There is no way Dave Wannstedt could have known that he was
about to say the words that will forever be linked with his Chicago tenure when
he spoke to the Chicago Tribune's Don Pierson in early April 1996. The Bears
were readying for the draft, and had just closed the books on a successful
free-agent signing period. That February, the Bears had nabbed Bryan Cox-the
most coveted free agent on the market-and made him the highest paid Bear in
When Pierson asked Wannstedt to give his thoughts on the
season, Wannstedt told Pierson he finally felt the Bears were ready to
challenge for a Super Bowl title, in 1996. "All the pieces are in place,"
The season began with the Bears knocking off the NFL's
reigning champions on a Monday night, and virtually ended within weeks after a
2-5 start. 1996 was not Wannstedt's worst season with the Bears, but it was the
beginning of the end.
Dissapointment followed the 1995 season, when the Bears missed
the playoffs due to an improbable Atlanta Falcons upset of the San Francisco
49ers. But there was plenty of hope. The '95 Bears offense was statistically
one of the best 5 in the team's 77-year history, and there were building blocks
in place on the defense. But the defenders had obvious holes to fill, and that
is precisely where the organization focused prior to the '96 season.
For starters, the Bears matched a four-year, $12 million offer
the Jacksonville Jaguars made to free agent defensive end Alonzo Spellman,
retaining the player with enormous talent but also the propensity to disappear
for games on end. Wannstedt and his staff bet their money that Spellman would
work out his issues and continue to improve. They bet so much on Spellman that
the team could not afford to make an offer on free agent wide receiver Jeff
Graham, who departed the Bears to sign with the New York Jets.
The other defensive addition to pair with the re-signed
Spellman was the biggest free agent signing in the league that year. The Bears'
organization had carefully traded the free agent waters since its advent in
1993, watching other teams get into salary cap trouble by giving too much money
to players that provided no return on investment. Wannstedt and his personnel
staff publicly commented continually that once every other part of the team's
talent was at a high enough level, the Bears would then make a major splash if
that was what it was going to take to challege for a Super Bowl run.
Just days into the March '96 free agent signing period, the
Bears did just that by inking mercurial Miami Dolphin free agent linebacker
Bryan Cox on a four year, $13.2 million contract. Cox was penciled in as the
team's starting middle linebacker, but would be a key component on passing
downs when he would slide to right defensive end to rush the quarterback. Cox
cancelled planned trips to St. Louis and Green Bay when he signed with the
Bears, and explained at his introductory news conference that he would wear
jersey number 52, as he was sure he'd be the next in line of great Bears
linebackers. Mike Singletary (50), Dick Butkus (51), Bryan Cox (52).
The Bears' offensive success the previous season led to a run
on their own free agents for the first time, as the team lost offensive linemen
Jay Leeuwenburg and Troy Auzenne to the Indianapolis Colts. Backup quarterback
Steve Walsh, hero of the 1994 team, signed with the St. Louis Rams. Receiver
Curtis Conway signed a four year $10 million extension, and veteran tackle
James "Big Cat" Williams inked an extension as well. On special teams,
Wannstedt made the first real threat to veteran kicker Kevin Butler's
employment by bringing in CFL player Carlos Huerta for competition, and in the
return game it was hoped that '95 draftee Jack Jackson would bolster the team's
performance. Some had called the fourth-round pick the steal of the 1995 draft
after Jackson was selected in the fourth round.
It was thought that the Bears would lose veteran linchpin
center Jerry Fontenot to another club, so they signed Arizona's Ed Cunningham
to be their new starter. In the end, Fontenot signed a one-year deal with the
Bears, and Cunningham was released.
Experts were certain the Bears would go on the defensive in
the '96 draft and they did indeed, but not without first going on the
offensive. The Bears traded their third and sixth-round picks to the Rams and
moved from the 18th to 13th position to take Mississippi State corner Walt
Harris in the first round. The Bears had been burned plenty on third-and-long
the previous season, so corner was a logical choice. Soon Harris would be
peddling shirts that stated "2/3 of the Earth is covered by water. The rest is
covered by Walt Harris." Right.
In the second round of the draft the Bears selected Penn State
receiver Bobby Engram to replace Graham, and in the fourth took defensive
tackle Paul Grasmanis. The fifth-round pick was guard/center Chris Villarrial
from Indiana of Pennsylvania. Their last pick, running back Michael Hicks from
South Carolina State, would stick for part of the season and get a few carries.
Through the rest of the offseason and training camp, the Bears
focused on their main goal: Wannstedt's first meeting with his former team the
Dallas Cowboys, reigning NFL Champions and due into Soldier Field for the first
Monday Night Football game of the season. News through the preseason focused on
this matchup, although the Bears opening Carolina's new stadium and a
season-ending injury to Chris Zorich also made headlines. In the Bears' final
preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Soldier Field, starting
running back Rashaan Salaam injured his knee, and the heavens opened up with a
deluge of rain and massive bolts of lightning striking perilously close to the
stadium. The NFL officials called the game before its conclusion for safety of
the fans. Then Wannstedt would rock Chicago himself the day after the game.
