This is the latest post in Kurt’s continuing series to identify the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player of All-Time. For an explanation of his methodology for choosing each franchise’s ultimate franchise player, and then how you and he will choose the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player from that list, click here.
To see all the category page for this series, of which there will be one for every franchise, click here.
The first five installments of Ultimate Franchise Player have been compelling, with each franchise having its own unique history – but now things are about to get serious.
Out of the NFL Network’s list of the Top 100 players of all-time, eight of the top 60 are Chicago Bears.
My first five UFPs came from franchises that will only produce one, or at the very most two representatives in the eventual 64-player UFP field. The Bears and their 90+ year history will be a little different.
However, with only 32 at-large berths to be awarded, I am probably going to have to cap off each franchise with a maximum of four bids. That is going to lead to some agonizing decisions in the selection room, a couple of them involving Monsters of the Midway legends.
Unlike the previous UFP pieces, a lot of great players will be left on the cutting room floor for time and space purposes – although I will throw in a few unique players from Bears football history.
George Halas (WR/DE 1920-29)
Much like his counterpart Curly Lambeau in Green Bay, George Halas was a player and also ran his own franchise in the early days of the NFL.
Halas returned a fumble 98 yards for a touchdown in 1923, and that record stood until Oakland’s Jack Tatum’s 104 yard return in 1972.
A member of the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1920s, Halas coached the team during the period and was on board for three other separate tenures as Head Coach, finally stepping down for good in 1967 and remaining as owner until 1983. Halas also had a cup of coffee with the New York Yankees, going 2-22 as a hitter in 1919.
Red Grange (RB 1925, 1929-34)
In 1925 pro football had a meager following in comparison to its collegiate counterpart.
The Bears were lucky to draw 5,000 a game while the college game drew upwards to 50,000-60,000; in fact the NFL was marketing its game as ‘Post-Graduate Football’, as many frowned on college legends continuing to play the game for money. Halas wanted to change that by signing legendary Illinois back Red Grange, which he did just hours following his final collegiate game (and may had even had him inked before that game).
Halas wasted no time getting Grange into uniform, and he made his pro debut on Thanksgiving Day at a sold out Wrigley Field. After finishing their official league schedule, the Bears went on a barnstorming tour in which eight games were played in just 12 days (the final five in six days) and included a crowd of over 70,000 at New York’s Polo Grounds. The tour concluded with eight more games played between Christmas and January 31, with the Bears tour finally ending on the West Coast.
On the train ride back to Chicago however, the Galloping Ghost literally disappeared like one. Grange made approximately $100,000 (a nice amount of money even today) from the gate receipts in those two months, but wanted part-ownership as well. The result was Grange leaving the Bears to form his own league, along with a couple forays into the movie industry. Grange eventually returned to the Bears in 1929, not quite the player he was in college, but still made key plays to help the Bears win NFL titles in 1932 and 1933.
Bronko Nagurski (RB 1930-37, 1943)
At 6’2”, 235 lbs, the Canadian-born Nagurski remains one of the great all-time physical specimens, and back in his era he was literally unstoppable.
One of Bronko’s most legendary stories was when something finally did stop him after plowing through two defenders past the goal line, it turned out to the be the left field brick wall at Wrigley Field. Teammate Red Grange once referred to Nagurski as a faster version of Larry Csonka on offense and equal to Dick Butkus as a linebacker.
Later in his career, Nagurski used his profitability in the pro wrestling business, a venture he remained involved in until 1960. Nagurski was a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Sid Luckman (QB 1939-50)
You all see the graphics Al Michaels pulls out for Bears-Packers games. The Packers have had two QBs over the past 20 years, while the Bears have lost count. Luckman is still the career passing yardage leader in Bears history, and nearly 8% of his career pass attempts resulted in touchdowns.
It was during this era that the Bears employed the T Formation and the man-in-motion for the first time. Luckman only threw the ball six times in the Bears famous 73-0 rout of the Washington Redskins in the 1940 NFL Title Game, but his four completions resulted for 102 yards.
