Chicago Bears history has included a total of 16 head coaches dating back to 1920. That is about as extensive as it gets. During that time, every man who has held the job had to make at least one bold decision over the course of their tenure. A depth chart move, an assistant hire, or even a play call that determined the course of a season or a career.
Some worked out great. Others? Not so much. Yet nobody can deny that the decisions themselves took a great deal of guts to even consider. Thus the question arises. What were some of the ballsiest moves coaches have made over the past century of Bears football?
That is what this edition will explore. Every notable coach will be involved and their decision illustrated as to how they affected both themselves and the organization.
George Halas trades for Doug Atkins
The great Papa Bear himself took a ton of gambles in his long career as owner, GM, and head coach of the Bears. One that stick out though came in 1955. That was the year he decided to trade for defensive end Doug Atkins from the Cleveland Browns. Now these days with the benefit of hindsight it’s probably one of the greatest trades in Bears history.
Atkins became an eight-time Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer for the Bears, helping them win the 1963 NFL championship. What people forget is there’s a reason the Browns traded him. Atkins had a reputation for being a bit of a problem child. He had a rebellious streak that proved too much even for Cleveland coaching icon Paul Brown to deal with.
Halas felt if he could handle that headache, the Bears would be getting something special. He was proven correct. Though Atkins didn’t make it easy. The stories of the blowups those two had over the years became legendary among players and coaches who were there.
Mike Ditka calls halfback pass in playoffs vs. Redskins
When the Bears walked into RFK Stadium in January of 1985, they knew what they were up against. They were facing a team that had been to the Super Bowl in each of the past two years, winning one of them. Chicago was a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 1979 and hadn’t won a playoff game since 1963. The task was incredibly daunting. Especially without their starting quarterback, Jim McMahon.
Through the 1st quarter, the two teams battled to an even 3-3 tie. Head coach Mike Ditka knew he needed to do something to break the game open. Having gotten into Redskins territory in the 2nd quarter, he decided to take a gamble. Steve Fuller hiked the ball and pitched to running back Walter Payton going to the right. Payton then appeared to hand it off to wide receiver Dennis McKinnon on a reverse.
It was a fake. Payton kept the ball and fired a pass to wide open tight end Pat Dunsmore for the touchdown. That play changed the entire complexion of the game, and Chicago would never relinquish the lead after it. That victory gave the Bears confidence that they could play with the best in the NFL. Something they would put to good use a year later.
Dave Wannstedt sticks with Steve Walsh
The 1994 Bears were viewed as a young team that was trying to rebuild. They hadn’t been to the playoffs in two years and things didn’t look favorable when things started off that season either. Not only did they begin 1-2 through their first three games, but they also lost starting quarterback Erik Kramer to an injury. This forced them to turn to veteran backup Steve Walsh.
To the surprise of many, the team rebounded with a 7-2 mark over their next nine games. Walsh didn’t put up huge numbers (8 TDs, 6 INTs) but he managed things well and provided the necessary leadership. However, back-to-back losses to the Vikings and Packers opened the door for head coach Dave Wannstedt to go back to Kramer in December, who was now healthy.
Wannstedt chose to stick with Walsh instead. Chicago beat the Rams the next week to make the playoffs. Then in the wild card round, Walsh delivered his best game as a Bear with 221 yards and two touchdowns with a 107.3 passer rating in Minnesota. It remains one of the great playoff upsets ever.
Lovie Smith fires Ron Rivera
The 2006 season didn’t end the way the Bears wanted it, but they’d been to the Super Bowl. They knew they had a roster capable of getting there. The 2007 offseason should’ve been focused on finding ways to tweak it to where they could get it over the top. Nobody could’ve expected one of the ways head coach Lovie Smith would do that would be by firing defensive coordinator Ron Rivera.
The move was met with widespread bafflement and criticism. Chicago had finished the past two seasons 1st and 3rd in points allowed respectively. Rivera had done nothing but have success since taking over the job. Nobody could figure out why Smith would make such a decision. “Philosophical differences” was the line most often used. Smith asked for people to trust him.
Rivera was replaced by Bob Babich, a close Smith friend. The defense finished 16th the next two years. Both times the Bears failed to make the playoffs. That move would come to define Smith’s tenure. A willingness to make changes, but never in the areas it was actually needed.
Marc Trestman goes back to Jay Cutler over Josh McCown
The Marc Trestman era didn’t last long in Bears history. Only two years. Still, it lasted just long enough for him to make one of the toughest calls in recent memory. On October 20th, 2016 starting quarterback Jay Cutler went down with a groin injury against the Washington Redskins. This forced longtime backup Josh McCown to take his place.
Between the rest of that game and the next week, he threw for 476 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Cutler attempted to return against Detroit on November 10th but was knocked out with an ankle injury. From that point on, McCown became the starter. During that time he threw 13 touchdowns to just one interception and went 3-2.
It was obvious he had the hot hand in that offense. However, Cutler was healthy again by mid-December. This forced Trestman to make a decision. Does he go back to his starter or ride the streaking McCown? Wanting to stay true to his word, he went back to Cutler.
It was a fateful decision. Cutler threw six touchdowns and four interceptions in the three games to end the year. The Bears went 1-2 and missed the playoffs.
Matt Nagy calls for “Santa’s Sleigh”
December 9th, 2018 was a landmark moment for the 2018 Bears. They were facing off with one of the best teams in the NFL. The 11-2 Los Angeles Rams. A team that had scored 125 points over their previous three games. This was the sort of test that would determine whether Chicago was a real playoff contender or a team that wasn’t there yet.
After a deadlocked first half with the score tied 6-6, the Bears took the lead early in the 3rd quarter on an Eddie Goldman safety. They then got the ball on offense and drove the ball to the Rams 2-yard line, but got bogged down. They had a tough call to make. Do they run it with Jordan Howard, who’d had a pretty good drive, or do they risk throwing it with Mitch Trubisky?
The Bears QB wasn’t having his best game, throwing three interceptions that night and in his first game back from a shoulder injury. Did any of that matter to head coach Matt Nagy? Nope. In fact, he took the gamble to another level when he not only called a pass, but called a pass to backup offensive tackle Bradley Sowell.
Nagy called the play “Santa’s Sleigh” after the game. A 15-6 victory that all but assured the Bears’ ticket to their first postseason in eight years.