In perhaps Wannstedt's first move that would not endear him to
Bears fans in his career, on August 23rd the coach/personnel boss released the
final 1985 Bear, Butler, in favor of Huerta, the newcomer from the Canadian
league. "The easy thing to do is to say yeah, we're OK. Sometimes to get ahead
you don't make the easy decision," Wannstedt said. Going with Huerta over
Butler was the right thing to do, Wannstedt thought, and time would tell.
Butler hit the talk shows to discuss how he felt it was a money decision made
as early as 1995, and fans mourned the loss of the last link to their most
The new kicker and his Bears played to the potential Wannstedt
thought they had in the opener against the Cowboys. Huerta converted on 3 of 4
field goal attempts while his team shocked the defending champion Cowboys 22-6
on national television. While the Bear offense didn't seem to resemble the 1995
version--the unit was generally out of synch and ineffective--the rest of the
team picked up the slack. Cornerback Kevin Minifield sacked Troy Aikman and
forced a fumble that Cox recovered for a touchdown, the Bears converted a fake
punt, and starting running back Raymont Harris caught a bomb from Curtis Conway
for a touchdown, keying the win. The rookie Harris shut down Deion Sanders, who
was playing receiver in addition to defense, and the Cowboys and their large
contingent of road fans were quieted. For one week at least, the Bears were
backing up their coach's bold prediction.
After knocking off the champions, the Bears traveled to
Washington to play the Redskins, a team that would finish 9-7 this season and
miss the playoffs. The Bears' offense again looked punchless in the nation's
captial, and Chicago lost 10-3 in a meeting of the Turner brothers (Bear
offensive coordinator Ron and Redskin head coach Norv). Bear running back
Robert Green rushed for 107 yards, but Huerta missed his lone field goal try
and Erik Kramer couldn't get the ball into the endzone from inside the 20 on
the Bears' final posession.
In week 3, the Bears lost to Minnesota at home to go 1-2, and
Huerta was released after beginning the season 4/7 on field goal attempts
(Kevin Butler hit his first 16 in 1995). Instead of taking another look at
Butler, the Bears signed veteran Jeff Jaeger for the season's fourth game.
Butler was livid with the decision, saying "it's deceitfulness, the difference
between Wannstedt and Mike Ditka. Dave doesn't know how to tell the truth. He
likes to beat around the bush and comes up with all these intangibles, like
age." Wannstedt countered that "we gotta do what we gotta do. You make a
decision, and if it doesn't work out and you keep your mistake, then you're
making two mistakes." The change in kicker didn't affect the score of the next
game, as the Bears were blasted 35-16 in Detroit. While Kramer did hook up with
Conway on a long touchdown, the offense was still looking like a completely
different unit from 1995, and Chicago's record was 1-3.
Following the Detroit loss it was announced that Kramer was
suffering from a herniated disc in his neck, a potentially career-threatening
injury, and the quarterback was shelved "temporarily". The injury did end up
costing Kramer the season, he would not play again in 1996, but with the way
the offense had performed behind him in the season's first 5 weeks, it could
not be concluded that Kramer's loss would be the reason for a poor finish.
Kramer's replacement would be 17-year veteran Dave Krieg who had been signed to
replace Walsh. Krieg and Jaeger would team up to stun the Oakland Raiders in a
19-17 upset in the season's fifth game, but a season turnaround it was not.
Considering 1996 was the season Wannstedt had predicted the
Bears would challenge for a Super Bowl title, things got real interesting from
there. In week six, the Bears hosted the Green Bay Packers, whom they had not
defeated in almost three years. The Packers seemed to be the team that was
rolling toward the title game, and they thoroughly beat Chicago 37-6. After the
game, Cox unleashed a tirade against his teammates to curious reporters. "We've
got to get some damned heart!" Cox declared. "Some of our guys need to go see
the wizard because we don't have a lot of heart. If people aren't doing their
jobs, let's get their asses out of here and get some people who want to play,"
he declared. After the Packer game, Cox also committed the first of his many
fineable offenses with the NFL when he "verbally abused" an official. He and
his attorney announced that he would be fighting the $87.500 penalty levied by
The losing continued the following week in New Orleans, when
the Bear defense was overrun by an average Saints running game. The team
entered its bye week 2-5.
The second half of the 1996 season didn't contain enough
highlights to write extensively about. Chicago did at least finish the final
nine weeks of the season with a 5-4 record, but also ended the year on a sour
note, losing in Tampa to an improving Buccaneer team 24-19.
What did Dave Wannstedt, the organization and Bears fans learn
from the 1996 season? Clearly, all the pieces were not in place. Granted, the
season was somewhat derailed by injuries, as many key positions were decimated
by the end of the season. Some younger players began to emerge, such as guard
Villarrial, quarterback Shane Matthews who showed a flash in the finale (but
would not return in 1997) and rookies Harris and Engram.
But instead of January 1997 being filled with a playoff run,
Wannstedt and his associates again buckled down to assess the damage, both
physical and mental, from another losing campaign.