The 1990s is widely considered one of the worst decades in franchise history. Not quite the 1970s bad, but pretty close. Often as is the case in any such situation, the Chicago Bears draft status can be linked to the problems. The team had already started to lose their edge at drafting great players by the end of the 1980s. After securing a Pro Bowl player in the 1st round in six of eight drafts from 1979 to 1986, they were just 1-for-3 from 1987 through 1989.
This was due in large part to one overriding factor. That being the increasing influence of team president and future Chairman Michael McCaskey. Following the death of George Halas and resignation of GM Jim Finks, he began to exert more and more control over the roster by ’87. This caused a fundamental shift in their approach to the draft as the ’90s began.
One that would sabotage their efforts to acquire top tier talent throughout the decade, leading to just to a stretch of seven years with just one playoff appearance and two winning seasons. What makes it ironic is this shift in operation actually yielded great results at first, due to a bit of good luck. However, it would prove to be a false positive in the end.
Chicago Bears draft minds started new thinking with Mark Carrier
Bears fans may remember safety Mark Carrier. A three-time Pro Bowler in Chicago, he still holds the franchise record for interceptions in a single season with 10 as a rookie in 1990. What many don’t remember is how he actually ended up as the 6th overall pick that year. Will Larkin explained for the Chicago Tribune that it came when the Bears altered their approach.
Carrier became the No. 6 pick after some innovative thinking by the Bears. A year earlier, first-round picks Donnell Woolford and Trace Armstrong held out, missed most of training camp and spent most of their rookie seasons looking lost. The Bears hadn’t had a first-round pick start camp on time since Wilber Marshall in 1984.
They identified three players they thought would be thrilled to be picked sixth and began negotiating with them well before the draft. The Bears made similar offers to North Carolina State defensive end Ray Agnew and Baylor linebacker James Francis, who both said no before Carrier said yes to a five-year, $3.65 million contract.
…Bernie Lincicome, in his “In the Wake of the News” column on April 23, wrote: “I have to believe all of this, because if I don’t, I have to believe the Bears spent the highest draft choice they have had since this crumbled dynasty began just because the guy came cheap and on time.”
The Bears didn’t draft Carrier solely because they thought he was good. They did it because they felt they could save some money and avoid a contract dispute. The move may have worked out, but that actually proved to be a bad thing in the long run. Feeling validated, Chicago soon began applying the method in future drafts, grabbing players who shouldn’t have gone as high as they did.
- 1991 – Stan Thomas
- 1992 – Alonzo Spellman
- 1993 – Curtis Conway
- 1994 – John Thierry
Two of those picks (Thomas and Thierry) were outright busts. Spellman was decent for a brief stretch and Conway was selected at 7th overall despite never posting a 700-yard season in three years at USC. This doesn’t include Cade McNown who was a trade back option in 1999 who would “solve” the Bears’ quarterback woes on a cheaper 12th overall pick deal rather than taking a Daunte Culpepper 7th overall and paying more money.
It’s little wonder McCaskey was finally stripped of his influence when 2000 began.