The ball was bouncing, rolling, waiting on the Soldier Field grass. It had squirted free from Brett Favre’s hand, and now three Bears hunted it. One leaned down and scooped. Rolled into a tumble. Stood. Planted. Ran. Eluded a tackler. Leapt over Favre. Landed inside the ten, still on his feet, spotting the endzone. Leaned. Dove. Sprawled on the C. Touchdown. The second of the day for the defense. He had a hand in that one too.
It was that kind of day for Dante Jones.
It was that kind of year for Dante Jones.
Here at Windy City Gridiron, we’re in the midst of the 30-Day Challenge, where each member of the staff selects a few topics to explore. I chose “All-Time Favorite Chicago Bears Linebacker,” which seems like a gimme, given our history. Basically the second you are sentient as a Bears fan you have like eight favorite linebackers. There are the three that are starting that year, and then the older guy on his way out who still has the magic. There are the three starters you just missed, the three superstars your parents tell you about, the three superstars your grandparents tell you about.
You absorb the names. Butkus and George. Samurai and Urlacher. You learn about the three 55s. You hear about George Connor. Today, right now, a five-year-old Bears fan is getting her introduction to the Bears, and already she knows Khalil Mack. Any one of these guys and a bajillion others — sup Joe Fortunato, Larry Morris, Al Harris, Rosy Colvin, Warrick Holdman, Hunter Hillenmeyer, Pernell McPhee, Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith — would have been appropriate for this piece, but the beauty of fandom is its personalization. This was your favorite team. This is your favorite player.
In 1993 and 1994, Dante Jones was my favorite linebacker.
His story began in 1988, when the Bears drafted him in the 2nd round out of Oklahoma. He came to a club reeling from the free agent loss of 25-year-old All Pro Wilber Marshall; by the time his rookie season opened, Jones had seen another veteran linebacker gone — Otis Wilson, who injured his knee in the preseason, had surgery, and would never play for the Bears again.
This left just Mike Singletary remaining from the iconic ‘85 Bears linebacking trio, flanked that year by two ‘85 backups, Ron Rivera and Jim Morrissey. Jones made his first career start his rookie year against the Cowboys, called upon in place of the injured Morrissey.
“I’ve been having long talks with my father, and he said I have to wait my turn,” the rookie Jones said prior to that game.
He waited until the following season for his next start, which came Week 1 against the Bengals, again in place of the injured Morrissey. Jones and fellow second-year man Mickey Pruitt got the work at OLB with Singletary and Rivera. Mike Ditka was not impressed.
“We didn’t get any play out of one of the outside linebackers, and that hurt us,” Ditka said. “Dante played average. We’ll take a look at Roper.”
That would be 1989 2nd round rookie John Roper, who came along the next few weeks, replaced Morrissey in the starting lineup in Week 7 and started the rest of the season. Those three backers — Rivera, Morrissey, Roper — continued to play on either side of Singletary through 1992. Singletary had announced his intention to retire after that season and Jones was being pegged as his successor, despite having started just two games in five years.
“I think that playing for Chicago is a great opportunity for a middle linebacker,” Jones said during the 1992 preseason. “Mike is a great linebacker, but I think playing in Chicago has really helped him be probably the best ever.”
A year later, the retired Singletary was serving as a consultant in Bears camp.
“You don’t think about Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary — that is something I talked to him about the other day,” Singletary said in August of 1993. “All of that is over. What is Dante Jones going to do? That is what is important.”
Dante Jones breaks loose
What Jones did was become the lone Bears linebacker to start all 16 games under new head coach Dave Wannstedt. Wanny was fresh off of a Super Bowl championship as the Cowboys defensive coordinator, where he helped turned Dallas into perhaps the most destructive D in the league and did so with a cascade of attacking, playmaking linebackers. 1993 was the first year of true free agency in the NFL, and the first big name we signed was linebacker Joe Cain.
Cain was excellent in ‘93, but Jones stole the show. His breakout came in the third game of the season, when he intercepted two Bucs passes in a 47-17 thrashing of Tampa Bay. Two weeks later he logged his third career sack. The Bears defense ranked 22nd in 1992, but in Wannstedt’s first year, the group shot up to 3rd in points allowed, 4th in yards and 3rd against the pass. The four-man defensive line started all 16 games. Richard Dent reached the Pro Bowl with 12.5 sacks, his most since 1987. Trace Armstrong was right behind him with 11.5. Steve McMichael had six sacks and passed Walter Payton in December with his franchise record 187th consecutive games played as a Bear. Ten of the 11 defensive starters played 13+ games; eight started all 16.
But none had a season like Jones. Having finally broken through as a starter, Jones dominated.
