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How the defending champion Bears won the #1 pick in the NFL Draft twice

The surprising history of the Bears picking #1

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Chicago Bears Hold Aloft Their Owner

The Chicago Bears needed a wild ending to the Texans-Colts game to land the worst record in the NFL and the #1 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.

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 Here you go!




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.

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.