Mike Ditka 1984-1992:
In each and every year that Iron Mike coached the Chicago Bears from 1984 on, there were Super Bowl expectations for the team. As long as the offensive and defensive lines were strong, which they were, and there was talent at every position (which there was at least to some degree), there were expectations of deep runs into the playoffs. My fading memory has it that even going into 1990 following the disappointing 1989 Chicago Bears season, there was the expectation that the team would bounce back, and they did. Prior to the 1992 Bears season, while it was clear that age was taking a toll on the roster, most still thought the Bears had it in them to make one more run at it (they didn’t). The 5-11 season in 1992 led to Ditka’s replacement by Wannstedt and expectations for rebuilding in 1993.
Dave Wannstedt 1994-1996:
There was no real buzz for winning around the Bears in 1993, but that changed in 1994. Prior to that season Chicago added new quarterbacks (Erik Kramer and Steve Walsh), a receiver (Jeff Graham), and had begun a major transition on the offensive and defensive lines with a major addition of young talent. The team surprised everyone by winning a playoff game in 1994 and starting 6-2 the following season. This is when Wannstedt was given a five-year contract extension by then-team President Michael McCaskey. The ’95 team faded to a 9-7 finish and missed the playoffs, which was considered an anomaly, and expectations were sky-high in 1996. This was the preseason during which Wannstedt announced that “all the pieces were in place for a run deep into the playoffs.” The ’96 team fizzled to a 7-9 finish and after the season-ending loss to Tampa, it was clear that all those pieces were falling apart. Having been there I can tell you that there were no expectations for the team other than the 4-12 finishes in 1997 and 1998.
Dick Jauron 1999, 2000, 2002:
Jauron’s tenure as Bears coach began with utter disappointment and confusion after McCaskey announced the hiring of former Ditka disciple Dave McGinnis, only to have McGinnis refuse the position because he hadn’t yet accepted the position. But still there were expectations in 1999 with the addition of high-flying offensive coordinator Gary Crowton and an influx of talent from the draft the likes of which Chicago hadn’t seen since the 1980′s. After a two-game win improvement in 1999, coupled with a free agent spending spree prior to 2000, hopes were high for a return to the playoffs that year. But hopes evaporated when the team finished 5-11, leading to the “mutual parting of ways” of player personnel boss Mark Hatley. Ironically, expectations were low prior to the 2001 season when the hard-charging team was blessed by fate and finished 13-3, which led to sky-high expectations for 2002, when they again finished 4-12. There were no high expectations for the team in 2003, Jauron’s last.
Lovie Smith 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011-2012:
Finally onto our current head coach Lovie Smith. There were no real expectations for playoffs in his rookie season of 2004. There were hopes for improvement in 2005, which were dashed by a 1-3 start, then the Bears surprisingly hosted a divisional playoff game. Hopes were high for 2006 and mostly validated when the team made and lost the Super Bowl. This led to extreme expectations of a return trip in 2007, but that team and 2008′s disappointed. The addition of Jay Cutler, the club’s first true franchise quarterback since Jim McMahon, provided hope for 2009 that was dashed. Practically no one thought there were any chances in 2010, then the team hosted the NFC Championship game. This led to high hopes for 2011, when a 7-3 start tumbled to an 8-8 finish after an injury to Cutler. With the addition of what seem to be final pieces of the puzzle, here we are in 2012 again expecting the best.
If this lesson in history teaches us anything, it is indeed that anything can happen, given the seasons of 2001, 2005, and 2010 when no expectations led to playoff runs. But the best-laid plans for the Bears have also led to nothing at times. I for one am hoping there is no chance of the latter in 2012.