Bears' failure with Butkus and Sayers was unforgiveable

  • Former Chicago Bears greats Dick Butkus, left, and Gale Sayers are seen before a game Sept. 20, 2009, between the Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers in Chicago.

    Former Chicago Bears greats Dick Butkus, left, and Gale Sayers are seen before a game Sept. 20, 2009, between the Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers in Chicago. AP File Photo

Updated 4/5/2020 5:44 PM

The first time you see a list of the top picks in the 1965 NFL Draft, it looks like a misprint.

The Bears selected Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus -- two of the greatest players in football history -- back-to-back, in the No. 3 and 4 slots.


The rest is history, and not always pleasant. Sayers and Butkus had injury-shortened, legendary careers, while the Bears fell short as a team.

This version of the Hiatus Hot Take is "The Bears not getting to a single playoff game with Sayers and Butkus was the greatest failure in NFL history." Maybe it's not so much an opinion as it is a quest to figure out how the Bears could have screwed up so badly.

There's an episode of "A Football Life" on Butkus and Sayers, who are both still living. In it, the late Doug Buffone practically yelled at the camera when trying to explain what happened.

"Butkus and Sayers were cheated," Buffone said. "They were cheated because they would not put ballplayers around them. They expected Butkus and Sayers to take them to the championship. You can't do that. Shame on the Chicago Bears. Shame on them."

The main challenger in the category of "Greatest NFL Failure" is the Detroit Lions. In 54 years of Super Bowls, the Lions have never played in one. Never come close. But Lem Barney, Billy Sims, Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson all made it to at least one playoff game, so there you go.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service

Obviously, a big problem here is Sayers' window was brief. He took the NFL by storm, but in Week 9 of his fourth season, he blew out his knee when hit low by San Francisco's Kermit Alexander. Sayers returned in 1969 to lead the league in rushing, but played just two games each in '70 and '71, and that was it.

The Bears finished 9-5 in '65, when Butkus and Sayers were rookies. They dropped to 5-7-2 in '66, went 7-6-1 in '67 and 7-7 in '68. Expectations were high for the '69 season, but the Bears stumbled to a 1-13 record, worst in team history. Butkus played his last game in 1973.

"Every time I went to Rensselaer training camp, I thought we were going to win. I honestly thought we would win. It just worked out where we didn't have that good a teams," Butkus said in "A Football Life."

When studying the Bears from 1965-69, it doesn't take long to find red flags waving in a windstorm. There are several reasons why things went wrong, so let's take them one at a time:


Packers were too good

Certainly, Butkus and Sayers caught some of the glory years of Vince Lombardi's Packers, but that wasn't the overwhelming issue. In 1965, the Colts and Packers tied for the division title at 10-3-1 and the Bears beat Green Bay 31-10 at Wrigley Field. There wasn't much distance between the teams that season.

In 1967, the Bears lost to the Packers 13-10 and 17-13, and had they won either game, they would have tied Green Bay for the division title. The 13-10 loss in Week 2 at Lambeau Field was a head-scratcher.

The Bears forced 8 turnovers, Bart Starr threw 5 interceptions and the Bears still lost on a late field goal. Bears quarterbacks Larry Rakestraw and Jack Concannon combined to complete 5 of 12 passes for 23 yards and an interception that day. Ouch.

Bears always started slow

One problem with playing in Wrigley Field was the Bears couldn't build the massive temporary bleachers in right field until Cubs season was over. The Bears started 0-3 in '65, 2-5 in '67 and 1-4 in '68.

This was obviously a persistent issue until the Bears moved to Soldier Field for the 1971 season. Then again, the Bears made an exception in '68 and opened the season at home, in Wrigley Field, without the temporary seating. Instead, they sold bleacher seats across the outfield. And they still lost to the Washington Redskins 38-28 at Sonny Jurgensen threw 4 touchdown passes.

Quarterbacks weren't good

Sid Luckman was the Bears quarterbacks coach for most of the decade, but his greatness didn't rub off. Uneven quarterback play practically defined the Bears of the late 60s. Sayers couldn't carry the offense by himself.

