“I said we should take him as a center — anything to get him on the team. His intensity was what you had to like. Don’t ask me why New England cut him.” — Bears personnel director Bill Tobin, November 1985, on Steve McMichael
“The greatest thing that any middle linebacker can have is two great tackles. I’ve been extremely blessed to come here and play with Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael.” — Mike Singletary, October 1988
“The ‘85 Bears already have three defenders in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Do they really deserve another?” — Dopes, 2022
The push is on to send Steve McMichael to Canton, and the two key questions that the 12-person senior committee voters will have to answer are:
- “Was McMichael worthy?”
- “Was McMichael worthy above and beyond many others who are worthy?”
To help voters answer those questions, McMichael’s many supporters need to answer one of their own:
“What makes Mongo’s Pro Football Hall of Fame case unique?”
The answer is surprisingly simple:
- Steve McMichael was one of the NFL’s greatest sack artists ever at his position
- Steve McMichael was one of the best defenders on the Bears in 1985
- Steve McMichael was one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles in 1985
- Steve McMichael was one of the four best players on one of the greatest units in NFL history
I’ll run through all of these in this article, but I want to tell you one thing now about that first bullet point: It’s not hyperbole. When Steve McMichael retired after the 1994 season, his 95 career sacks were the most ever for a defensive tackle. Today, he ranks 8th, behind seven Hall of Famers and ahead of several others.
That stat alone is enough for voters to reconsider his case for Canton. His chances to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame have never been better than they are right now. In April, the Hall’s board of trustees announced that for each of the next three classes, voters will have a chance to elect three senior player candidates per year, rather than the usual one or two.
Yet that change was due to the overwhelming backlog of seniors (defined as someone who has been retired for 25 years — currently meaning any player whose final season was 1998 or before). Incredibly, 81 players who were named to one of the NFL’s all-decade teams between the 1920s and 1990s (which does not include McMichael) are not yet in Canton. Those 81 include:
- Five players who were named to two all-decade teams, including Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, a member of the NFL’s 75th and 100th anniversary teams and the only member of the 75th team not in Canton
- Seven Chicago Bears alumni
- Five defensive linemen from the 1970s or beyond, including three with rings, one of whom, the late Harvey Martin, won DPOY and a co-Super Bowl MVP
Then there are the senior candidates who are not on that list of 81 but who have a lot of momentum behind them, meaning voters would have to choose McMichael over some of them. Five pro football historians recently conducted a draft of senior candidates, picking 35. Their #1 pick (Chuck Howley), three of their top 5 and seven of their top 12 are not all-decade selections, including the 12th selection Michael Dean Perry, one of McMichael’s 1980s/1990s peers at defensive tackle.
While these five historians are not HOF voters, they hold opinions that are indicative of voters. And of their 35 total picks, 24 were not on an all-decade team, pushing that number of McMichael’s competitors for Canton from 81 up to 105. Add to that list of 105:
- Sterling Sharpe, for whom I’ve argued
- Jay Hilgenberg, who made seven straight Pro Bowls and four AP All Pro teams, and who could be seen as the next deserving ‘85 Bear even ahead of McMichael
- The late Ken Riley, who is 5th all-time in interceptions with 65
- 10 AP NFL MVP winners, including Ken Anderson, a 2x passing champ, 4x rating champ and Super Bowl XVI runner-up
- Four AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year winners
- And yes, Steve McMichael
I am involved in a mock Pro Football Hall of Fame committee that recently did a seniors vote, in which 15 people each submitted up to 25 seniors. We ended up with an initial list of 119 names, and pared that down to a class of three, with six more total to fill out our top nine. Broncos linebacker Randy Gradishar was named on every ballot; McMichael was named on three (including my own), and did not even reach our finalist stage of 15.
Suddenly, that Hall of Fame seniors expansion doesn’t look so massive.
Steve McMichael entering Canton will be no easy feat. While the current push for him is not solely due to his ALS diagnosis, (here is Rick Telander making the case in 2020 on Jim Miloch’s “Pod of Fame” show), that tragedy cranked up the urgency. There is a fan petition arguing for McMichael’s immediate enshrinement, plus recent columns from Telander and Dan Pompei. The question is not just whether voters can distinguish his case from the many other worthy seniors. It’s whether they will do that prior to the end of his horrific battle with ALS, something voters have been hesitant to do.
He was diagnosed in January of 2021 and made the diagnosis public in April. According to ALS.org, the mean life expectancy after diagnosis is two to five years.
McMichael is far from the only senior candidate receiving a spirited campaign from dedicated supporters. Other seniors might not have a fatal disease, but they all have strong cases, and none is getting younger.
These pushes are happening in every NFL city, with every NFL fanbase. Paul Lawrence, a member of the mock Hall of Fame committee I am in, has studied the Pro Football Hall of Fame process for more than two decades. He believes McMichael’s climb is steep as they come.