He was in the service for two years and was stationed state-side and played for the Bears on game day. With Luckman introducing the deep ball into the pro game, the Bears won five league championships during his career.
Johnny Lujack (QB 1948-51)
A brief but memorable career for the Notre Dame Legend. The game had opened up much more as Lujack succeeded Luckman as the Bears quarterback (A young Bobby Layne was the third-stringer!!). In the 1949 season finale Luckman threw for 468 yards and six touchdowns, and the following season Luckman rushed for 11 scores, which tied a league record for QB’s.
A shoulder injury ended Lujack’s career, and he returned to Notre Dame as an assistant coach and eventually went into TV broadcasting.
George Connor (OT/LB 1948-55)
Originally an offensive lineman by trade, the 6’3” 240 lb Connor was used at linebacker out of necessity in 1949 in an attempt to stop the Philadelphia Eagles strong running attack. Connor wound up being used on both offense and defense after that, and he earned induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1975.
Bill George (MLB 1952-65)
This is where the Bears inside linebacking heritage began. George dropped back into coverage just before plays began, inadvertently inventing both the 4-3 defense and the middle linebacker position.
For his career, George intercepted 18 passes and recovered 19 fumbles. He passed away at age 52 following a 1982 car accident in Wisconsin.
Doug Atkins (DE 1955-66)
At 6’8”, 275 lbs, think of Julius Peppers, just a few generations earlier. And like Peppers, Atkins was originally a college basketball recruit before the University of Tennessee realized that he could make a much better impact on the gridiron.
Atkins was a first-round draft choice of the Cleveland Browns, but was traded after reportedly belching during a team meeting. Atkins went on to earn eight Pro Bowl selections during his time with the Bears.
Jim McMahon (QB 1982-88)
Of course it was another Jim who is by far the most famous QB of recent times, but McMahon is a legend in his own right despite never starting more than 13 games in a season due to injuries, most notably taken down on an infamous late hit by Green Bay’s Charles Martin. Still, the charisma won McMahon over with the team’s fan base.
If you’re wondering what the ‘Rozelle’ headband was about, the commish was fining him during the ’85 season for wearing Adidas apparel. The league was thinking about licensing and marketing even then…
Jim Harbaugh (QB 1987-93)
I have already revealed Sid Luckman as the Bears all-time leading passer, but you will no doubt win bar bets asking who may be #2 on the Bears all-time list. Harbaugh spent seven of his 14 NFL seasons in Chicago. Harbaugh (and Luckman) are both still keeping the seat warm until Jay Cutler blows by them on the career charts.
Brian Urlacher (ILB 2000-present)
Of course Urlacher is just the latest of the iconic Bears linebackers who will follow his predecessors into Canton someday, currently ranked #109 on Pro Football Referances EloRater. Urlacher has endured a couple of major injuries in recent years and the end may be near, but Urlacher has already earned his lore at Halas Hall.
Lance Briggs (OLB 2003-present)
Has earned Pro Bowl bids in each of his last seven seasons. His tenure with the team has been controversial at times, and he could be dealt this off-season, but you can’t argue with the track record.
Richard Dent (DE 1983-93, 1995)
One of pro football’s all-time great pass rushers, Dent recorded 137.5 sacks and 37 forced fumbles in all during his playing career.
In the epic 1985 season Dent recorded 17 sacks in the regular season, and added six more sacks and five forced fumbles in the playoffs. Dent forcing a fumble on Rams quarterback Dieter Brock (which was picked up and returned for a TD by Wilber Marshall) which put the final dagger on the NFC Championship remains an image frozen in time.
It seems like he’s been in Chicago forever, but it’s only been six years. Bob Costas already made a nomination for Hester’s Hall of Fame candidacy after he scored his 12th return touchdown during the 2011 season.
If he ends up scoring somewhere around 20 kicks for scores for his career (which he is on pace for), the Windy City Flyer may indeed wind up in Canton.
Brian Piccolo (FB 1965-69) COURAGE SELECTION
Growing up I saw the movie Brian’s Song on television many, many times.
