The Chicago Bears had just lost by 31 points to a division rival, one of what would become 13 losses in the season. In the Chicago Tribune the next day, the Bears coach was quoted as calling it “one of the darkest and dreariest days in Bear history.”
A little more than 53 years later, the Bears again lost to a division rival by 31 points, the 13th loss of the season.
The current coach wasn’t as dramatic as the former, but he was quoted in the Tribune as saying, “It doesn’t sit well.”
The first coach was Jim Dooley, whose 1969 Bears went 1-13. One of those losses was a 31-0 beating by the Minnesota Vikings at Wrigley Field, after which Dooley proclaimed himself “bitterly disappointed.” The second was Matt Eberflus, whose current Bears lost 41-10 to the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field to drop to 3-13.
Eberflus wasn’t born yet when Dooley’s team lost that October 1969 game, but the coaches are connected by an unfortunate distinction. Along with John Fox’s 2016 Bears, their teams hold the record for the most losses in franchise history, a record the current Bears could break Sunday against the Vikings in the season finale at Soldier Field.
By that metric, Eberflus’ Bears are among the worst ever in Chicago, though they are only the second team to play a 17-game season. But what about other measuring sticks? Where do these Bears fit in the spectrum of bad Bears teams?
Here’s a look at the worst of the Bears, from record to point differential to takeaways to general dysfunction.
Records according to Bears media relations and Pro Football Reference, since 1940.
“If it were a book, it would be written by Stephen King. If it were a movie, it would be scripted by Brian DePalma. The year was 1969, the worst season in Bears history. Try to forget it. Just try,” Tribune reporter Robert Markus wrote at the 25-year anniversary of the 1969 team.
We’ll get to some of the drama in a bit, but let’s start with the basics. In their second season under Dooley, who replaced George Halas as coach, the Bears lost 17-0 in their season opener to the Packers in Green Bay and started the season 0-7. They notched their only win, 38-7, against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that also went 1-13.
However, as we’ll discuss later, that win would come back to bite the Bears. Running back Gale Sayers returned from a knee injury to rush for 1,032 yards in his last full season, but the big controversy of the season surrounded three starting quarterbacks — Bobby Douglass, Jack Concannon and Virgil Carter — as Dooley tried unsuccessfully to lift his team out of its funk.
The 2016 Bears gifted Chicago with the phrase “hot dog-laden press box,” used by Fox when talking about those critiquing the quarterback play of Brian Hoyer. The team did not gift the city with a lot of wins, however. The 3-13 team also used three quarterbacks — Jay Cutler, Hoyer and Matt Barkley — because of injuries and had three three-game losing streaks before ending the season on a four-game skid. The last streak included a 41-21 loss to the Washington Redskins in which Barkley threw five interceptions. Not surprisingly, this team would come up again when we talk about takeaway-giveaway ratio. It was one of five three-win teams in franchise history, along with the 1945, 1953, 1973 and 1982 Bears.
In May, ESPN’s Football Power Index projected the Bears to be the worst team in football this season, so needless to say, outside expectations as general manager Ryan Poles initiated a rebuild were low from the start. But a rain-soaked victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the season opener and a Week 3 win over the now 2-13-1 Houston Texans gave the Bears a 2-1 start. When the Bears upset the New England Patriots in Week 7 to improve to 3-4, it felt like maybe they could exceed some of those expectations. Then came trades and injuries and a nine-game skid against what turned out to be a difficult late-season schedule. Now, with a loss to the Vikings on Sunday, this group could go down in history as the losingest Bears team ever.
2022 stink meter: High.
