On Friday, the Chicago Bears announced Mike Ditka’s number will be retired during halftime of the Bears’ Monday Night Football game against the Cowboys on Dec. 9.
Ditka’s “89” will be the 14th number retired by the Bears’ organization, the most in the league. In light of this, Bears CEO George McCaskey indicated, “after this, we do not intend to retire any more but we thought if there is going to be a last one, there is no more appropriate one than 89.”
In a city that has plenty of blind Ditka-supporters, I don’t necessarily disagree with McCaskey’s point. There has never been the mass realization that Ditka was a terrible coach or that his entire manufactured mystique is really all about him – the orange tinted icon that will slap his name on any product and never miss an opportunity to proclaim himself representative of the city.
My bias against Ditka as a coach and human being is evident. But if we’re leaving Ditka’s coaching career out of it, does he deserve that final spot? And if not, is there someone who’s more deserving?
Let’s take a look.
#89. There’s no doubt that Mike Ditka’s greatest contribution to the game of football came on the field. He was a badass tight end in an era that was still coming to terms with the forward pass.
He played 6 seasons with the Bears before George Halas traded him to the Eagles. He earned Rookie of the Year, 5 Pro Bowl selections, and a ring on the 1963 NFL Championship team.
He helped evolve the position, similar to what we’re seeing with Gronk and Jimmy Graham, etc. (and Sharpe and Gonzalez before that). Before Ditka, the TE was almost exclusively a blocking position. While he’s generally not revered to the extent of John Mackey, he’s an all-time great tight end. A deserved Hall of Famer, Ditka ended his Bears’ career with 316 receptions for 4503 yards and 34 TDs. He’s 4th on the Bears’ all-time receiving list (which might say more about the historic ineptitude of the team’s passing game.)
Regardless, that’s a very solid 6 seasons. However, it’s only 6 years. Ditka spent 2 years with the Eagles and 4 more with the Cowboys, where he won a Super Bowl, before retiring in 1972.
Should the fact that he only spent 6 years with the Bears be taken into consideration? Supporters would say Gale Sayers’ number (40) was retired despite playing only 7 injury-riddled seasons with the team. However, Sayers spent his entire career with the Bears’ and though he flashed brightly before burning out, he a Bear through and through. It’s not the same.
So if not Ditka, then who?
One Point: There are Bears’ numbers currently retired who are less-deserving than Ditka. For instance, I might be a callous prick, but I would not have retired numbers of guys like Brian Piccolo (41) and Bill Hewitt (56) – players whose numbers were retired following tragic deaths, but whose on-the-field accomplishments wouldn’t rate as legendary. (Where’s Gaines Adams’ love?) However, assuming the franchise won’t “unretire” these numbers, we’ll leave these guys out of it.
#54 – An argument can be made that Brian Urlacher is the 2nd best linebacker of his era. In 13 seasons, he anchored a defense that had a lot of great years. Statistically he’s hard to assess because he played so many years as the Cover-2 Mike whose primary job was calling the defense before sprinting backwards 10-20 yards in coverage. Still, he was an athletic freak who probably could’ve played any LB position. I would’ve loved to watch him play a season as a 3-4 OLB. While he stuck to blockers on occasion, it’s hard to say anyone was better in coverage and only Ray Lewis was better in pursuit.
Listening to the quotes of his peers, especially Rodgers and Favre (I guess), I think it’s clear the recognition of Urlacher’s greatness is not just centered in Chicago, and resonates throughout the league.
Ditka supporters may argue that the passage of time dictates that Urlacher should “wait his turn.” Personally, I don’t understand why teams take so long to retire numbers. For instance, Sayers and Butkis (51) didn’t have their numbers retired until 1994. To me, if Butkis retired on a Monday morning, his number should be retired before the sun goes down.
54 v. 89? Verdict: 54.
#99 – When it comes to Chicago sports, few are more underappreciated than Dan Hampton. That he had to bide his time and watch Mike Singletary get to the Hall 4 years ahead of him is an absolute travesty. He was the best player on one of the best defenses in league history. He played every position on the line, and was routinely double– and triple-teamed at a rate that only Julius Peppers can appreciate. He made Mike Singletary.
Yes, he doesn’t have huge sack numbers (57), but he was a ruthless run stuffer, even at DE. Plus he definitely gets bonus points since Mark May thinks he’s overrated.
Hampton’s teammates all recognized his greatness. On no knees he anchored one of the most iconic defenses in league history. 4 Pro Bowls. 1 All-Pro selection. 11 seasons vs. Ditka’s 6.
