl. A steady 23.5 sacks over a 3-year span gets him at least an honorable mention in this space.
Jim Flanigan 1997
As mentioned in the Kramer write up, the 1997 season was an unmitigated disaster that could have led to the Bears drafting Peyton Manning in 1998. Insert your jokes about the Bears passing on Manning for Ryan Leaf or still falling in love with Enis, but I’d like to believe it was possible. Flannigan’s inclusion here is mostly by accident. Kramer wasn’t very good, posting 14 TDs against an equal number of interceptions. The Bears leading receiver was Ricky Proehl with 753 yards. Raymont Harris did eclipse 1,000 yards rushing but on a paltry 3.8 yards per carry.
Flanigan led the team with 6 sacks from his defensive tackle position, including a safety – the only defensive points on the season. He added two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries on a defense that was allergic to making plays. Flanigan was a solid performer on a deserted roster, which allows him to hold the belt for a year.
Walk up Music: Big Poppa, Notorious B.I.G. “So we can steam on the way to the telly go fill my belly / A t-bone steak, cheese eggs and Welch’s grape.” Famously killed in 1997, the Notorious B.I.G. was a big man who liked to eat and I assume Flanigan could identify with the breakfast food choices of the big rapper.
Top Challenger: Barry Minter started the entire season at linebacker and shared the team lead with Flanigan with six QB takedowns. A solid player for three seasons for the Bears, Minter is probably most famous for getting Wally Pipp-ed by a converted safety out of New Mexico (spoiler alert: that guy wins the belt in Part 5).
Glyn Milburn 1998
Milburn was a journeyman return specialist on his third team with Chicago starting in 1998. He led the NFL in kickoff returns and kick return yards (not a shocker with the Bears lack of defense). The big deal here is the two TDs he scored on kick returns. Add in a third TD on a punt return score and it starts to look like one of those classic return seasons put up by much more well-known Bears greats.
For some unknown reason, Milburn was left off the All Pro and Pro Bowl rosters at the end of the season. The NFL atoned for their mistake in 1999 as he was named to both the Pro Bowl and First Team All Pro despite a lack of TDs.
Walk up Music: The Distance, Cake. “They deftly maneuver and muscle for rank/Fuel burning fast on an empty tank/Reckless and wild, they pour through the turns/Their prowess is potent and secretly stern/…He’s going the distance/ He’s going for speed.” Sounds like a kick return, doesn’t it?
Top Challenger: Bobby Engram was a solid player for the Bears and Seahawks and maybe his 987 yards, under the circumstances, should have given him the path to the belt, but Milburn was an actual excitement on this squad.
Marcus Robinson 1999
Despite the Bears starting a trio of signal callers (Cade McNown, Shane Matthews, and Jim Miller), Marcus Robinson came out of nowhere to haul in 84 balls for 1,400 yards and 9 scores. The 1,400 yards were a team record until Brandon Marshall broke it in 2012 and it still remains the 3rd highest total in team history.
To say Robinson’s year was unexpected would be an understatement. Robinson came to the Bears as a 4th round pick in 1997, missing his rookie year with a thumb injury. After a disappointing 1998 campaign that included a mere 4 catches, Robinson burst onto the scene in Week 5 with the first of 5 games over 130 yards. Robinson’s magnum opus came against the Lions in Week 15 where he dominated the divisional rival with 11 grabs for 170 yards and 3 scores.
Walk up Music: Jump Around, House of Pain. “Pack it up, pack it in, let me begin / I came to win, battle me that’s a sin.” Robinson’s best feature was that he was a jump ball artist in the chuck it up and pray mold.
Top Challenger: Walt Harris was a solid corner that led the ’99 team with 14 passes defensed. Harris spent the first 6 of his 13 year career in Chicago but never boasted big interception totals.
Okay, I think it’s time to get out of the black hole, so we need a song to get us clear – Black Hole Sun, Soundgarden. “Hang my head, drown my fear / Till you all just disappear / Black hole sun / Won’t you come / And wash away the rain.”
This is the end of Part 4 – check back soon for Part 5. This article has used many sources as reference including but not limited to the indispensable profootballreference.com. The posters in this part of the series are all personal creations by the author.
Let us know what you think in the comments below or take the conversation over to Twitter and find me @gridironborn.