COMMENTARY | The National Football League may not have a "March Madness" tournament, but why should colleges get all the fun?
In this piece, I break down the eight greatest players in Chicago Bears history, match them up and, a la Dennis Green, crown one of them the best, because, indeed, these Bears are who we thought they were.
The players will be seeded first through eighth. Obviously, there will be some cross-position competition. And as I've said in previous works, feel more than free to leave feedback on what players I potentially left out or didn't seed high enough.
(1) Walter Payton vs. (8) Devin Hester
Walter Payton as the top seed doesn't shock anyone, does it? "Sweetness" won the NFL MVP in just his third year in the league. Payton made the Pro Bowl in nine of his 13 NFL seasons and was first-team All-Pro five times. He led or was second in the NFL in rushing attempts six times and led or was second in rushing yards seven seasons.
Devin Hester currently holds outright or shares 10 NFL records, including special-teams return touchdowns (18) and kick-return touchdowns among rookies (5). A truly ridiculous second-round steal in the 2006 draft, as I wrote last month, he is the only man in league history to return the opening kick in the Super Bowl for a score.
Deion Sanders (a.k.a Leon Sandcastle) believes Hester is the best return man of all time. While this is an impressive feather in a cap, the clear winner in this matchup is Payton. Sweetness retired in 1987 with 16,726 career rushing yards, the most in NFL history at that time and 4,414 more than Jim Brown's rushing total.
Payton makes quick work of his opening-round opponent Hester, much in the same way he made quick work of safeties and cornerbacks who dared try to tackle him.
(2) Dick Butkus vs. (7) Richard Dent
Again, no surprises here. Richard Marvin Butkus' career can't adequately be measured by statistics such as tackles and sacks. No, Dick Butkus' impact on football is measured by his legend, which only grows with time.
Sadly, Butkus played in an era before sacks were accurately recorded, so we can't numerically measure him in this category against any opposition in this tournament. But consider this: The Bears' hard-hitting middle linebacker retired in 1973, 40 seasons ago. Some of you reading this article weren't alive back then but, undoubtedly, have heard sports personalities compare every single Hall of Fame middle linebacker you've ever seen to Dick Butkus.
Richard Dent is the only defensive end in history to win Super Bowl MVP, collecting two sacks and two forced fumbles in Super Bowl XX. He is just one of three defensive players in the previous 30 Super Bowls to take home the honor.
Ever "the sack man," Dent retired as the all-time sacks leader in Bears history with 124.5; the next guy on the list doesn't even have 100 QB takedowns. He retired after the 1997 season with 137.5 sacks, the third-highest total in league history at that time.
While an upset may seem possible, Dick Butkus wins this one in a landslide. Dent was a force to be reckoned with, but Butkus was a force you couldn't reckon with. In the NFL's wildly popular in-house poll of the top 100 players, Butkus ranked 10th; Dent didn't make the list.
Finally, Butkus was chosen by fans as one of 23 players to the pro football Hall of Fame All-Time Team, alongside Lawrence Taylor and Jack Lambert. You're in good company when you're alongside those two.
(3) Sid Luckman vs. (6) Brian Urlacher
A bit of a history lesson may be in order with this seed. Sid Luckman was the Bears' quarterback from 1939-50, well before football was ubiquitous in American culture. On the surface, his 137-132 TD-to-INT ratio is abysmal. But dig deeper into his numbers and you will find the truth.
Luckman pioneered the Bears' vaunted T-formation offense. Also, he was a five-time first-team All-Pro selection who led Chicago to four NFL championships, including a 73-0 shellacking of Sammy Baugh and the Washington Redskins in the 1940 title game. Three times he led the league in touchdown passes -- and punted 230 times for 8,872 yards in his career. Kordell Stewart, who?
Brian Urlacher, the undisputed face of the franchise for over a decade, was Rookie of the Year in 2000 and a Pro Bowl alternate that same season. Urlacher has totaled 100-plus tackles nine times in his 13-year career, including a career-high 151 in 2002. His 1,354 tackles are the most in team history, according to the team -- more than Butkus and Singletary. When your name is above theirs on an all-time list, you are an all-time great in Bears history.
This is a tough matchup to score. On the one hand, Urlacher has been an absolute beast in the Bears' Cover-2 defense. In Week 6 of the 2006 season, he totaled 19 tackles and forced a fumble in a memorable 24-23 come-from-behind win over Arizona. The captain led a defense that scored two second-half touchdowns while holding the Cardinals to just a field goal in the last 30 minutes of the game.
Sid Luckman led the league in passing yards and touchdowns three times. He finished 1943 with a 107.5 passer rating. Compare that to current Bears QB Jay Cutler, who has yet to crack a 90 passer rating in any of the seven years he's been in the league. And don't forget, Luckman won four NFL championships. Thirteen years into his no-doubt Hall of Fame career, Urlacher hasn't delivered a title. Because of this championship disparity, Luckman gets the nod and goes to the next round.