“My sense is that the process our group went through and our top 15 and even top 25 would likely be in close agreement with the actual voters,” Paul told me via email. “From looking at what we know (limited) about seniors considered in the last decade by the seniors committee, many of the same names appear and McMichael has not been one.”
Getting McMichael into those conversations means reframing his career.
In this article, I have identified five steps to do so:
- Making the statistical case, including the surprise that McMichael was a defensive tackle sack master
- The McMichael vs. Bryant Young comparison
- Reframing McMichael’s importance to the ‘85 Bears
- Reframing the ‘85 Bears D as part of a multi-year, all-time great defense
- Testimonials from his offensive line peers describing the specifics of his talent
None of the five steps alone will be enough for McMichael. They need to be done together. Let’s get started.
Step 1: The statistical case for Steve McMichael to join the Pro Football Hall of Fame — the defensive tackle sack master
“I don’t know if Steve McMichael has ever really been considered for the Hall of Fame, but I think he’s as strong a candidate as anyone when you look at what he has done from a longevity standpoint and the way he has played. He’s closing in on 100 sacks and, for a defensive tackle, that’s unheard of.”
— Trace Armstrong, December 1993
Statistics never tell a player’s whole story. With some guys, they’re barely needed at all. You don’t need stats to understand the greatness of Sweetness, Sayers, LT, Reggie, Munoz, Johnny U, Deion and many others. They walked into Canton. We looked at the same guy and all saw the same thing.
Others need analysis. We looked at the same guy and did not all see the same thing. When that happens, stats are a great starting point, so long as you can put them in context.
A Hall of Famer at the same position is context.
With only four seasons in which he was named AP All Pro or selected to a Pro Bowl, McMichael needs that context more than many. What’s wild is that if he were already in the Hall of Fame, today’s defensive tackles would be measuring their credentials against him.
That’s because, as Trace Armstrong noted, Mongo was a sack machine from the inside. I mean, historically great. When he retired after the 1994 season with 95.0 career sacks, he was first all-time among defensive tackles. First!
“I was adept at reading the offensive linemen,” McMichael said later, as quoted in Rich Cohen’s 1985 Bears book Monsters. “If they’re rocked back like they’re taking a shit in the woods, it’s going to be a pass. Once you’ve seen that, you look at the quarterback, look at his eyes to see if he’s looking downfield, trying to read the coverage.”
One of my favorite examples of that approach wasn’t even a sack. Check out Mongo late in 1993 in the Mark Carrier clip below (the second of the below two plays). This was McMichael’s 187th consecutive game played, breaking Walter Payton’s team mark, and his pass rush on Brett Favre forces Favre’s errant throw and helps Carrier find the interception.
Favorite Bears-Packers memories: 1993, Bears 3D game, part 3— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) September 9, 2018
4th quarter, Packers down 23-17 and trying to stay ahead of the Bears in the division, when @MarkCarrier20 picks off Favre and goes 34 yards for the game-icing TD.#CHIvsGB @WCGridiron: https://t.co/7Xhr32UGLa pic.twitter.com/TpHlBx6HIo
With the unofficial expansion of sack totals last summer, adding seasons 1960 to 1981, as well as great players who came after him, there are now seven PF HOFers (I’m including Aaron Donald) who spent significant time at DT and have more sacks than McMichael’s 95.0 in 213 games:
- Alan Page: 148.5 — 218 games
- John Randle: 137.5 — 219 games
- Randy White: 111.0 — 209 games
- Alex Karras: 100 — 161 games
- Aaron Donald: 98.0 — 127 games
- Warren Sapp: 96.5 — 198 games
- Bob Lilly: 95.5 — 196 games
The next four Hall of Fame DTs (or part-time DTs) on the career sack list: Howie Long (91.5), Merlin Olsen (91.0), Bryant Young (89.5) and Dan Hampton (82.0).
Being eighth in sacks all-time among PF HOF defensive tackles remains Hall of Fame-worthy, especially when you consider the guys who come after him. Now, you might look at McMichael’s sack total and see that he played 213 games, more than each of the five guys immediately ahead of him, and think, “That explains it: Mongo was just a compiler.”
In the words of Jack Lipnick, let’s put a stop to that rumor… RIGHT NOW.
Yes, McMichael famously played in a Bears franchise record 191 consecutive games. That alone is an incredible achievement. And if Bryant Young gets Canton credit for his miraculous 1999 Comeback Player of the Year season — and he should! — then certainly Steve McMichael should get credit for being an ironman. Availability is, after all, the best ability.
An even better ability? Busting ass to the quarterback. And when it came to sack mastery at the defensive tackle position, McMichael has another angle to his Hall of Fame case: he was actually a better sack artist than the guys who routinely beat him out for the AP’s All Pro team.