“That’s five years of frustration — built-up anger from not playing,” Jones said in November. “They say patience is a virtue. Right now, I’m reaping some benefits.”
Jones noted that his teammates call him a “six-year veteran with the body of a rookie,” and as fans, we could see that impact. Jones was all over the field, always in the right place, always a step ahead, yet free of any of the wear-and-tear he would have otherwise accumulated in five NFL seasons.
He took his cues from his mentor, #50. Like Singletary, Jones was a quiet leader off the field and an instinctive playmaker on it. Wannstedt trusted him enough to make him a full-time linebacker in all packages. By midseason, he was leading the team with 80 tackles, 45 of them solo — Shaun Gayle was second with 48 total tackles. Jones had to that point a sack, two interceptions and five deflective passes.
“When Singletary was here, nobody really expected anything out of me,” he said. “They said I should have beat him out a long time ago, but you don’t beat out a player like Mike Singletary. You just take over when he retires.”
Dante’s big day
Dante Jones didn’t make us forget about Singletary — no one could do that. He just made us remember Dante Jones. And no game was bigger than Dec. 5, 1993, a 30-17 win over the Packers.
This is the famed “3D” game. It’s not as famous as the Mike Brown games, or the Cardinals game, or certainly plenty of others in Bears lore. But anyone who was watching will never forget seeing the Bears knock out the Packers with three defensive touchdowns. Jones had his hand in two of them. First, he intercepted Favre, ran the ball six yards and handed it off to cornerback Jeremy Lincoln, who raced another 80 yards for a touchdown.
That was a called play by the defense, believe it or not. The week before on Thanksgiving, Jones had intercepted a Lions pass and failed to pitch it to Lincoln.
“He’s such a smart player, it’s tough to get him to make a mistake a second time,” Wannstedt said.
In the third quarter, Jones recovered the aforementioned Favre fumble and rumbled with 32 yards for a score.
“Big Play Dante,” he said after the game. “It rhymes!”
Added Bears linebackers coach Dave McGinnis: “Is anybody playing better at middle linebacker?”
The answer, in this fan’s humble opinion, was no. For his standout day, Jones was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week. He was the third Bear to win the award that season, after Richard Dent in Week 6 and Trace Armstrong on Thanksgiving.
“It shows that people are noticing we’re a good defense and we’re making a lot of plays,” he said. “To me, it’s a team award.”
Dante Jones: Bears record-setter
Jones did not make the Pro Bowl in 1993, and was not selected for any All Pro team. But he made his mark on all Bears fans that year. Among his accomplishments:
- Jones’s 189 tackles set a new team record, blowing past Shaun Gayle’s mark from 1990 of 125, Per Pro Football Reference and Stathead, no Bear has come close to Jones’s tackles record — Urlacher’s 153 in 2002 is second best.
- Jones’s four interceptions were the most for a Bears linebacker since Butkus had four in 1971. He finished the year tied with Mark Carrier for the team lead in picks, and tied with Armstrong for the team lead in defensive fumbles recovered.
- Jones finished second in the NFL in total tackles at 189, trailing only Tampa’s Hardy Nickerson, who was named 1st team All Pro by three outlets including the AP.
- Jones and Minnesota’s Jack Del Rio led all NFL linebackers with four interceptions; he and five others tied for second among linebackers with three recovered fumbles, trailing three players who had four.
- His seven takeaways led all NFL linebackers. Among the 25 NFL players in 1993 with at least 100 tackles, 1 interception and 1 forced fumble, Jones was second in that group in tackles, second in interceptions (behind safety Eugene Robinson) and second in fumbles recovered.
That’s the boring part of Dante’s story. The numbers. The fun part was watching him fly around on Sundays, surprising us all. After the season, The Times in Indiana polled fans on which Bears they wanted to see back in 1994; the 115 participating fans voted to cut five players and keep six — at the top of the list was Jones, who received 94% of the yes vote.
“I just knew he would be prepared to play,” McGinnis said just before the final game of the season. “Once he got the chance to be the man, he did something with it.”
Jones played one more season with the Bears, starting 11 games in 1994 plus both playoff games. The Bears left him unprotected for the 1995 expansion draft and then released him. He caught on with Denver, played five games — all starts — but was lost for the season with a shoulder injury, ending his NFL career.
Every now and again at Soldier Field, I see a fan in a #53. I always run to look. Usually it’s Warrick Holdman. Sometimes Nick Roach. But every now and again, I see it there: JONES 53. And I smile. Because here’s someone who saw what I saw.
“I always knew that if I had a chance to play, I would be a good linebacker,” Jones said at the end of the ‘93 season. “This year was definitely a breakthrough year for me.”
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.