In 1993, new coach Dave Wannstedt brought with him his
"winning" philosophy. It's funny not because it's a bad philosophy, but because
mentioning Wannstedt and winning in the same sentence doesn't make sense. This
plan was to run the ball at all costs, play good special teams, and allow the
defense to win football games. In essence, a big-time running back was required
for this philosophy to work.
In '93, Wannstedt began his tenure by stating he believed
the team could win with Neal Anderson, an aging back entering his eighth
season. Anderson didn't appear to be the solution halfway into that campaign,
so the team traded a fifth-rounder to Pittsburgh for Tim Worley. Worley had a
fairly successful second half in '93, and looked like he might be the answer.
Apparently, Wannstedt didn't think so, as he brought in Lewis Tillman from the
New York Giants to be the starter in 1994. During the 1994 playoff campaign,
Tillman was a workhorse despite barely averaging 3 yards per carry. Worl ey
rarely carried the ball during the year, and was released after suffering
numerous mental health problems. A review of the '94 season showed the
offensive line, QB and WR positions to be solid, so the 1995 draft, which was
deep in top-notch running backs, looked like the year to nab the Bears' back of
The top backs coming out of college in 1995 were Penn
State's Ki-Jana Carter, Michigan's Tyrone Wheatley, Washington's Napolean
Kaufmann, Tennessee's James Stewart, and Colorado's Salaam. Carter figured to
be the consensus number one pick overall, and it was anybody's guess how the
rest would fall. Salaam figured to be gone in the first 15 picks, and it seemed
likely that the bruising Stewart or the quick, flashy Kaufmann would fall to
Carter wound up being picked by Cincinnati #1 overall, the
New York Giants took Wheatley, Oakland took Kauffmann, and Jacksonville took
Stewart. The Bears were ecstatic when Salaam was still available at the 21st
pick, and the team snatched him up. Wannstedt figured he drafted the back of
the future-Salaam stood 6'1" and weighed 210 pounds, large enough to take
punishment but still possessing nifty moves and speed. There were questions
about his hands and pass-catching abilities, but fumbling never had been a
problem for him in college. Wannstedt's running dream now included a backfield
of Salaam at halfback and 1994 4th-rounder Raymont Harris at fullback. Harris
had suprised everyone with his blocking, receiving and running skills in '94,
so he and Salaam would provide a dual threat when paired together.
The newly proclaimed savior's problems started in the summer
of '95 with a lengthy contract holdout. Salaam finally arrived to make a spot
appearance at Cleveland in a preseason game on August 14th. By opening day,
Wannstedt still wasn't ready to name Salaam the starter, and Lewis Tillman
opened the season at tailback. It didn't take long for Salaam to make his mark,
however, as he rushed for 47 yards on 10 carries and scored a touchdown in the
Bears 31-14 victory over Minnesota. An unfortunate event occurred in this
stirring victory, however, as Raymont Harris was lost for the season on the
game's first play with a broken collarbone. Thus, the dream backfield would
have to be shelved until 1996.
Salaam finally supplanted Lewis Tillman as the starter
during week four at St. Louis, and Tillman rarely saw the field for the
remainder of the season. Salaam put up great rookie numbers in '95-he compiled
five 100-yard plus games and scored 10 touchdowns en route to setting the Bears
rookie rushing record with 1,074 yards on 296 carries. He showed better speed
and moves than any back on the Bears roster, but another problem in his game
began to surface that year as well. Despite the great numbers, Salaam fumbled
11 times in 1995, sometimes without any contact from a defender. Despite the
fumbles, Chicago focused on the bright spots, and looked forward to building on
'95 with a playoff-bound team in '96.
Many things that were expected did not happen in 1996. Erik
Kramer was coming off a 29-touchdown campaign in '95, but was lost for the
season after a 1-3 start. Massive injuries affected both sides of the ball, and
the Bears performance. One of the injured was Salaam, who was hurt in the
preseason against Kansas City, after he fumbled on the Chief's five-yard line.
The Bears were still eager to showcase the Salaam/Harris backfield, but it
would have to wait until Salaam was ready to play against Detroit. As Salaam
was injured, Harris and Robert Green were filling in admirably, with each
rushing for over 100 yards in games. Then when Salaam was prepared to come back
in week four, Harris was injured and missed four weeks. Such was the story of
Chicago's 1996 season. Harris played well enough to keep the starting job over
Salaam, and the two never hit the field together.
1997 figured to finally be the year to utilize the tandem of
Harris and Salaam. Rashaan did open the season as the starting halfback, and
for the first two and a half games, he and Harris rotated into the backfield.
By game three, however, Harris had clearly won the starting tailback job as
Salaam had fumbled several times. In game three versus Detroit, it finally
happened. Salaam and Harris were on the field for one play together; it was the
only time this would happen. During that game, Salaam fumbled again and broke
his leg, ending his season and his career with the Chicago Bears.
Prior to the 1998 season, Wannstedt attempted to trade
Salaam to the Miami Dolphins for a late-round draft pick, but the trade was
rescinded when he failed a physical. After sitting out the 1998 season, Salaam
attempted a comeback with Oakland, Cleveland, and finally Green Bay, but he was
cut in each city. A Chicago Sun-Times article then revealed that Salaam
admitted to habitually smoking marijuana while he was with the Bears for his
three seasons. The article seemed to be a fitting finish for a first-round
bust, one of several that would plague the Bears in the 1990's.
Salaam's selection hurt the team to the present day. Because
of his selection and "back of the future" status, the Bears did not pick other
blue-chip running backs that were available to them such as Eddie George, Corey
Dillon, and Duce Staley. By the time he was really labeled a bust in 1998, the
team jumped on Curtis Enis with the fifth pick in the draft. And that's another
story for this section.....