Yet even if the Texans hadn’t miraculously won their season finale, the Bears would have still finished 3-14. That’s the most losses in franchise history, and it is the first time that we’ve finished a season with the outright worst record in the NFL.
It is not, however, the first time we’ve drafted first overall. It’s the third. The first was the 1941 draft (held in December 1940), where we took Michigan halfback Tom Harmon. The second was the 1947 draft (in December 1946), and our selection of Oklahoma A&M fullback Bob Fenimore.
We nabbed those #1 picks under circumstances just as wild as a touchdown on 4th and 20 and a 2-point conversion. Just how wild? Try this on for size:
We were the defending champions for each of them.
Yes, the Bears won the NFL championship in 1940 and 1946 and ended up with the first pick in the following draft each time, once due to George Halas’s slick thinking and the second time due to a new league rule.
In the first, Halas secretly traded for Philly’s #1 pick in February 1940 in the deal that got us George McAfee. That move led to owners immediately adopting a policy that no team could trade its 1st or 2nd round pick without consent of all other owners.
In the second #1 pick, in the ‘47 draft, the NFL’s new “bonus pick” lottery raffled off the #1 pick, which Halas won for the Bears by selecting a piece of paper marked with an X out of a hat.
I broke it all down in a Twitter thread Sunday night. I’ve also included two newspaper clippings that I did not include on Twitter.
Thank you to the great Newspapers.com. Here you go!
Quick story time!— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) January 9, 2023
This is the third draft where the Bears have had the #1 pick. It is the first where we are not defending champs.
You read that right.
We won the NFL championship in 1940 and 1946 and had the #1 pick for the '41 and '47 drafts. Here's what happened. pic.twitter.com/y0bzpFNXL6
In Dec. 1940, two days after thrashing Washington 73-0 for the NFL championship, the Bears surprised the football world by entering the 1941 draft with the #1 pick. No one knew but George Halas and Eagles president Bert Bell.https://t.co/PQmBeoebVh— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) January 9, 2023
The #1 pick should have belonged to the 1-10 Eagles, but to the shock of every other team owner, and of course Eagles fans, Bert Bell had secretly included their #1 pick in a trade to the Bears in February, two months after the 1940 draft (which was Dec. '39). pic.twitter.com/p7ynE6LoRG— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) January 9, 2023
The centerpiece of the trade was the 1940 #2 overall pick: Duke halfback and 1939 All-American George McAfee. In the rookie year of his Hall of Fame career, McAfee helped the Bears win the 1940 championship, with a 34-yard pick-six in the title game. https://t.co/OU9DfpRjSB— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) January 9, 2023
Quite a score for the Bears landing McAfee…— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) January 9, 2023
…and that was before news broke that Halas nabbed Philly’s #1 in the deal. We used the pick on Michigan halfback Tom Harmon, who never played with us and did not play in the NFL until 1946 and ’47 with the Rams.
But Halas had more. pic.twitter.com/bgY4l3Nfvx
In another secret coup, Halas had acquired Pittsburgh’s first round pick. That was #3 overall, and we used that on Stanford fullback Norm Standlee. Unlike Harmon, Standlee played, helping the Bears go 10-1 and scoring two touchdowns in our 1941 championship rout of the Giants. pic.twitter.com/MXsr2R2JAz— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) January 9, 2023
The 1941 championship was Standlee's final game with the Bears, as he became one of 493 NFL players in World War II by the end of 1944. But despite only one combined season of the #1 and #3 picks of 1940, the Bears kept winning.https://t.co/YWEU8ogMaD pic.twitter.com/gFvz67Yez9— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) January 9, 2023
We went undefeated in 1942 before losing the championship, won it all in ’43 (read below!), played uneven ball during the heavy war years of ’44 and ‘45 and then won the ’46 championship.— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) January 9, 2023
The '47 NFL draft was the next day.https://t.co/opZO2jsHP8
The Bears had the final pick of the first round of the '47 NFL draft, but that was the first year of the “bonus pick” lottery era, in which the #1 pick was raffled off.— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) January 9, 2023
The last time the Bears picked #1, we won the pick when George Halas drew a piece of paper out of a hat. pic.twitter.com/dFzW4ed1JN
With the #1 pick in the 1947 NFL draft, the Bears selected halfback Bob Fenimore of Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State). Due to injuries, Fenimore played only one season and then retired.— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) January 9, 2023
You'll be hearing his name a lot between now and April. pic.twitter.com/Nz7K8TStrp
The bonus pick era ran from 1947 to 1958. Once a team won the lottery once, they were eliminated from future contention. The Bears weren’t the only defending champ to grab the top pick. The 1948 Eagles won the NFL championship and then won the bonus pick, enabling them to select one of the greatest players in their franchise’s history: Chuck Bednarik.
Only one other team grabbed a Hall of Famer with the bonus pick. The Packers, coming off a 4-8 season of 1956, won the lottery in 1957 (they were one of only two teams eligible) and picked Paul Hornung.
For Bears fans, there is one other notable “bonus pick” player: Billy Wade, who the Rams drafted in 1952.
The #NFLDraft lottery bonus pick ran 1947-1958. Once a team won the #1 pick they were eliminated from future contention.— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) January 9, 2023
Of the 12 bonus #1 picks, 2 are in @ProFootballHOF:
1949: Chuck Bednarik (picked by the champion Eagles)
1957: Paul Hornung (picked by the 4-8 Packers) pic.twitter.com/HqGfdVYwwb
Of course, this is not the first time we’ve had the worst record in the league — just the first time we’ve had it alone. In 1969, the Bears and Steelers both went 1-13, leading to a coin flip. Ed McCaskey famously called “heads” and lost the flip and the right to draft Terry Bradshaw.
“I had dinner with Art Rooney after the coin toss, and he said to me: ‘You’re supposed to be a sharp guy. You never call (the coin toss). That’s a sucker play,’” McCaskey told the Tribune’s Fred Mitchell in 1997. “That was the end of a terrible year.”
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.