Pro! Gameday program from the December 16, 1979 game between the Bears and St.
Louis Cardinals, showing its age.
That’s Incredible was the second-rated television show in
1979, according to www.super70s.com. The 1979 Chicago Bears would have fit in
perfectly as subject matter for this show. Every time it looked like they were
out, they came back in. Every time they lost a player, another stepped up. They
lost their team president to an untimely death, and on the very same day
responded with a rousing victory against all odds. Only their own mistakes in
the NFC Wild Card game that year ended this amazing campaign.
Several personnel moves conducted over the previous three
seasons put the Bears in a position to make a run in 1979. In 1977, Chicago
traded its 1978 first-round pick to Cleveland for veteran QB Mike Phipps.
Phipps was a first-round draft pick himself, taken by the Browns as the third
selection overall in 1970. Phipps took over in 1978 for Bob Avellini, who had
started 42 consecutive games through November of that year. Phipps started four
of the final six games of 1978, winning three, and entered 1979 as the starter.
Chicago also traded away all-pro DE Wally Chambers to Tampa in
1978 for the Bucs' 1979 first-round selection. That pick turned out to be the
fourth overall, and with it the Bears selected Arkansas DT/DE Dan Hampton.
Other notable picks in that draft were Al Harris, DE from Arizona State with
the ninth pick, WR Rickey Watts from Tulsa in the second round, and RB Willie
McClendon from Georgia in the third. All four of these players would contribute
to the team’s success in 1979 and beyond.
The ’79 season opened in Green Bay against the arch-rival
Packers. Phipps started but the Bears’ offense was anemic, partly due to them
losing FB John Skibinski in the first quarter to a shoulder injury that would
sideline him for the season. This, coupled with the loss to injury of Roland
Harper in August, left the Bears dangerously short at the position. RB/WR David
Williams would be thrust into the starting fullback role, a position he would
man steadily for the rest of the year. Thanks to a blocked field goal by Virgil
Livers and steady punting from Bob Parsons, Chicago prevailed over the Packers,
The following week Chicago lit up Minnesota 26-7. Walter
Payton rushed for 182 yards, and Vince Evans led a ball-control offense
throughout the second half after Phipps left the game due to the flu. The Bears
were 2-0, but their undefeated status was not to last. The following week,
Chicago only controlled the ball for 24 minutes against the defending NFC
champion Cowboys at Texas Stadium, and the Cowboys won 24-20. Chicago actually
led twice, but Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett proved to be too much. Payton
rushed for 134 yards to become Chicago’s all-time leading rusher.
What looked to be a promising season kicked off by a 2-0 start
began to look dimmer, thanks to losses in weeks four and five. On September 23,
they lost to Miami 31-16 after leading 6-3 at the half. Payton managed only 43
yards and Vince Evans, still starting for Phipps, threw for 92 yards and two
interceptions. Avellini, who gained 68 yards on five completions, relieved him.
Bear fans were disappointed again September 30, when the surprising Tampa Bay
Buccaneers won 17-13 at sunny Soldier Field. Chicago led 13-10 into the fourth
quarter, but two interceptions thrown by Evans in that period ended the
possibilities of a win. The loss dropped the Bears to 2-3.
Vince Evans’ season abruptly ended after the Tampa game. Evans
was drafted in 1977 and thought to be the quarterback of the future for the
team. He had an impressive preseason, and held on to the starting position
after relieving Phipps in Minnesota. The plan was to stick with Evans and watch
his development improve through 1979. But the week after the Tampa game, he
came down with flu-like symptoms, and was diagnosed with a staph infection that
settled in his hip. Evans’ fevers reached dangerous levels-almost killing
him-and ended his 1979 season. Phipps was back in control as the starter,
backed up by Avellini and P Bob Parsons as 2nd and 3rd string.
Phipps’ re-entry as the starter delivered mixed results in the
season’s sixth and seventh weeks. Against Buffalo on 10/7, Chicago won 7-0,
thanks to a stifling defense and one incredible end-zone leap from Walter
Payton. In the following game, they were thumped at New England 27-7. In that
contest, Walter Payton was held to 42 yards rushing, but veteran Doug Buffone,
in his last season as a Bear, stole two interceptions in his first start of the
With a 3-4 record and a win absolutely necessary, Coach Neil
Armstrong went back to Bob Avellini as the starter at Minnesota on October 21.
