In 1995, for the first of two straight years, Dave Wannstedt and his Bears team felt that the pieces were falling into place, if not completely in place, for a run deep into the playoffs. In reality, instead of pushing deeper than 1994′s divisional playoff defeat, Wannstedt’s rebuilt team would fall just short and begin its descent. But not without producing the most exciting offensive season in club history.
Wannstedt had said from the beginning several things about his plan. First, it would probably be a four to five-year plan to get to the Super Bowl. 1995 was the third year, following a surprising second campaign that raised expectations. Secondly, the head coach that also controlled personnel stated that no major free agent signings would be made until the talent was there surrounding any big-splash acquisitions.
So in free agency, the Bears resisted going after any of that offseason’s marquee players, such as Alvin Harper, Deion Sanders, Henry Thomas or Rickey Watters, but instead signed two mid-tier players. Those players were safety Marty Carter from Tampa and receiver Michael Timpson from New England. Carter was a necessity, to replace the aging Shaun Gayle, while Timpson was tabbed as motivation to push the young, talented, and fairly underachieving Curtis Conway.
Wannstedt also felt they were adding to their club by subtracting several over-priced veterans. Middle linebacker Dante Jones, just signed to a large deal before the 1994 season, was cut, as was tight end Marv Cook, who spent the most of his lone season with the Bears injured or on the bench. In their places, outside linebacker Joe Cain was moved to the middle, and 1993 draftee Chris Gedney was expected to start at tight end.
Another rather stunning offseason move by NFL standards was made to clear the way for youth along the defensive line. Wannstedt had invested heavily in the NFL draft along the defensive line, picking John Thierry and Carl Simpson the previous two seasons, along with already having 1992 top pick Alonzo Spellman in the fold. In order to get his young guys on the field, the coach/personnel boss traded productive veteran end Trace Armstrong to Miami for second and third-round picks. The trade gave Wannstedt’s Bears five selections in the first three rounds.
The trade of Armstrong altered the personnel and positioning of the defensive line. With the veteran at left end gone, Spellman was asked to move to the left side, and Thierry was installed as the starter on the right side. Incumbents Chris Zorich and Simpson remained the tackles at season’s open.
The 1995 draft was heavy on running backs, and it was thought this was definitely the year to finally get a long-term replacement for Neal Anderson (who was cut prior to the 1994 season). Indeed, four backs were selected before the Bears, allowing college football’s Heisman Trophy winner, Rashaan Salaam from Colorado, to fall to them. Wannstedt and his staff were immediately tantalized by the thought of lining up with Salaam and promising second-year back Raymont Harris in the same backfield.
Many thought the Bears had made the trade with Miami to position themselves for a move up in the draft, but instead they stood pat and selected Miami defensive lineman Patrick Riley and punter Todd Sauerbrun from West Virginia in the second round. In the third they took linebacker Sean Harris and guard Evan Pilgrim. Their fourth round pick, speedy receiver Jack Jackson from Florida, was thought to be the steal of the draft.
In training camp at Platteville, WI, a battle waged at quarterback between Erik Kramer and Steve Walsh. Kramer was the high-profile signing with a strong arm, Walsh had the weaker arm but had piloted the Bears to the playoffs the previous season after Kramer was injured. Both quarterbacks were given a shot at winning the starting job, but Kramer’s upside won out.
The 1995 regular season opened on September 3rd, on a beautiful late Summer day in Chicago. The Bears limped through a 1-3 preseason, culminating in a taunting from former quarterback Jim Harbaugh at Indianapolis. The team faced the Minnesota Vikings, reigning NFC Central champs, in the opener, and the Chicago offense came out firing on all cylinders. Setting a high bar for the rest of the season, Kramer threw for 262 yards and three touchdowns, and receivers Conway and Jeff Graham each went over 100 yards. The result was a 31-14 drubbing of the Vikings.
Despite thoroughly dominating the Vikings, the Bears were quickly brought back to earth in a Monday Night Football loss to the Packers in week two. During the game, a Bear fan jumped out of the stands and Donnell Woolford was burned for a 99-yard touchdown pass. The 27-24 loss was Wannstedt’s third straight to Green Bay and early on in a long and terrible losing streak for Bear fans.
The 1995 Bears then beat still-hapless Tampa, then lost 34-28 at St. Louis to the Rams, their first trip back to the gateway city since 1984. Erik Kramer threw five touchdown passes in the game, but Chicago’s defense couldn’t stand firm. At the bye, the Bears stood at 2-2.
And after the bye, the Bears played their best football of the season for four weeks. They beat Carolina, Jacksonville (both expansion teams in their first season) and Houston not the old-fashioned Bear way, but by scoring an average of 33 points a game. They also gave up an average of 30 points a game in each contest. Then on Monday Night Football, they did go back to old-fashioned Bear football, beating Minnesota on the road 14-6, holding the Vikings without a touchdown. After eight games the Bears were 6-2, alone in first place atop the division. The team’s next three games were critical-two of them being against Green Bay and Detroit. Victories would land knockout blows to their opponents and almost surely lead to a playoff berth, if not division title.
But it was not to be. First the Bears lost in overtime to the eventual AFC Champion Steelers. Chicago’s defense made some solid plays in the game, but also allowed Pittsburgh to convert 57% of its third down attempts, a stat that would trouble the Bears for the rest of the season. Next, they lost at Green Bay 35-28 in the closest game Brett Favre ever came to missing. Then they stumbled to a 24-17 home loss against Detroit. Now 6-5 following the 6-2 start, any playoff berth was in jeopardy.
A 2-2 split leading up to the season’s ultimate game set up an intriguing situation in the league’s final week on Christmas Eve, 1995. If the Bears beat the playoff-bound Philadelphia Eagles at home, and the high-flying San Francisco 49ers took care of 8-7 Atlanta, the Bears would make the playoffs as an NFC Wildcard team, likely headed for Green Bay for a third meeting with Brett Favre. If Atlanta won, the Bears were out no matter what they did.
Chicago indeed kept their end of the bargain, beating Philadelphia 20-14 with inspired play from Alonzo Spellman (3 of his 8 sacks on the season). Just minutes after the Bear game concluded, San Francisco gave up a last-second field goal to Atlanta, losing 28-27, ending Chicago’s season.
Despite the failure to reach the playoffs, Salaam finished the season with the best rookie stats of any Bear running back in history. Kramer set records for the best quarterback season in history while starting all 16 games, and for the first time ever, two Bear receivers caught passes for over 1,000 yards. It had been the first time any Bear receiver reached 1,000 since Dick Gordon in 1970. So it was believed the offense was set, and a few corrections on defense would be all it took to position the ship for a final push to the Super Bowl.
Following the last game, veteran tackle Andy Heck told the Chicago Tribune “I really believe this is an excellent team that can go places without a lot of changes.” In the NFL, changes are inevitable, and Heck’s closing lament would be tested nine months later.