Consider this: From 1983 (when McMichael became a starter) to 1993 (his final season on the Bears), Steve McMichael outsacked the average AP All Pro defensive tackle:
- AP DT average: 7.8 sacks
- McMichael average: 8.2 sacks
When we zoom in to the five best Bears defensive seasons of the 1980s, 1984 to 1988, McMichael (who the AP named 1st team in ‘85 and ‘87 and 2nd team in ‘86) is even better:
- AP DT average: 7.1 sacks
- AP DT 1st team average: 9.0 sacks
- McMichael average: 8.9 sacks
Those AP All Pro numbers, plus just my own assessment as a 40-year football fan, tells me that when a defensive tackle bags eight sacks in a season, that’s a pretty damn good season. Obviously you’re going to have guys like Aaron Donald or John Randle who rush the passer like a defensive end, but during McMichael’s career, you had other standouts like Michael Carter and Tim Krumrie who were primarily run-stuffers and were light on sacks.
In short, even today, eight sacks for a DT is a good season. Among defensive tackles, McMichael ranks third all-time for most seasons with eight or more sacks:
- Alan Page — 11 seasons
- Alex Karras — 8 seasons
- John Randle & Steve McMichael — 7 seasons
Here’s another good sack stat in Mongo’s favor:
Playoff sacks, Mongo vs. recent PF HOF DTs:
- MCMICHAEL: 14 games, 5.5 sacks
- Warren Sapp: 9 games, 5.5 sacks
- Richard Seymour: 15 games, 4.5 sacks
- Bryant Young: 11 games, 3.0 sacks
- John Randle: 13 games, 3.0 sacks
To skin this cat yet another way, I looked at the DT sack rankings from ‘83 to ‘93. In those 11 seasons, Steve McMichael was consistently ranked among the best defensive tackles for total sacks in a season:
- #1 — three times (tied with Bill Pickel, who had 56 career sacks)
- Top 5 — seven times (no one else is above four)
- Top 10 — nine times (no one else is above five)
Put it all together and we see this: During Steve McMichael’s career, he was as great as any defensive tackle at getting to the quarterback. Over an 11-year period (the majority of his career), McMichael:
- Outsacked the AP’s All Pro defensive tackles
- Had the most #1, top-5 and top-10 finishes for most sacks in a season for a DT
- Produced seven 8+ sack seasons, the third best mark for a DT in NFL history
That’s a lot of offensive linemen rocked back like they’re going to poop in the woods.
(UPDATE: Want more? Click here for six fun facts about Mongo’s sack mastery, including outtakes pulled from earlier drafts of this story. Also, a Richard Seymour comp and a note on why tackle data is sketchy.)
Step 2: McMichael against the Bryant Young yardstick (but beware the danger of the stats-only argument…)
“Ouch. Ouch. I can close my eyes today, and there they are, right in front of me. Steve McMichael. Dan Hampton. Richard Dent. Mike Singletary with those big eyes staring at me. Off to the right is Otis Wilson. Off to the left is Wilber Marshall. I take the snap, I open my eyes, they’re still there. I go to bed at night sometimes, I close my eyes, break out in a sweat: they’re still there.”
— Joe Theismann, Super Bowl-winning quarterback, sacked four times (once by McMichael) and intercepted twice by the Bears D in 1985
Steve McMichael was not on the level of Alan Page. He was not on the level of John Randle, Randy White, Warren Sapp, Bob Lilly. He was not on the level of Aaron Donald. I’m not here to tell you he was. But after reading Step 1, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking what I was thinking.
Whoa: Mongo’s numbers are pretty damn good. I knew he was good but there’s no way he was that good. Right?
That’s what’s interesting about numbers. They create a mystery. A question to be answered. An itch for research to scratch.
Fortunately, we don’t need to compare McMichael to the elite of the elite at his position. We just need to compare him to the lower-tier HOF DTs. A perfect one was enshrined this year: the great Bryant Young of the San Francisco 49ers.
Steve McMichael vs. Bryant Young:
- Games: 213-208 MCMICHAEL
- Sacks: 95-89.5 MCMICHAEL
- Fumbles forced: 13-12 MCMICHAEL
- Fumbles recovered: 17-7 MCMICHAEL
- INT: 2-0 MCMICHAEL
- Tackles: 847-627 MCMICHAEL
- Championships / Super Bowl appearances: tied 1/1
- AP All Pro 1st team: 2-1 MCMICHAEL
- AP All Pro 2nd team: 3-2 Young
- Pro Bowl: 4-1 Young
- Total seasons of PB or AP: 5-4 Young
- Safeties: tied 3-3
Mongo gets hurt here with no tracked tackles-for-loss in his era. He also gets hurt with no high DPOY finish, which Young had in 1996 when he finished 4th. But look at this.