Previous worst teams
“So a punt bounces off a man’s face and you win. At least the Bears were using their heads. That ball has bounced everywhere else this season, usually out of the hands of runners, or into the arms of defenders.” Bears reporter Don Pierson wrote that in the Tribune on Nov. 20, 1978, when the Bears broke their eight-game losing streak with a 13-7 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
Bruce Herron blocked a punt with his face mask that set up Walter Payton’s 2-yard touchdown run to secure the Bears win, their first in more than two months. The team used quarterbacks Bob Avellini, Mike Phipps and Vince Evans in that game — are you sensing a trend about the worst teams? — and went on to win four of their last five to finish 7-9. After the game, coach Neill Armstrong said, “We were getting awfully sick of losing and so was the public after eight games. I hope we never see that again.”
Twenty-four years later, the Bears endured another eight-game losing streak as the 2002 team played in Champaign because of Soldier Field renovations. During the stretch, quarterback Jim Miller battled tendinitis and flip-flopped starts with Chris Chandler.
Six of the eight losses were by a touchdown or less — two were in overtime — but it took a baffling decision by Lions coach Marty Mornhinweg to end it. Under previous sudden-death overtime rules, in which even a field goal on the opening drive would end the game, the Lions won the toss but elected to defend with the Bears driving against a strong wind at Memorial Stadium. Miller led a drive to the Lions 22, and Paul Edinger made a 40-yard field goal for a 20-17 win in a 4-12 season under Dick Jauron. “I couldn’t believe that they didn’t take the ball,” linebacker Brian Urlacher said.
Was that another lifetime, that Oct. 24 night when Jaquan Brisker made his revenge interception after Patriots quarterback Mac Jones kicked him “somewhere I shouldn’t be hit?” When Roquan Smith said the Bears so stunned the crowd at Gillette Stadium that “it was like you could hear a rat piss?” When Justin Fields took off on his running spree and there was a glimmer of hope for the Bears season?
Nine games and more than 70 days later, the Bears still have not tasted another victory. Smith is now with the Baltimore Ravens, the start of a seemingly constant shedding of the Bears best players, either by trade (Smith, Robert Quinn) or by injury (Darnell Mooney, Eddie Jackson, Jaylon Johnson). And while there were a few close ones early in the losing streak, the last two to the Buffalo Bills and Lions have been particularly ugly. Like the 1978 Falcons and the 2002 Lions, will the 2022 Vikings give the Bears a chance to end their franchise-record nine-game skid?
2022 stink meter: High.
Pierson proclaimed that a Nov. 2, 1975, loss to the Miami Dolphins was one of the Bears best games of the season, writing that the Bears moved the ball better than they had all year, hustled and hit hard. They lost 46-13.
“That’s how far away these Bears are from the top of the National Football League,” Pierson wrote of a young Bears team under first-year coach Jack Pardee. “The reality hit them squarely between the eyes Sunday. They have now lost to the world champion Steelers, runners-up Vikings and powerful Dolphins in three weeks by a combined score of 93-25.”
It wasn’t just those three weeks that set the Bears on track to a minus-188 point differential, the worst in team history. Eight of their 10 losses in a 4-10 season were by 20 points or more. The season, the fourth straight with four or fewer victories, capped one of the worst stretches of football in franchise history. Payton was a rookie in that season but broke out to become an All-Pro the next two seasons, including the Bears’ first winning season in a decade in 1977 as they leaned on their star.
The next-closest team was the 1997 Bears, who went 4-12 and had a minus-158 point differential. The Bears, quarterbacked by Erik Kramer most of the season, lost their first seven games, the worst of which was a 31-3 loss to the Patriots and Drew Bledsoe. The last of that stretch was a 24-23 loss to the Green Bay Packers in which coach Dave Wannstedt called for a two-point conversion to win the game rather than kick the extra point and send the game to overtime.
“What did we have to lose?” receiver Curtis Conway said after Kramer overthrew Raymont Harris on the attempt to win the game. Except for, you know, another game.
