Rozner: Remembering a Bears conversation with Michael McCaskey

  • Michael McCaskey is with his brother George when it was announced he will step down as chairman of the Bears after the 2010 season and George will take over in 2011.

    Michael McCaskey is with his brother George when it was announced he will step down as chairman of the Bears after the 2010 season and George will take over in 2011. Daily Herald File Photo

 
 
Updated 1/18/2021 1:59 PM

Flashbacks are not unusual around these parts, but this one seems particularly appropriate for the moment.

It's late in 1988 and I'm sitting in the office of Bears boss Michael McCaskey in advance of the playoffs, a vision that's been popping into mind a lot lately, for obvious reasons.

 

With Jim Finks and Jerry Vainisi forced out earlier in the decade, McCaskey is firmly in charge of the team, a junior Jerry Jones -- who would purchase the Cowboys two months later -- with the belief that he could manage the operation.

It's McCaskey who pushed for the drafting of Jim Harbaugh in the first round in 1987, and as we discussed that day the upcoming postseason and the future of the team, McCaskey was clearly in control.

I dug up the clips -- yes, actual newspapers clippings -- from my files so I could see if the recollection matched the conversation.

McCaskey was guarded, though generally willing to discuss most subjects, but when the conversation switched to Jim McMahon and his future, McCaskey got defensive. Neither quarterback nor owner had use for one another.

"We've seen Jim McMahon hurt about half (of his career), so it's not much of a surprise anymore," said McCaskey, who lavished praise upon Harbaugh and Mike Tomczak for their work in the weight room, while leaving McMahon's name off that short list.

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At that point, the team was unsure what quarterback would be healthy enough to play in the playoffs.

McCaskey then spoke of his work on the draft and what they might do about the quarterback situation, and though Mike Ditka said he didn't see the Bears trading McMahon after the season -- "I don't see any reason for it" -- McCaskey said, "Any thought or any talk of trades is premature. One thing we will do in the next draft is look for one or two offensive linemen and add to our protection."

It was comforting that McCaskey -- and all his football knowledge -- was in the middle of such things. He wasn't "meddling," to use George McCaskey's word. Michael McCaskey was right there in the room, getting it done for you.

Turns out Tomczak would start the Fog Bowl on New Year's Eve, a win over Buddy Ryan's Eagles, but McMahon would finish that game after Tomczak was hurt again and then start the next week as the Bears were crushed in the NFC Championship against the Niners.

Tomczak would finish that game after McMahon reinjured himself and McMahon would never play for the Bears again, traded to San Diego in August 1989.

But as we sat in his office before the playoffs, McCaskey spoke with great pride about how hard everyone was trying, which has a particularly modern McCaskey feel.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Regardless of whether we win a Super Bowl, I will remember with a lot of pride the ability of the organization -- from the coaches to the players to the front office -- to overcome some tremendous adversity," McCaskey told me that day. "What this ballclub has done despite all the injuries ... is simply astounding.

"We're very proud of this team, but there's only one way to cap it off, and that's with a Super Bowl win. Anything less and people don't remember. We had some very fine teams in the '60s, but the fans, the players ... they only remember one team."

Turns out the dominant Bears teams of the '80s could say the same, a single championship from a spectacular roster destroyed by ego, poor management decisions and a failure to replace great players once the football designers had departed.

It didn't stop Michael McCaskey from patting himself on the back, saying, "I think it's just remarkable what the people who make up the Bears organization have been able to accomplish."

To be clear, it was Michael McCaskey's organization.

Well, once Finks stopped drafting and Vainisi was told to get lost, the Bears didn't accomplish anything, the best team in football history able to win only that one magnificent Super Bowl.

Here we are, a week short of 35 years past Super Bowl XX and the Bears still have only that one Super Bowl to remember. Michael McCaskey had a lot to do with that, as George McCaskey and Ted Phillips do today.

The frustration grows and the system remains very much the same. The system is theirs, while the pain remains solidly yours.

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