Bryant Young, 1996, 4th in DPOY, first team AP All Pro, Pro Bowl:
- 11.5 sacks, 76 tackles, 1 fumble forced, 1 fumble recovered, 2 safeties
- 49ers D: 4th in points, 7th in yards, 13th vs. the pass, 5th vs. the run
Steve McMichael, 1988, no DPOY votes, no AP All Pro, no Pro Bowl:
- 11.5 sacks, 88 tackles, 1 fumble forced, 2 fumbles recovered, 1 safety
- Bears D: 1st in points, 2nd in yards, 9th vs. the pass, 1st vs. the run
That’s right: In one of his finest NFL seasons, Steve McMichael wasn’t even named AP All Pro nor to the Pro Bowl, despite leading the Bears (who finished #1 in fewest points allowed) in sacks and matching up well against the AP’s four All Pro DTs in 1988:
1988 AP All Pro 1st team
- Tim Krumrie, Bengals: 3 sacks, 152 tackles
- Keith Millard, Vikings: 8 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries
1988 AP All Pro 2nd team
- Dan Hampton, BEARS: 9.5 sacks
- Michael Carter, 49ers: 6.5 sacks, INT
All of this speaks to McMichael’s HOF worthiness. The comp we now have with Bryant Young is especially useful. So too is the comp against another Hall of Fame defensive tackle: Dan Hampton.
Hampton is best known as a defensive end, because that’s where he played in ‘85. But he played tackle for much of his career, and even in ‘85 frequently found his way inside because of the configurations of the 46. In 1988, the Bears finished first in the league for fewest points allowed, with McMichael and Hampton at tackle flanked by Dent and Al Harris.
The McMichael-Hampton sack breakdown:
- Career sacks: 95-82, McMichael
- 10-sack seasons: tied 3-3
- Season career high: tied with 11.5 each (though Hampton did it twice)
- Playoff sacks: 8-5.5, Hampton
- 1984-1986 sacks: 28-26, Hampton
I am still working through my view on McMichael’s HOF case. I want to continue to hear more from others (like in the next section). But his stats surprised me. And based on his statistics, especially his comparison to Bryant Young, there is no debate: Steve McMichael is worthy of Canton.
But here’s the rub.
There are fans, family members and team PR staffs for every other franchise in the NFL doing this same exercise. They’re saying, “Player X is in the Hall of Fame, so what about our guy?” To be intellectually honest — and to make the strongest possible case for McMichael — you must acknowledge that anything you can do with Mongo you can do with other DTs not in Canton.
Because when you evaluate all players, you find stuff like this:
- Steve McMichael: 213 games, 95.0 sacks, 13 FF, 17 FR, 3 safeties, 2 INT, 0 def. TD
- Henry Thomas: 213 games, 93.5 sacks, 19 FF, 14 FR, 1 safety, 4 INT, 3 def. TD
And therein lies the problem in depending solely on stats.
Henry Thomas spent his career at defensive tackle with the Vikings, Lions and Pats, overlapping with Mongo from 1987 to 1994. He made the Pro Bowl in ‘91 and ‘92 and was 2nd team AP All Pro in ‘93. He has three more years of modern-era eligibility and I don’t think he’ll get in that way, but once guys reach the seniors stage, voters seem to open up the “Let’s re-evaluate everything” discussion. Then what?
Other d-tackles who will get a look the next few years:
- Michael Dean Perry (senior): Doesn’t have McMichael’s sacks, but from ‘89 to ‘96 he had six seasons of either All Pro, Pro Bowl or both, including a 2x AP-1.
- Vince Wilfork (modern-era): 4x All Pro, 4x Pro Bowler and 2x SB champ.
- La’Roi Glover (modern-era): Had one season better than any that McMichael had (league-leading 17 sacks in 2000 in which he was 2nd in DPOY) while bagging seven total seasons of either/both AP or PB
So while McMichael’s stats warrant induction, stats alone won’t get the job done. Fortunately for McMichael, he has something none of these guys, including Young and fellow recent inductee Richard Seymour, can claim.
What is it?
I’m glad you asked!
Step 3: Reframing McMichael’s importance to the ‘85 Bears
“Every time you watch their defense, (McMichael is) exploding up the middle, making things happen. His teammate, Dan Hampton, is a fine player who was held down by injuries. In a normal year the Cowboys’ Randy White would be our choice again, but McMichael simply came on too strong.”
— Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman, December 1985, on why he selected Steve McMichael as first team All Pro
Last month, deep into my research for this story, I tweeted a poll that asked who was the second best defender on the ‘85 Bears after Mike Singletary. I phrased it this way because Twitter polls only allow for four choices, and I was confident that Singletary would dominate a “Best ‘85 Bears defender” poll. I figured the responses would be more interesting between Richard Dent, Hampton, Wilber Marshall and McMichael.
I should not have been surprised when a number of respondents rejected my premise:
- “No. Bad assumption. Dent is far better than Singletary.”
- “I ain’t assuming a Damned thing. Danimal’s 1.”