99 v. 89? Verdict: 99
#95 – Super Bowl MVP Richard Dent finally received his call to the Hall in 2011. His 1985 numbers are absolutely ridiculous: 17 sacks, 2 Int, 7 FF, 2FR, and his 1985 postseason domination is the stuff of Bears’ legend. While we can’t ignore that he benefited from playing opposite of Hampton, Dent was an insanely gifted and productive pass rusher.
The “Sackman” ended his career with 137.5 career sacks, including the most in Bears’ history – 124.5 in 12 seasons (with 34 forced fumbles). Like Hampton, he had 4 Pro Bowl selections and was All-Pro once.
But Ditka went to 5 of 6 Pro Bowls?!?! Yes. There were also like 14 teams back then.
He also gets plus points for his astute (albeit bitter and hindsight) analysis of Ditka’s ridiculous coaching decisions:
“Bringing Doug Flutie in and thinking that he’s gonna come in and be on a team for three weeks and start him in a playoff game? Hell, I mean you’re trying to change the name on the Super Bowl trophy to Mike Ditka (from) Vince Lombardi when you do something like that.”
“And we came back three years in a row and had home-field advantage,” Dent said. “Our coach couldn’t figure out the right quarterback to play. The disappointing part to me is that we only got one out of it. We should have been the first team ever to win three Super Bowls in a row. It was there for the taking, but we didn’t manage that one position right.”
I know I said I was going to leave Ditka’s coaching out of it, but Amen, Sackman. Amen.
95 v. 89? Verdict: 95
#74 – I chastise fellow Bears-fans for living in the past and romanticizing an era of Bears’ team that ultimately disappointed (see Dent’s comments above). Still, the concentration of individual greatness occurred during this era.
Often overlooked in comparison to Ditka’s Buddy Ryan’s dominating defense, the mid-80s Bears’ had a great offensive line. Not good. Great.
Left tackle Jimbo Covert was the best of the bunch. Drafted with the 6th pick in the legendary 1983 draft, Covert received 2 All-Pro selections, was 1986 Offensive Lineman of the Year and was selected to the “All-Decade Team” by the Hall of Fame Board. From 1983-1986, the Bears led the league in rushing a record-setting four consecutive seasons. The Bears finished second in rushing twice, 1989 and 1990, and third in 1988.
Following back surgery, Covert retired after the 1990 season. He is not in the Hall of Fame, though I wouldn’t be surprised if that call came somewhere down the line.
When I woke to the Bears’ announcement on Friday, my indignation and Ditka-prejudice led me to get out over my skis in some early twitter proclamations. I think I had Curtis Conway (80) and Ted Washington (92) in line in front of Ditka. (Not really)
Anyway, this is a real tough call. The franchise’s best TE versus their best O-Lineman.
74 v. 89? Verdict: Too close to call. (Cop out)
#50 – The most irritating part about Ray Lewis’ and Urlacher’s retirements is having to read “all time great MLB lists” that include Mike Singletary’s name with the likes of Lewis, Urlacher, Butkis, Nitschke, etc. Mike Singletary was a very good MLB. His accolades are off-the-charts: 2 DPOY awards (1985, 1988), 10 Pro Bowls, Hall of Fame and a shitload of tackles.
However, is Singletary the product of greatness, or the cause? As mentioned, the Bears’ DLine was relentless. For much of his career, the terrifying Wilbur Marshall (3 Pro Bowls) and Otis Wilson (1 PB) flanked him. But since he was the vocal leader of Buddy Ryan’s defense, he was the easiest to assign all the credit.
(Though numbers don’t tell the full story, Urlacher: 41.5 sacks / 22 INTs; Singletary: 19 sacks / 7 INTs)
The funny thing is that “Samurai Mike” Singletary and “Iron Mike” Ditka are incredibly similar. They’re essentially caricatures. They evoke blind devotion from the Meatball-fan contingent: Singletary has his crazy eyes. Ditka is fowl-mouth screamer immortalized by classic late night television. They were both terrible head coaches.
When it comes to Bears’ LBs: (1) Butkis; (2) Urlacher; (3) Lance Briggs (Yep!); (4) Singletary
50 v. 89? Verdict: 89.
So do I get why Mike Ditka is receiving this honor? Yes. Do I agree with it? Not really. Will I put my dislike aside, stand up and give him his proper due for his on-field accomplishments when 12/9 comes around? Absolutely.
After all, I’ll be in a good mood because the Bears will be up 17-6 at the half on the hapless Cowboys…