In 1965, Rudy Bukich jumped in front of Billy Wade, QB for the '63 title team, on the depth chart. Bukich, 35 at the time, was literally a career back up, but had a nice season in '65. Bukich wasn't as good in '66 and coach George Halas set out to find a replacement.

In April, 1967, the Bears traded tight end Mike Ditka to Philadelphia for Concannon, who had started three games over three seasons for the Eagles. As a side note, Ditka's years as a dominant receiver were 1961-64. It seemed like his best days were behind him at the time of the trade, though he did play until 1972 and won a Super Bowl with the Cowboys.

Halas made it sound like Concannon was his personal choice. Halas said at the time, "We have studied Philadelphia game films at great length and what we saw in them, plus what we knew from scouting reports, convinced everyone here that Concannon was the man we wanted."

When the '67 season began, though, the starting QB was Rakestraw, a 1964 eighth-round pick out of Georgia. Rakestraw was popular with fans, who figured there must be someone better than the guy taking snaps on the field. But the reality wasn't as good and Rakestraw was quickly replaced by Concannon.

In 1967, the Bears averaged 102.5 passing yards per game and had 9 touchdowns through the air, both last in the league.

Injuries at wrong time

The two Green Bay losses in 1967 hurt, but the entire '68 season was a heartbreaker. The Packers faded without Lombardi and Minnesota won the Central Division with an 8-6 record. The Bears finished 7-7, but swept the Vikings, so one more win would have meant a playoff spot.

In typical fashion, the Bears started slowly and built some momentum. Sayers' knee injury against the 49ers was devastating, though. The Bears came back the next week and lost at home 16-13 to the Falcons, which finished 2-12 that year. Second-year QB Virgil Carter stepped in as the starter and won four straight games, but suffered a broken ankle in that Atlanta game.

The Bears kept battling and beat a 10-1-1 Rams team in the Los Angeles Coliseum in Week 13, setting up a "win and get in" game against the Packers at Wrigley.

This was a rough one. Starr was in street clothes, backup Zeke Bratkowski was knocked out of the game early, and Green Bay turned to third-string QB Don Horn, who was playing his first game after serving six months in the Army.

Horn led the Packers to a 28-10 lead after three quarters. Concannon sparked a comeback and a 51-yard TD to Dick Gordon brought the Bears within 28-27 with 3:58 left. They got the ball back, picked up a first down at the Green Bay 43-yard line, but a sack and fourth-down interception by Ray Nitschke ended the Bears' best chance at a playoff game. Sayers wouldn't have been able to play anyway.

All about the draft

The biggest reason for the Bears' failure can be traced to 1963. Not the '63 championship, the '63 draft. Their first-round pick signed with the Buffalo Bills and the most effective pick for the Bears that year was sixth-round defensive lineman John Johnson, who started 22 games over six seasons.

Take away the '65 draft and a genius pick with Buffone in '66, and the Bears drafts were horrendous. Scouting college talent was obviously an inexact science back then, and the Bears were really bad at it.

Another first-round pick signed with the AFL in 1966. Then in '67, they took defensive end Loyd Phillips at No. 10 overall with a couple Hall-of-Famers (Alan Page and Gene Upshaw) on the board.

Figuring out why the Bears drafted so poorly is tougher to figure out since so much time has passed. In the early 60s, some NFL scouting cooperatives were formed, including BLESTO, which stands for Bears, Lions, Eagles, Steelers Talent Organization. Maybe it's not a coincidence none of those four teams made the playoffs from 1964-69.

In 1968, Halas hired a personnel director from outside the organization, Bobby Walston. He deserves credit for the Bears' six straight losing seasons from 1969-74.

George Halas, a Mount Prospect native and grand nephew of the legendary Papa Bear, recalled that decision.

"In a moment of weakness, a moment where (Halas) thought, 'OK, maybe my critics are right. Maybe I am too old and maybe the game has passed me by and maybe I should bring somebody in from another organization,'" the younger George Halas said. "In my opinion, bringing in Bobby Walston was a disaster, because those drafts were terrible."

Maybe one more good player could have put the Bears over the top. If they'd gotten that extra win in '68 and been clobbered by the Baltimore Colts with Sayers sidelined, it wouldn't be much more than a line in a sports reference book today. But for the Bears, it would have been legendary.

Go to comments: 0 posted
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.