- “Certainly lots of praise for Hampton & McMichael for doing a lot of work in the trenches to free up those blitzers. Could even put Singletary’s place at No. 1 up for debate.”
- “I always thought that Hamp was the engine that made it run, but Dent killed coming off the edge. Mongo was criminally underrated- and Marshall gets knocked for Washington, but he was a destroyer of worlds in Chi’s D”
- “Danimal was the best player on that D. Wilber was the best LB. Samurai Mike was good but he got the recognition because he was the captain”
- “Singletary wasn’t even the best LB on the Bears defense in 85.”
Longtime Bears writer Hub Arkush went so far as to rank Singletary 5th among those five players. Our great leader Lester Wiltfong agreed, writing, “Singletary was an incredible leader on the 1985 Bears, but for on-field impact, I have those 4 all above him too.”
Mike Singletary was the only Bears defender in 1985 who made 1st team All Pro for the AP, UPI, PFWA, NEA, Sporting News and Sports Illustrated. He was the AP’s Defensive Player of the Year. Richard Dent was also AP 1st team All Pro, leading the NFL in sacks with 17.5, picking up another six sacks in the three playoff games and winning Super Bowl MVP.
Yet so many Bears fans who watched the team in ‘85 (I was only four) dispute Singletary’s place as the team’s top defender, even while acknowledging and celebrating his greatness.
What is going on here? Obviously major NFL awards (MVP, OPOY, DPOY) have an element of narrative attached to them. Could the narrative of the ‘85 Bears D gotten mangled this badly?
And what does that mean about McMichael?
Well, let’s start here: Six Bears defenders were named to the AP’s All Pro team, three of them on the first team: Singletary, Dent... and Steve McMichael. The UPI did its All Pro team by conference, naming first and second teams for both the NFC and AFC. Adding the UPI to the mix, the ‘85 Bears D pecking order places McMichael in the top four:
- Singletary — 6x 1st team (AP, NEA, PFWA, S.I. TSN, UPI)
- Dent — 3x 1st team (AP, PFWA, UPI)
- McMichael / Wilson — 2x 1st team (AP/S.I. McMichael; S.I./UPI Wilson), 1x 2nd team (UPI McMichael; AP Wilson)
- Hampton — 3x 2nd team (AP, NEA, UPI)
- Fencik — 2x 2nd team (AP, UPI)
Now let’s look at the defensive tackle 1st team All Pro selections in 1985:
- Associated Press: Joe Klecko, STEVE MCMICHAEL, Randy White
- NEA: Joe Klecko, Randy White
- PFWA: Joe Klecko
- Sporting News: Bob Golic, Randy White
- Sports Illustrated (via Paul Zimmerman): Tim Krumrie, STEVE MCMICHAEL
- UPI: Joe Klecko (AFC), Randy White (NFC)
That puts the HOFer White and the Jets’ one-time NFL sack leader Klecko at the top with four 1st team selections, followed by McMichael with two, and all others with one.
But the UPI is imperfect. Not only did they split selections by conference, but they chose only four defensive tackles compared to eight defensive ends. McMichael was the UPI’s second team defensive tackle for the NFC, (Golic was 2nd team AFC), which could have been a first team selection if they chose an equal number of DTs and DEs.
From regular season through the playoffs, the 1985 Bears possessed arguably the greatest, most dominant defense in NFL history. And to honor that defense, All Pro voters for six outlets agreed:
Steve McMichael was a top Bears defender and a top NFL defensive tackle.
Like stats, though, All Pro selections only go so far. To best understand McMichael’s importance on the ‘85 Bears, you have to break down his role in the 46 Defense. In 2016 and 2017, my WCG colleague Erik Duerrwaechter was a defensive line and linebacker coaching intern at the University of West Florida under defensive line coach Alex Krutsch and head coach Pete Shinnick, whose father Don Shinnick had a 13-year NFL career and went on to be a linebackers coach in the league. Here is what Erik told me:
“Mongo changed the defensive line position forever. Since the DL coach I learned under was also a Bears fan himself, he really dove into Mongo and showed the value of being versatile between multiple positions. What McMichael did so well was being a consistent threat regardless of which technique he lined up from. He could go anywhere between the 1 and 7 and still make his way into the backfield.
“Back then, D-linemen played exclusively one spot, which made it easier to plan protections against. When McMichael hit his prime, he could be anywhere up front, and suddenly O-line coaches had to figure out how to switch up their protections between each snap. All of a sudden, when Mongo shifts elsewhere and the front changes, the protection has to adjust. That screwed everything for QBs, O-linemen, even the skilled players around them. The league never faced such a problem until Mongo.”