After a 49-29 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 8, Smith sat in the visitors locker room and used the word “embarrassing” three times, “unacceptable” three times, “inexcusable” once and “frustrating” once. Starting with that game — the Bears’ first without Quinn and last with Smith — the Bears defense has kept opponents under 27 points just once. It has been a large part of the Bears losing streak — and their minus-121 point differential. The aforementioned 31-point loss to the Lions, coupled with a 22-point loss to the Bills a week earlier, has moved the Bears into eighth-worst in franchise history in the category. They are third-worst in the NFL this season behind the Indianapolis Colts (minus-137) and the Texans (minus-132). The Bears have lost five games by 17 points or more.
2022 stink meter: High.
Barkley became one of 10 players in Bears history to throw five interceptions in a game on Christmas Eve 2016, second only to Zeke Bratkowski’s seven interceptions in 1960.
“I was standing in my way today,” Barkley said, “just in my own head of trying to do too much.”
That game contributed to the Bears’ 31 turnovers for the season. Barkley had 14 of the Bears’ 19 interceptions in seven games, with Cutler having the other five in five games. The 2016 Bears ranked 31st in the NFL in takeaway-giveaway ratio, the lowest ranking in team history, given that other similarly bad teams played when the league had fewer teams. But that ratio had as much to do with their franchise-low 11 takeaways — tied for fourth-worst in NFL history — as their turnovers. They had a franchise-low eight interceptions — led by two each from Tracy Porter and Cre’Von LeBlanc — and just three fumble recoveries.
The 2016 Bears were 50th in team history in offensive turnovers. The 1947 Bears had 58 turnovers, but they also had 47 takeaways and still went 8-4.
Two other teams had similarly large turnover differentials. In 1960, the 5-6-1 Bears had 42 turnovers and 19 takeaways. That team had Bratkowski, who threw 21 interceptions in 11 games. In 1987, a Bears team that went 11-4 and made the playoffs had 44 turnovers and 24 takeaways. That included a two-game stretch against the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks with 11 turnovers and one takeaway. Quarterback Mike Tomczak, who was filling in for injured Jim McMahon, had six interceptions in those games. The Tribune’s Bernie Lincicome wrote, “The ball needed a handle to stay in the Bears’ hands and thorns to stay out of San Francisco’s.”
Creating takeaways — and protecting the ball on offense — are key tenets of Eberlus’ HITS principle.
“It’s really built into our whole culture, just being fanatical about getting the ball out and punching all the time and being consistent and finding ways to create turnovers,” cornerback Kyler Gordon said at the beginning of the season.
That hasn’t led to as many takeaways as the Bears probably would like. They have 21 this season, which would be tied for 10th fewest in team history. On the flip side, Fields has thrown 11 interceptions, and the Bears have 23 turnovers, giving them a minus-2 turnover differential, ranked 20th in the NFL heading into Week 18 — but far from the worst in team history.
2022 stink meter: Medium.
A Brandon Marshall postgame shouting session directed at Robbie Gould. Lance Briggs missing a Week 1 practice for a restaurant opening. Lamarr Houston injuring his knee on a sack celebration with his team down by 25 points. Marshall challenging a Lions fan to a fight on social media and later saying he would use it in an anti-bullying campaign. Aaron Rodgers throwing six touchdown passes in the first half in a 55-14 Packers win, one game after the Patriots scored 51 points against the Bears. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer leaking his frustrations about Cutler to NFL Network, only to have to apologize to his players later.
“It’s one of the most (messed) up things I have ever seen,” a player told the Tribune’s Brad Biggs of the Kromer comments and apology.
By recent reporters’ estimations, the 2014 Bears team under Marc Trestman, which went 5-11, was among the most messed up teams in terms of pure dysfunction in recent memory. Trestman and general manager Phil Emery were fired at the end of the season.
The 1969 team is also famous for its issues, including a quarterback controversy, with Dooley at one point even using a platoon system in which the veteran Concannon replaced the rookie Douglass in third-and-short situations. Carter got his opportunity late in the season, but Dooley pulled him at halftime of a loss to the Packers, and Carter called him “gutless and a liar.” Carter also said he hoped management wouldn’t be “chicken(bleep)” enough to make him return to Chicago the following season to play out his option. The outburst earned Carter a $1,000 fine from the organization, and he left the team a game early.