Piccolo had finally earned a place in the team’s starting lineup during the 1969 season when he took himself out of the game due to breathing difficulties. Piccolo was soon diagnosed with an aggressive form of testicular cancer which by that point had already spread into other parts of his body.
After undergoing surgeries to remove his lung and pectoral muscle, Piccolo passed away in June of 1970.
THE FINAL FIVE
Mike Singletary (ILB 1981-92)
Simply one of the most intense players ever to play the game, Samurai Mike earned Defensive Player of the Year honors in the Bears ’85 Championship season and recovered three fumbles during that season’s playoffs. He recorded nearly 900 solo tackles in 172 career starts and was an eight-time All-Pro selection.
Dick Butkus (MLB 1965-73)
You could watch vintage NFL Films footage of Butkus committing mayhem on the football field for hours, as he remains one of the most intimidating presences in league history.
ESPN named Butkus #70 among the best athletes ever in 1999, and was named to the NFL’s All-time team in 2000.
Like Red Grange generations before, Butkus first became legendary at the University of Illinois and placed sixth and third in Heisman Trophy balloting. Today, college football’s best linebacker is the recipient of the Butkus Award.
Gale Sayers (RB 1965-71)
As was the case with Butkus, it was a shame that injuries cut short Sayers career. Had he played a full career he may have been the best back ever, period.
In his rookie season, Sayers accounted for over 2,200 all-purpose yards and 22 scores. His six TD game versus the San Francisco 49ers still goes down as one of the most memorable individual days in NFL history.
Sayers was averaging over six yards per carry when he suffered his first serious knee injury during the 1968 season. He had a modestly successful 1969 season (4.4 yards per carry/1,032 rushing yards) although the team finished 1-13. He suffered another devastating injury (to his left knee this time) in 1970 which effectively ended his career.
Mike Ditka (TE 1961-66)
The Ultimate Franchise Player list is confined to players only, but if you were to include coaching Ditka obviously ranks even higher in Chicago Bears annals.
Ditka caught 58 passes as a rookie in 1961, redefining the tight end position, a job description that involved blocking much more than receiving up to that point. In all, Ditka caught 228 passes and 30 touchdowns in his first four years with the team and played in the NFL 12 years overall.
Walter Payton (RB 1975-87)
A fascinating book excerpt this past fall in Sports Illustrated revealed Payton’s difficulties to adjusting to life post-football, including putting copious amounts of sugar in his coffee, turning to alcohol (which he rarely did as a player), and recreational use of nitrous oxide (try some at your next dental procedure). How much this may had played a part in Payton’s eventual illness and death in 1999 is unknown, but the piece was revealing as a classic case of the struggles of an athlete once the cheering stopped.
Payton’s passing at age 45 was especially stunning as he seemed indestructible for 13 years on the field. Anyone remember Jim Brown contemplating a comeback at age 47 because Franco Harris was going to hang long enough to break his all-time rushing mark? Well, Sweetness wound up making that a moot point.
Payton still ranks second on the All-Time list with 16,726 rushing yards, and he also finished with over 21,000 combined yards and 125 touchdowns. Excluding the three games during the strike-marred 1987 season when replacement players were utilized, Payton only missed one game during his entire career!!!
And, of course, Payton was the star of one of the most memorable teams in NFL history, which shuffled its way all the way to a Super Bowl title.
AND THE WINNER IS…
The NFL Network Top 100 series included the following Bears: Payton #5, Butkus #10, Nagurski #19, Sayers #22, Luckman #33, Grange #48, Singletary #58, and Ditka #59. Payton, Butkus, and Sayers should be automatics for the 64-player field, while the RPI’s of Nagurski and Luckman will provide interesting test cases for old-time players.
After racking up a then single-game record of 275 yards versus the Minnesota Vikings in 1977, NFL Today did one of their then sappy ‘musical tributes’, playing Walter Payton highlights to Carly Simon’s Nobody Does It Better. Unfortunately, of all the items available on YouTube I was unable to find that clip. But I’ll leave you with the next best I can find (but you’ll have to click to watch, as it can’t be embedded).
MSF’s Ultimate Franchise Player for the Chicago Bears is…