In 2019, two years before McMichael had ALS, Windy City Gridiron, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Bears (via Pompei and Don Pierson) each compiled a list of the 100 greatest Bears in honor of the franchise’s 100th season. McMichael’s rankings:
- Tribune: 18th
- Pierson/Pompei: 19th
- WCG: 25th
In each of the three lists, McMichael trailed only Doug Atkins, Dan Hampton and Richard Dent among Bears defensive linemen, with 23 to 28 slots between him and the next Bears d-linemen. That means that WCG, the Bears and the Trib had a consensus Mt. Rushmore of Chicago Bears defensive linemen: Atkins (Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 1982), Hampton (2002), Dent (2011) and McMichael.
So now you’re thinking, Okay okay, I give in: McMichael was more important to the ‘85 Bears than I remember. But does the ‘85 Bears defense really deserve four Hall of Famers?
Yes they do.
Step 4: Reframing the historic dominance of the 1980s Bears defense — and taking a closer look at the great ‘88
“More than anything, (defense is) an attitude. In the preseason, Steve and Richard and I said the defense will go as we go.”
— Dan Hampton, October 1988, on the Bears defensive line trio of Hampton, Dent and McMichael
I would bet that a lot of football fans and media members have ‘85 Bears fatigue. They’re one of the most celebrated teams in sports history, but they also are viewed as an underachiever, winning only one Super Bowl despite a run of dominance.
Doubters ask: Why should the ‘85 Bears have four defenders in Canton?
To which I say: Did you see the ‘85 Bears? Why the hell shouldn’t they?
I know, I know: the 1980s Bears were underachievers.
But the 1980s Bears DEFENSE most certainly was not.
In fact, I would argue that the ‘80s Bears defense might actually be underrated, if only because so much attention lands on the ‘85 season as an isolated incident, rather than as one part in a run as dominant as any the league has ever seen.
Consider this: The 80s Bears are one of only six teams in the Super Bowl era to log five straight seasons in the top-5 for fewest yards allowed, which they did from 1984 to 1988. And they weren’t just top-5 — they were top-2, and the only team of the six to lead the league in fewest yards allowed in three straight seasons:
- Vikings, ‘68-’72: 5, 1, 1, 2, 5
- Rams, ‘73-’78: 1, 3, 2, 4, 4, 1
- Raiders, ‘83-’87: 4, 3, 4, 3, 5
- BEARS, ‘84-’88: 1, 1, 1, 2, 2
- Steelers, ‘07-’12: 1, 1, 5, 2, 1, 1
- Seahawks, ‘12-’16: 4, 1, 1, 2, 5
Not on that list are the dominant, vicious, victorious Buccaneers of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Those Bucs were #1 in the NFL in both points and yards in 2002, and top 5 for both in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2003. They produced one of the greatest defensive Super Bowl performances ever, somehow scoring more touchdowns defensively (three) than they allowed from the NFL’s top offense (two).
And even they can’t match the run of the 1980s Bears, which produced these league ranks from 1983 to 1991:
- Points allowed: 5, 3, 1, 1, 4, 1, 20, 9, 9
- Yards allowed: 8, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 25, 6, 4
To recap, 1996-2005 Bucs D vs. the 1983-1991 Bears D:
- Bucs: 10 seasons, 2 total #1 finishes in points or yards, 12 top-5 finishes, 1 Super Bowl appearance, 1 Super Bowl victory
- Bears: 9 seasons, 6 total #1 finishes in points or yards, 12 top-5 finishes, 1 Super Bowl appearance, 1 Super Bowl victory
Now let’s zoom in to the strongest five-year runs for each team: 1999-2003 for the Bucs and 1984-1988 for the Bears. The Bears D, on which McMichael was a key performer for all five seasons, easily tops the Bucs D:
Points allowed rank:
- 1999-2003 Bucs: #1 x1, top 5 x3 (3, 7, 8, 1, 4)
- 1984-1988 Bears: #1 x3, top 5 x5 (3, 1, 1, 4, 1)
Yards allowed rank:
- 1999-2003 Bucs: #1 x1, top 5 x3 (3, 9, 6, 1, 5)
- 1984-1988 Bears: #1 x3, top 5 x5 (1, 1, 1, 2, 2)
Against the run:
- 1999-2003 Bucs: top 5 x2 (2, 9, 12, 5, 13)
- 1984-1988 Bears: #1 x4, top 5 x5 (1, 1, 2, 1, 1)
Against the pass:
- 1999-2003 Bucs: #1 x1, top 5 x4 (2, 13, 5, 1, 3)
- 1984-1988 Bears: top 5 x3 (2, 3, 2, 7, 9)
Yet both groups have three defenders in Canton, and the Bucs have a fourth, Ronde Barber, who will be in soon. If there is an artificial bar for how many players from one unit a team can have in Canton, the 80s Bears defense deserves to be at the tippy top of that bar as much as any other Super Bowl-era team.
That should include McMichael, the only Bear to play all 140 games (non-strike) during that time, always among the team’s best in sacks and the line’s best in tackles.
