When you talk about the NFL’s greatest defenses ever, our CEO’s pick is the 1985 Chicago Bears. When asked why he tells us “they set the modern standard for great defense without they’re best player.” How can this be?? Hall of Fame players Richard Dent, who went on to be Super Bowl XX MVP, and Mike Singletary (1985’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year) were front and center. Then you have blitzing linebacker Otis Wilson, Dan Hampton, Wilber Marshall, and Gary Fencik. To know who their best player was you have to return to the season before and a player that defensive co-ordinator Buddy Ryan raved about… SS Todd Bell
Bell was a hard-hitting strong safety drafted out of Ohio St in 1981. The Chicago Bears were an average team with one superstar, the incomparable Walter Payton. Who at the time, was being recognized as he approached 10,000 yards and the inevitable question began: Could Walter break Jim Brown’s all time rushing record of 12,312?? As the media glare intensified following Payton’s pursuit of Brown’s record, some attention was being paid toward a very aggressive nickel defense that featured lots of blitzing.
Buddy Ryan was the architect of the 46 defense and he had a young safety coming into his own. He was a ferocious hitter and much like Ronnie Lott in San Francisco he was the emotional leader of that group. After finishing the 1983 season winning 5 of 6 games and with Payton on the cusp of history, media descended upon Soldier Field for 1984. Bell shined in 1984 as the Bears set an NFL record with 72 sacks (still stands) and finished #1 in defense.
For all their blitzing they needed a safety who could cover, adjust on the run and be a good open field tackler. He amassed 4 sacks, 4 interceptions and delivered countless big hits as the Bears fought for league wide respect. Not only was he voted to the Pro Bowl, in some circles he was in discussions for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
As the season went on, media attention shifted from Payton breaking Jim Brown’s record to a confusing defense wreaking havoc and…could the Bears win their first division championship since 1963?? A question that seems goofy now but back in 1984, you have to remember Chicago was thought of nationwide as the Cleveland Browns or Buffalo Bills are now. Twenty one years without any distinction as a team will do that for you. The current Bills and Browns have been like that ONLY 13 years… so you have to understand.
What made Todd Bell was not the statistics but the moments. Those where a football game is teetering when it comes to balance…momentum, or who is going to dominate?? Who is going to establish tone?? The only way to do so in contact /collision sports of yesteryear was to have your main player deliver a thunderous hit to intimidate the opponent, and this was where Bell established himself.
In a week 10 win over the defending champion LA Raiders, it was Todd Bell’s fight with Todd Christenson that got the Bears going. They went on to sack Raider QBs 9 times in a 17-6 win. Four weeks after a rousing win against Minnesota, the Bears traveled to Minnesota with a chance to win that first division title since the merger. It was Todd Bell that sent the message that Chicago came to dominate. In the vignette below, on the second to the last play shown, you’ll see Bell’s hit on Vikings RB Ted Brown that broke his ribs and the Vikings spirit where Chicago went on to win 34-3.
After this win came the FIRST gatorade shower in the NFL between Head Coach Mike Ditka from Todd Bell, Dan Hampton, and Steve McMichael. It was the 1984 Chicago Bears that first performed this…not the 1986 Giants the New York based media has fed to the nation….yet we digress. It was Bell’s hit that changed the course of the game. Yet now they made the playoffs for the first time and NFL pundits thought the Bears reached as far as they could go. With a 10-6 record they were relegated to traveling to Washington for the divisional playoff.
The Redskins were two-time defending NFC Champions and had they won Super Bowl XVIII, would have gone back to back as one of the great teams in NFL history. So they had won it all once and played in the Super Bowl the year before and here they were on their way to possibly a third straight Super Bowl against the overmatched Bears at home. A season before, they had the highest scoring offense in NFL history (541 points) …surely they could best the #1 defense the following year right??
Well the Redskins were ahead 3-0 and driving in a tense game where they were about to wrest control over Chicago. The had crossed midfield when at the 35 yard line Bell struck with the single greatest hit of the last generation. Had this hit happened in New York and not Washington it would be as famous as Chuck Bednarik’s hit on Frank Gifford in 1960.
The Redskins offense was intimidated the rest of the day and we didn’t see of Joe Washington any after that. His team gained so much confidence from that shot they went on to win 23-19 and moved on to the 1984 NFC Championship Game. Shamefully he and Bears management couldn’t agree to terms on his demands in 1985.
He sat out the season and the Bears, whom he helped give ultimate confidence to soared to new heights without him. Bell’s story is a cautionary tale. To what heights would he have gone to had he been there for the 1985 season??
How many fewer points and shutouts would they have achieved had they had their hatchet man patrolling the secondary?? For 1984, 1985, and 1986 the Bears fielded the NFL’s #1 defense. They set the NFL record with 72 sacks in 1984. They led in nine of fourteen defensive categories as the great ’85 team won it all. Then they were 14-2 in 1986 and the team set the NFL record for fewest points allowed with 187 in the new 16 game season format. How would Todd Bell’s career have gone had he stayed on the field and gained momentum from his 1984 season leading into 1985?? Leaves you to wonder how his meteoric rise would have played out.
Prologue: Bell returned to the team in 1986. During his holdout, many Bears were disgruntled by management’s unwilling to negotiate agreeable terms to such a proven player yet could give a $1.35 million contract to William “Refrigerator” Perry for being a 1st round draft choice. To which Defensive Co-Ordinator Buddy Ryan scoffed “We should have given the money to Todd Bell and the pros we know who can play and we should have forgotten about Perry.”
After his contract was up Ryan signed Bell to play for his Philadelphia Eagles where he was converted to linebacker just to get him on the field. A safety converting to linebacker in the pros?? That is a rarity and shows what kind of confidence Ryan had in Bell. The Eagles played the Bears in the 1988 playoffs and Bell starred intercepting two passes in what has come to be known as the Fog Bowl. Yet Bell’s career ended the following year (1989) with a broken leg ironically at Soldier Field again.
Todd Bell left us in 2005 after he suffered a heart attack… Bell was 46, the same number of the defense he helped make famous in Chicago. A ferocious hitter. Gone but not forgotten.
Dedicated in memory of Todd Anthony Bell: (November 28,1955 – March 16, 2005)
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