(4) Mike Singletary vs. (5) Gale Sayers
A two-time defensive Player of the Year Award recipient, Mike Singletary was more than just a middle linebacker. Consider these numbers: From 1983-92, "Samurai Mike" was voted to 10 consecutive Pro Bowls. He was voted first-team All-Pro an amazing eight times in his 12 years in the NFL. He was first or second on the team in tackles 11 times.
Known as "The Kansas Comet," Gale Sayers' career was spectacular, despite its brevity. When you play just five seasons (in earnest) in the NFL and still are a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee anyway, those had to be the greatest five years anyone had ever seen.
Drafted fourth overall in 1965, the speedy running back scored a league-best 22 touchdowns as a rookie -- a mark that still stands.
Singletary's legend forever will be linked to the 1985 Bears, a unit whose defense abused the rest of the league en route to a Super Bowl title, the last in team history.
Sayers was an All-Pro selection in each of his first five seasons in the NFL. He led the league in rushing yards 1966 and '69 and all-purpose yards from 1965-76. In 1968, he suffered the first of two knee injuries which, ultimately, would prematurely end his career. He retired and was a 1977 Canton inductee, the youngest in the history of the Hall.
Singletary retired in 1992 after 12 years of service in the league. Sayers has seven years played on his resume, only playing a full season in three. Based solely on years played, "Samurai" advances.
I went "chalk," advancing the top four seeds out of the first round. Let's see how the matchups play out in the Ferocious Four...
(1) Walter Payton vs. (4) Mike Singletary
Teammates on the greatest football team ever to take the field, this is quite the semifinal. This matchup comes down to one word: domination. Mike Singletary led a defense that averaged just 198 yards allowed in 16 games. In addition, the '85 Bears pitched shutouts in both the divisional and conference championship games, the only team in history to do so. That year, the Bears sent nine players to the Pro Bowl, five on the defensive side of the ball.
Walter Payton also played on this historic unit. Former head coach Mike Ditka referred to Sweetness as "the greatest football player he's ever seen." Payton rushed for over 1,000 yards in 10 of his 13 seasons. In 1977, just his third year in the league, he broke O.J. Simpson's single-game rushing mark when he gained 275 yards on 40 carries against the Vikings.
Payton often rushed behind fair-at-best blocking from his offensive lines and even worse play from no-name quarterbacks. In his record game against Minnesota, Bears QB Bob Avellini was 4-of-6 for 33 yards.
His all-time rushing mark stood for 15 years, until Emmit Smith and his All-Pro offensive line moved Walter's place in history aside in 2002. That's dominant. Payton advances to the final.
(2) Dick Butkus vs. (3) Sid Luckman
The battle of historical icons. Both men have their numbers retired by the team. Both players are legends in football history. And both played for "Papa Bear" George Halas. How does one determine a winner between the two?
Butkus struck fear into the eyes of his opponents. His quotes alone would send Chuck Norris running scared. Sid Luckman was Halas' franchise quarterback. He's a member of the all-decade team for 1940. It's an even matchup, but I call the win for Butkus. He may have played just nine seasons (compared to 11 for Luckman), but, according to his website, he registered 1,020 career tackles with 489 assists. That's dominant.
Butkus advances, leading us to the final...
(1) Walter Payton vs. (2) Dick Butkus
In addition to his rushing dominance, Walter Payton has eight touchdown passes, most in league history for a non-quarterback. He rushed for a career-best 1,852 yards in 1977 -- in a time when the league year was just 14 games. Add his 132.3 yards per-game average to his total and you come up with 2,116 -- which would be a league mark to this day, despite Eric Dickerson's 2,105 rushing yards in 1984.
Dick Butkus finished his career with 22 interceptions and 27 fumble recoveries from the middle linebacker position. He even got into an on-field altercation with then-Steelers rookie "Mean" Joe Greene.
You can't go wrong with either of these men. Payton, the greatest runner in Bears history, and Butkus, the team's greatest defender. Both men appear on the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time team. Both are listed in the top 10 of the league's Top 100 list. But the NFL is about wins and losses, and this is where Payton pulls ahead in this race.
In his nine years in Chicago, Dick Butkus' Bears were just 48-74. In Payton's 13 seasons, Chicago went 111-83 and won a Super Bowl. In my opinion, this pushes "Sweetness" ahead of Butkus and makes him the No. 1 player in Bears history.
As always, feel more than free to comment on my seeds or any players you feel should have been on the list.
Doc Hopkins has followed Chicago sports for decades. He has worked in sports media over 10 years and been published in the Chicago Tribune. Find him on Twitter @SupermanHopkins or leave him a comment below.
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