While we’re on the subject, I would add Wilber Marshall to that list of potential HOF Bears defenders, as Marshall was one of the most important defenders on not one but two Super Bowl champions. He has also been short-changed historically, losing out on Hall of Fame momentum in part due to a dearth of Pro Bowl selections.
But All Pro choices are more exclusive than the Pro Bowl; here is how the AP voters sized up McMichael, Marshall, Lynch and Barber for their careers:
- Barber: 5 selections (3 1st team)
- McMichael and Lynch: 4 selections (2 1st team)
- Marshall: 3 selections (2 1st team)
These comparisons go for great offenses too. The Rams led the NFL in both points scored and yards gained for three straight seasons, 1999 to 2001, reaching two Super Bowls and winning one. That’s as great a three-year run as we’ve ever seen, but it’s still only three years. That offense has four players in Canton (Faulk, Pace, Warner, Bruce) with a fifth (Holt) on the way.
The Bears defense of the 1980s is one of the legendary, most dominant, most consistent units in NFL history, and Steve McMichael was central to what they did.
“They run several different alignments, and they move their defensive linemen around to different positions,” then-Packer head coach and Hall of Fame offensive tackle Forrest Gregg said about the Bears defense in 1985. “They have the ideal personnel to have that style of defense. They have good linebackers and a good secondary. But I think the key to that whole thing are those defensive linemen.”
A popular reframing of the 1980s Bears defense is the reminder that on the Greatest Defense Ever lists, the ‘85 D gets the bump over the ‘86 D, even though the ‘86 D allowed fewer points. In 1987, the Bears D was 4th in points and 2nd in yards, and got back to #1 in points in 1988.
Ah yes, 1988.
Let’s talk about 1988.
Because while Singletary was voted DPOY for the second time in his career, much of the praise and credit went to the team’s front four: Dent and Al Harris at end, Hampton and McMichael at tackle.
Over a five-game winning streak from the end of September through the end of October, the Bears defensive line dominated. The defense held each of those opponents under these benchmarks: 10 points, 100 yards rushing, 300 yards total. The d-line racked up 22 of the team’s 23 sacks, led by McMichael’s 6.5.
The final game in the streak was a 10-9 Bears win on Monday Night Football over the eventual Super Bowl-champion 49ers, a premier performance by McMichael and the Bears d-line that led two Niners o-linemen to share their frustration post-game:
- Guard Guy McIntyre, on blocking McMichael: “He’s got more moves than most guys.”
- Center Randy Cross, on what went wrong: “There was Dent, Hampton, McMichael, etc. Need I say more?”
Added eventual 1988 Offensive Player of the Year Roger Craig: “With Hampton and McMichael really putting pressure on our passing, and Mike Singletary reading our run as well as he does, that put us in a bind.”
Obviously the ‘88 season did not end the way the Bears wanted, adding to the “The ‘85 Bears are overrated!” chatter and diminishing McMichael’s importance on an all-time great defense. This remained true in 1990 and 1991, when the Bears D again was top-10 in fewest points and yards allowed but lacked the offense to match.
And for anyone who thought that McMichael’s greatness was a product of his teammates, McMichael averaged 8.5 sacks and 87 tackles per season from 1991 to 1993, after Hampton retired. During that time he ranked second to Dent in sacks (31.5-25.5) and led the d-line in tackles with 261, 30 behind Shaun Gayle’s club-leading 291.
More than the stats, it’s the testimonies of fans and writers — including Lester and Hub — that have reshaped my view of McMichael as a Hall of Famer. The reason: his impact on and standing within the ‘85 Bears. The 1980s Bears defense was every bit as dominant as any unit in the Super Bowl era, and Steve McMichael was undoubtedly a major, influential piece of that puzzle.
Now we need more offensive linemen to say so.
Step 5: Testimonials from his offensive line peers describing the specifics of his talent
“The most impressive thing about the Bears is the middle of their defense — Hampton, McMichael and Singletary. … Hampton and McMichael complement each other well. They’re a dominant force.”
— Three-time Pro Bowl 49ers center Randy Cross, October 1988
Bryant Young was a great player, but by no means a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was first eligible in 2013 but was not a finalist until 2020. In 2021, he slipped, dropping to the semifinalist group, the only 2020 finalist to miss that round the next year.
So the 49ers PR team took matters into their own hands.
On Nov. 24, 2021, the Hall released its list of 26 semifinalists for the Class of 2022, including Bryant Young. The next week, 49ers PR director organized a Zoom call between Hall of Fame voters and six offensive linemen who played against Young, including Hall of Famer Willie Roaf.
The six linemen vouched for Young’s credentials as a Hall of Famer; Super Bowl champ Adam Timmerman called Young the second best inside lineman he played against after John Randle but ahead of Warren Sapp, while Kevin Gogan called Young “the best defensive tackle I’ve come across … bar none.”
Sure enough, when the Hall announced its list of finalists a few weeks later, Young was on the list. Six weeks later, voters elected Young to Canton.
