The 1985 Bears were crowned as the best NFL team ever. Why is their legacy so strong?

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The 1985 Chicago Bears have endured as the most famous team in NFL history. They’re recognized by many as the greatest ever.

But why?

We generally gravitate toward offensive powers. The 1985 Bears were good on offense but not great. They finished seventh in total offense in 1985.

In our “Best Team Ever” bracket, the other three semifinalists had one thing in common: A Hall-of-Fame coach and a Hall-of-Fame quarterback. The ‘85 Bears had neither. Mike Ditka is in the Hall of Fame, but from his playing career.

Five players on the 1985 Bears are in the Hall of Fame. The 1975 Steelers, who the Bears beat in the finals of our “Best Teams Ever” bracket, had 10 Hall-of-Fame players. The 1966 Packers had 11.

We like dynasties. The Bears won one Super Bowl and that group never made it back.

The Bears were 15-1. The 1972 Miami Dolphins went undefeated.

Chicago’s defense was great, but so was the 2000 Ravens defense. Baltimore allowed 165 points, the record for a 16-game season. The Bears allowed 198 points in 1985, which is tied for sixth.

We remember the Bears demolishing everyone and they mostly did, but they’re just fifth in point differential in the 16-game schedule era, behind the 2007 Patriots, 1999 Rams, 1991 Redskins and 1998 Vikings. Three of those teams were in our “Best Teams Ever” bracket.

Yet, it’s no surprise the ‘85 Bears were crowned as the best team in NFL history by a fan vote. Other than the 1927 Yankees, the all-time champions in our MLB bracket, or maybe our NBA winner 1996 Bulls, no other single team in American sports history is so readily associated with dominance.

Of all the great champions in NFL history, that Bears team is the one that is remembered most fondly and held on a pedestal. But the question remains.

Why?

Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka is carried off the field by Steve McMichael, left, and William Perry after the Bears defeated the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/teams/new-england/" data-ylk="slk:New England Patriots">New England Patriots</a> 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin, File)
Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka is carried off the field by Steve McMichael, left, and William Perry after the Bears defeated the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin, File)

The ‘85 Bears had all-time swagger

There’s a reason there was a “30 for 30” documentary on the 1985 Chicago Bears a few years ago. They were an amazing collection of characters.

Jim McMahon was as brash as any quarterback of his or any other era. Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan had oversized egos that clashed until Ryan left to be the Eagles’ head coach. William “The Refrigerator” Perry took off as a celebrity after he moonlighted as a running back. Dan Hampton, Steve McMichael, Mike Singletary ... the Bears had more outlandish characters than anyone. The defense barked like dogs when they were on the field. And the Bears also had an iconic running back. More on him in a bit.

The 1985 Bears went over the top when they filmed the “Super Bowl Shuffle” video. They made the video during the season. Then they backed it up.

You’ll never see another team with that type of bravado, especially in today’s militaristic NFL.

“It was like following The Beatles, quite honestly. It almost had that sort of aura to it,” Ken Valdiserri, the team's longtime PR and marketing director, told ESPN. “There's nothing like it, nothing that I think could ever be replicated in professional sports. … It just created a hailstorm of publicity.”

‘Sweetness’

You can argue endlessly about the best NFL player ever. But the most popular player in history? It’s probably Walter Payton.

It’s hard to find anyone that dislikes Payton. He was tough but had unmistakable finesse, too. He carried some terrible Bears teams before the mid-1980s. He was such a workhorse that on the rare occasion he came out of a game in 1985, announcers would be in a near panic to figure out what was wrong. He was beloved by Bears fans and non-Bears fans alike. That’s probably why he is given a pass forever for complaining that he didn’t score a touchdown in Super Bowl XX — admit it, if it was any other athlete he’d be ripped for what is undeniably a selfish act — a decision Ditka unfairly has had to live with for more than three decades.

The Bears had their rough edges, but they also had perhaps the most universally adored NFL player ever. In turn it made it easy to like the 1985 Bears, no matter who your favorite team was.

Walter Payton passed Jim Brown as the NFL's all-time leading rusher in 1984, a record that was later broken by Emmitt Smith. (Photo by Bruce Dierdorff/Getty Images)
Walter Payton passed Jim Brown as the NFL's all-time leading rusher in 1984, a record that was later broken by Emmitt Smith. (Photo by Bruce Dierdorff/Getty Images)

Chicago’s iconic team

In a weird way, the one-hit wonder status of the 1985 Bears has probably helped their legacy.

Steelers fans can argue which of the four 1970s championship teams were best. The most-asked question in the “Best Ever Bracket” series was why the 1989 49ers weren’t included (a self-imposed rule: franchises needed more than a five-year gap between teams and the 1984 49ers won out). The Packers have 13 NFL championships, dating back to the NFL’s stone age.

But the ‘85 Bears — who play in the third-largest U.S. city, and it’s easily more sports-mad than New York or Los Angeles — stand far above as the greatest Bears team, with all due respect to the 1963 team and some of the World War II era championship squads. The Bears still have just one Super Bowl championship team. If you attend any gathering in Chicago, the ‘85 Bears will come up at some point. It’s a proven fact.

Nostalgia can be a strong force. Through the ups and the downs of the Bears over the past 34 years, Chicago fans always had the ‘85 team to think back on. There’s a bond with that team that is unique in NFL circles.

The ‘85 Bears will live on forever

When Football Outsiders was retroactively analyzing past seasons, there was an excitement for how the 1985 Bears would rank in their DVOA per-play metric. Would they blow away every other team that came after them? Nope, the ‘85 Bears ended up ranking third, behind the 1991 Redskins and 2007 Patriots.

That sums up the mythology of the 1985 Bears well. You will have a hard time finding any metric that says they are the greatest team in NFL history. Yet, it’s practically an established fact: The ‘85 Bears are the greatest of all time. If you lived when the 1985 Bears were wrecking other offenses with their pressure-based “46” defense and blasting through the playoffs, you know. No numbers will tell you otherwise.

As time passes, the legend of the ‘85 Bears will continue to grow.


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