A more serious and heartbreaking moment in the season, however, was that running back Brian Piccolo was diagnosed with cancer after he went to doctors for a persistent cough and they found a chest tumor. He died about seven months later.
It’s a credit to Bears coaches and players that a team with the longest single-season losing streak in team history, with a record as bad as any the Bears have had, hasn’t had many public issues. Smith’s public statement requesting a trade and blasting Poles for failing to negotiate a new contract in good faith in August was the most dramatic public moment of the season. But even that seemed to die down pretty quickly as Smith and the Bears agreed to move on with the season without more negotiations. Rookie wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. said the environment Eberflus created has helped.
“It’s all about respect,” Jones said. “We respect one another, from player to coach and coach to player. It’s about the passion and the brotherhood we have in the locker room. Everybody is really social, everybody wants to play for one another. It sucks the way the season is going, but it’s just amazing to see everybody sticking together. At this point, I feel like it’s easy to give up, go halfway. But that’s not the case at all.”
2022 stink meter: Low.
In 1998, after the Bears fired Wannstedt after six years as coach, team President Michael McCaskey spoke of the personnel issues that plagued the team. He noted the Bears’ lack of Pro Bowl players. The Bears didn’t have a single player elected to the game from their 1994-98 teams.
“With the 1985-87 teams we had any number of impact players, players who could make a difference in a game,” McCaskey said. “I have to take some share of the responsibility that the talent level deteriorated over the years.”
Talent is a bit of a subjective measurement, but the absence of Pro Bowlers — and just basic name recognition for most of those late 1990s players — is telling of a lack of top-end talent.
Before those teams, the last team to have no Pro Bowlers was in 1974. That was one season before the Bears drafted Payton and after the careers of Sayers and Butkus ended. There have been several years in which only one player was elected.
The 2022 Bears also didn’t have any player elected to the initial Pro Bowl roster, a first since the 2017 team. Smith has been named a Pro Bowler while with the Ravens. Quinn was a three-time Pro Bowler but wasn’t selected this season after he was traded. Jackson might have gotten a nod if he hadn’t been taken off the ballot following a Lisfranc injury in Week 12.
Bears fans certainly hope Fields is a future Pro Bowler. Same with young players such as Jaquan Brisker or any of the large number of rookies the Bears played this season. But still the absence of Bears at the event speaks to the team’s lack of elite difference makers.
2022 stink meter: High.
Now we come full circle to the 1969 team and that lone victory against the Steelers. Because both teams finished 1-13, they flipped a coin for the No. 1 pick. “ … And now Bears flop on the flip!” the Tribune headline proclaimed on Jan. 10, 1970. Vice president Ed McCaskey called heads. It was tails.
A writer yelled out, “McCaskey, you’re a bum!” from a crowded news conference. The Steelers drafted quarterback Terry Bradshaw No. 1 overall. The Bears traded their second pick to the Packers for linebacker Lee Roy Caffey, center/guard Bob Hyland and halfback Elijah Pitts.
As mentioned before, the Bears didn’t have a winning record again until 1977, one of two in the decade. The Steelers won four Super Bowls in the 1970s.
In hindsight, that 1969 team, along with the 1997 team that traded its No. 11 pick for quarterback Rick Mirer in the preseason, didn’t have a lot to look forward to, losing on opportunities to make their teams better.
Fields’ playmaking prowess, while it has come running more often than passing this season, is the primary vein through which hope has flowed. The thought that the Bears could have a star quarterback in the making after so many years of futility from many of the aforementioned players softens the blow of the 13-loss season. A first-year general manager and coach who at least have said the right things are being afforded some time to build their vision.
A top-four draft pick — which could go as high as No. 1 depending on the outcome of Sunday’s games — doesn’t hurt an optimistic outlook either.
But we won’t know until years down the line if that’s all false hope.
2022 stink meter: Low.