Despite scoring the most points any Chicago team had over the previous 14 years
(1965 vs. San Francisco), the Bears lost 30-27, dropping their record at the
midway point of the season to 3-5. Phipps came back into the game in the second
half, putting Chicago up twice, but the team couldn’t hang on. He was named the
starter for the following week due to his play.
And that following week is exactly where the season turned
around, and the incredible magic began. The Bears were trailing the 49ers in
San Francisco on October 28th 27-21 with 1:38 left in the game. Chicago had the
ball with 4th and 8 on the 49er 48 yard line. Phipps faded back and tossed a
perfect spiral to WR James Scott, who converted the 20-yard pass into a 48-yard
TD, putting the Bears in front 28-27. The game was not over, however, until SS
Doug Plank intercepted a Steve DeBerg pass with 41 seconds left. Walter Payton
rushed for 162 yards and three touchdowns. Despite being 3-5 at the midway
point of the season, the Bears’ fortunes had changed.
In week ten, the Bears trounced the Lions 35-7, breaking a 7-7
stalemate early in the contest. WR Steve Schubert returned a punt 77 yards for
a TD, and DE Mike Hartenstine sacked rookie Detroit QB Jeff Komlo 2 times.
November 11, the Bears traveled to meet eventual NFC Champion Los Angeles, and
overcame a 16-0 deficit to win 27-23. Phipps threw for 239 yards and 2 TD’s,
and rookie Rickey Watts made his first start, nabbing 6 passes for 147 yards.
The next Sunday, Walter Payton saw limited action, rushing for
53 yards on 10 carries, and rookie McClendon saw extensive action in relief.
The Bears defeated the NY Jets 23-13. On Thanksgiving, Chicago suffered its
only defeat of the second half of the season, being shut out at Detroit 20-0.
The Bears penetrated Detroit territory six times without scoring, and Mike
Phipps had his nose broken by Detroit’s Al “Bubba” Baker. This loss all but
sealed the Bears fate-win their last three games or stay home for the playoffs.
Win they did-first at Tampa 14-0, then against Green Bay at
Soldier Field 15-14. Going into the December 16th showdown against St. Louis at
home, Chicago was in a do-or-die situation.
That December 16th was surreal, and the way it turned out
would have been impossible for a Hollywood screenwriter to imagine. Chicago
awoke that morning to snow and bitter cold, and to the news that Bears
President George “Mugs” Halas had died suddenly of a heart attack. Subplots for
this sad day for the Bears would be that in order to make the playoffs, Tampa
Bay would need to lose to Kansas City, or an improbable set of circumstances
would have to occur. If Tampa won, Dallas would need to defeat Washington and
the Bears would have to beat St. Louis. Not only this, but the combined
difference of the scores between the two games would have to add up to at least
34 points in the Bears favor, due to playoff tiebreaker calculations.
Additionally, Walter Payton was battling rookie St. Louis RB Ottis “OJ”
Anderson for the NFC rushing title. Payton would need to outrush Anderson by
100 yards to win the title.
Payton seemed to take all of these challenges in stride. T Ted
Albrecht commented in Dick Wittingham’s book What Bears They Were that the RB
was untying the referee’s shoelaces in every pile on the game’s opening drive,
and Payton even swapped helmets with Willie McClendon when he scored the game’s
first touchdown. With karma like that, fans had to know they were in for a
treat, and they were. The Bears pulled out every stop, and defeated St. Louis
42-6 in Doug Buffone’s last game at Soldier Field.
Knowing that this huge victory wasn’t all the team needed,
Bear players huddled around their car radios after the game. They listened to
updates on the Dallas-Washington game, which the Redskins had been winning 17-0
in the third quarter. Dallas pulled out a 35-34 victory, and Chicago was in the
playoffs for the second time in three years.
The magical 1979 season ended for Chicago the following week
at Philadelphia. The Bears blew numerous chances to win the game. Leading 17-10
at halftime, an 84-yard Walter Payton run was called back on a questionable
penalty, then Phipps threw several costly interceptions, including one in the
end zone on an ill-advised pass to Brian Baschnagel.
The Bears returned to Chicago on December 23, disappointed at
their loss but basking in the memories of a truly special season.