I have no doubt that the Zoom call played a big role in differentiating Young from his fellow all-timers. I also have no doubt that PR directors for other teams recognize the impact of that Zoom call and will be organizing similar ones for their own candidates, ultimately tempering the impact of these mass testimonials.
Therefore, McMichael needs more than just positive statements from his peers. He needs testimonials that define for voters the specifics of his impact, talent and legacy.
As you may have noticed, this article is pretty damn long. Can the right handful of o-linemen distill McMichael’s importance into a few key concepts or stats, the way that Willie Anderson’s candidacy has shot through the roof in the past three years after the word spread on his incredible “13 years, 16 sacks allowed” stat?
Essentially, can the McMichael team find a group of o-linemen to fill in steps 3 and 4 of this article?
“Mongo was the pioneer for modern shedding, merging and hand-fighting fundamentals,” Erik told me. “Now he’s seen as a textbook example as to why teams will covet versatile linemen in their front seven. You want to make a case as to how he changed the game? There it is.”
Few arguments are as compelling and easy to understand as “He changed the game.” Add that to his career sack total and the first team AP All Pro in 1985, and you start to paint a picture of McMichael’s historic brilliance. You just need someone who played the game at the highest level to support and illuminate those concepts that Erik laid out.
Dan Pompei’s great piece in the Athletic two months ago did exactly that, with testimonials from Hall of Fame guard Russ Grimm, longtime Lions center Kevin Glover and the aforementioned Cross. In this burgeoning era of coordinated, mass testimonials, we need more linemen who can explain specifically what made McMichael unique, what he added to the game and his impact on a historic defense.
Along with Grimm, Glover and Cross, I would make these phone calls:
- Former Patriots’ center Pete Brock, who was McMichael’s teammate in New England and started against him in Super Bowl XX, and is now heading up the Patriots Alumni group
- Hall of Fame center Dwight Stephenson, whose Dolphins handed the Bears their lone loss of 1985
- Hall of Fame Vikings guard Randall McDaniel, who played against McMichael 12 times from 1988 to 1993
It’s impossible to know if the steps in this article are enough to push McMichael into Canton. The Bryant Young Zoom call was a final nudge over the finish line for a guy who was already a semifinalist and was a past finalist. McMichael has not reached either stage. The question for his supporters is to identify what makes his case unique, and along with everything I laid out, there is also the matter of his battle with ALS.
That’s by no means the reason he should be elected to the Hall. But if voters review his case and decide he should be elected to the Hall, ALS is a reason he should be elected to the Hall now.
“We need everyone to sign this petition so the HOF gives special consideration to Steve to induct him before it is too late,” Team Mongo wrote in their petition to send McMichael to the Hall. “Steve is hanging on to see this happen.”
As Paul Lawrence and Broncos superfan (and Broncos 2021 NFL Fan of the Year) Ron Katz explained to me, voters have been faced in the past with health-related decisions and have not been swayed. Katz pointed specifically to the 2017 ballot, in which voters selected Jerry Jones for a contributor spot over longtime Broncos’ owner Pat Bowlen, despite Bowlen battling Alzheimer’s. Bowlen was finally elected for the class of 2019; he was alive for the announcement in February but passed away in June, prior to the induction.
“Chicago legends Ron Santo and Minnie Minoso were voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame after they died,” Telander wrote in May. “And you wonder what good that did them.”
There are hundreds of worthy candidates to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and in my view, the toughest part of voting — even in the mock votes I’ve joined — is prioritizing certain players for certain reasons. You want more special teamers in Canton? More fullbacks? More centers? More nose tackles? That means you have to vote for them ahead of more obvious choices at other positions.
The same is true with Mongo. Treat these questions as separate entities:
- Does Steve McMichael belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
- If yes, is it better if he gets to see it happen?
By all means, make the call on his merits. But if you think he is worthy, then in a senior class of three for 2023, make sure he gets to see his name called. Other seniors have a ticking clock, but none like Mongo’s. Besides 85-year-old Chuck Howley, I don’t see an issue of a top prospect waiting a year, whether Ken Anderson (age 73), Randy Gradishar, White Shoes Johnson and Rick Upchurch (70), Lester Hayes (67), Jay Hilgenberg (63), Roger Craig (61) or that young pup Sterling Sharpe (57).
For one of their fellow greats in the fight of his life, I bet they’ll understand.
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.
As always, this article would not be possible without Newspapers.com and Pro Football Reference.
Thank you to Lester Wiltfong Jr., Erik Duerrwaechter, Pro Football Hall of Fame analyst Paul Lawrence, Broncos superfan Ron Katz, the WCG crew (particularly Bill, Erik, Jeff, Lester and Sam), Kirk and the entire Not in Hall of Fame crew, and Bears fan Trevor Hembrough.
Want to see how our senior pool played out? Here it is: