I’m going to blatantly ignore the unceremonious end to the professional baseball season. You good with that O’s fans? Nats fans? Thought so. A furry mammal, a 30-year-old football team and a wig-wearing American legend is on the docket…
The 1985 Chicago Bears are, for my money, the greatest NFL team of the Super Bowl era. After a 15-1 regular season (11 of those wins were by double digits), the Bears won three playoff games, including Super Bowl XX, by a combined score of 91-10.
Chicago’s offense featured future Hall of Fame RB Walter Payton, flashy but gritty QB Jim McMahon, and lightning fast WR Willie Gault. The identity of that great Bears team, though, was its devastating and historic defense. Middle linebacker Mike Singletary and defensive lineman Dan Hampton and Richard Dent are in the Hall of Fame. Outside linebackers Otis Wilson and Wilbur Marshall wreaked havoc off the edge. Defensive lineman Steve McMichael was a two-time All-Pro and safeties Gary Fencik and the late Dave Duerson were as good as any in the league.
More than a collection of talented football players, the ’85 Bears were a crossover pop culture phenomena. Rotund DT William “The Refrigerator” Perry caught the nation’s fancy with his lovable girth and touchdown plunges. McMahon was a professional wrestling persona in cleats. Head Coach Mike Ditka was the perfect booming, unpolished personality to lead this band of bandits and brash defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan made sacks, turnovers and shutouts cool.
Collectively the Bears played hard, won often and embraced fame. They shot television commercials and, true to the MTV era of the mid-80’s, made a corny music video - The Super Bowl Shuffle. Always a sports documentary in the making, ESPN recently made it official by featuring the ’85 Bears in a “30 for 30” episode.
One question has lingered about those fabulous and fun ’85 Bears: Why did they manage just one Super Bowl appearance? They had a nice run – five consecutive division titles from 1984-88 – but that single championship is a lonely piece of hardware for a roster with dynastic capabilities.
The answer was revealed in that “30 for 30” piece and explained by James Madison, unsuspecting football whisperer, in Federalist Paper No. 10 (a centuries old political document): The Bears were a fractured group.
Ryan was hired as defensive coordinator in 1978, four full season before Ditka was hired as head coach. His defensive unit was fiercely loyal, even lobbying ownership to retain Ryan in 1982. By 1985, the defense was dominant, among the very best in league history; the offense was…okay. The performance delta created tension between Ryan’s defense and Ditka’s offense and between Ryan and Ditka personally. In a way, the defense was its own faction, existing and operating as an isolated entity.
So what does a founding father have to offer about NFL football? Well, in arguing for a new form of government in late 1787, Madison, noting the human compulsion for factious discord, wrote, “A zeal for different opinions…have in turn divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.” He went on to comment that “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities”, the new government shouldn’t seek to combat the cause of inevitable faction but only seek, “…the means of controlling its effects.”
That is brutal commentary on our species, but it is, unfortunately, spot on. The division within the Bears teams of the mid 80’s was insufficiently controlled and, ultimately, diminished its accomplishments. There was too much defense versus offense and not enough prevailing, unselfish commitment to a common cause.
Be it 1787, 1985 or 2016, and whether the test subject is a personal relationship, a professional team or our representative government, the challenge is to promote spirited, constructive debate and avoid rogue faction. Our next big test arrives on November 9 when we will wake up either excited, disappointed or indifferent; but, regardless, we will still be Americans tasked with the responsibility of building a more perfect union.