Chicago Bears Team History and Timeline

Updated on October 2, 2019
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Larry Rankin is a sports analyst with an especially strong penchant for statistical breakdowns.

The Bears iconic wishbone "C"
The Bears iconic wishbone "C" | Source

In many ways, the Chicago Bears embody and even define the National Football League. The Bears are the second-oldest remaining franchise in existence today. They are also one of the NFL's most-decorated and storied franchises, having more retired numbers and Hall-of-Famers than any other team. From "The Monsters of the Midway" to "Sweetness" to "The Super Bowl Shuffle" to points beyond, this iconic franchise is football in America.

The following is an overview of the team's history, from their beginnings as a company-sponsored football club in 1919 to present day.

Chicago Bears Team Highlights, Stats, and Records

Overall Team Record:

763-584-42

Winningest Coach:

George Halas (318-148-31)

Playoff Appearances:

(27) 1932, 1933, 1934, 1937, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1946, 1950, 1956, 1963, 1977, 1979, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1994, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2010, 2018

Best Season:

(15-1) 1985, Mike Ditka

Worst Season:

(1-13) 1969, Jim Dooley

NFL Championships:

(9) (1 Super Bowl) 1921, 1932, 1933, 1940, 1941, 1943, 1946, 1963, 1985 (SBXX)

NFL Championships and Appearances:

(14) (2 Super Bowls) 1921, 1932, 1933, 1934, 1937, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1946, 1956, 1963, 1985 (SBXX), 2006 (SBXLI)

The recruitment of Red Grange would help to mold the NFL as we know it.
The recruitment of Red Grange would help to mold the NFL as we know it. | Source

Origin and Timeline of the Chicago Bears

1920-1939: Development of the Chicago Bears Franchise

In 1919, the Chicago Bears began life as a company-sponsored football club, as was common during the infancy of the game. They were originally called the Decatur Staleys after the A.E. Staley food starch manufacturing company. The Staleys would become charter members of the first manifestation of the National Football League (then called the American Professional Football Association) on September 17, 1920.

George Halas and Edward “Dutch” Sternaman made up the coaching staff during the inaugural NFL season in 1920. After moving to Chicago in 1921, the team would be renamed the Chicago Staleys and on behalf of himself and Sternaman, Halas would purchase the team for the paltry sum of $100. A member of the Halas family has been an owner of the Bears ever since. Also in 1921, Chicago would win its first NFL Championship.

In 1922 Halas would change the mascot from the Staleys to the Bears, and the team remains the Chicago Bears to this day.

Despite being a dominant force from the inception of the NFL, financial success was severely hindered in the early years. While college teams would command crowds sometimes in excess of 50,000 fans, pro teams were lucky to draw a tenth of that.

The long-established sport of professional baseball also stood in the way of the NFL’s initial success. Professional football seemed like a novelty or a passing fad, as depicted in the 2008 film Leatherheads.

Also as paralleled in the fictitious film Leatherheads, the Bears would seek out a college athlete to play on their professional football team. Though this practice is common today, the idea that one would procure a college degree and become a professional athlete seemed absurd at the time.One of the chief reasons a college athlete becoming a professional athlete seemed so farfetched was that most professional athletes didn’t garner tremendous salaries during this era, and the income arc of an athlete is much shorter than that of a college graduate.

Despite that it was relatively unheard of for a college athlete to go pro, Halas and the Bears would set their eyes on Illinois football standout Red Grange, recruiting him aggressively in the mid-1920s while he was still a student. This zealous courtship would eventually put into motion regulatory measures regarding student recruitment.

Future Hall-of-Famer Grange was finally landed by the Bears for the then-obscene sum of $2,000 a game. Though Grange would eventually bolt for the New York Yankees football franchise, the precedent was set for college recruitment, and this, along with many barnstorming tours to promote the brand, played a large role in the survival and structure of the modern-day NFL.

A young George Halas as Player/Coach
A young George Halas as Player/Coach | Source

1940s: Dominance of the Chicago Bears

The Chicago Bears were the most dominant NFL team during the 1940s, appearing in five championships and winning four. Of particular note is the 1940, 73-0 thumping of the favored Washington Redskins in the NFL Championship Game.

The Bears' prominence during this era is largely attributed to the advent of the T-formation, predecessor of the pro set formation. The T-formation used two backs instead of one. The combination of stingy defense and stellar quarterback play by Hall-of-Famer Sid Luckman made the Bears a force to be reckoned with throughout the 1940s.

Hall of Fame bust of Gale Sayers
Hall of Fame bust of Gale Sayers | Source

1950-1982: End of the George Halas Coaching Era

After several decades of superb play, the Chicago Bears would decline or underachieve throughout most of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. One exception to this was an 8th NFL championship in 1963.

Though these were primarily lean years, the Bear fans were treated to the play of some terrific athletes: Hall-of-Famers such as Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka, and Walter Payton, to name a few.

This low time in the franchise’s history would see the departure of George Halas from head coach in 1967 and the tragic death of running back Brian Piccolo from embryonal carcinoma in 1970. Piccolo’s valiant fight for life is depicted in the famous 1971 made-for-television film Brian’s Song, starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams.

1983-1992: Mike Ditka, the 46 Defense, and the 1985 Super Bowl

In One of George Halas' last major moves as team owner, he would hire former Bear standout tight-end Mike Ditka as head coach in 1982. Halas would pass away at 88 years of age the following year. Virginia McCaskey, eldest daughter of Halas, would take over as majority owner.

Together, Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan would quickly change the ho-hum culture in Chicago for the better. Though the offense was effective, with Hall-of-Fame running back Walter Payton and quarterback Jim McMahon as the signal-caller, the Bear defense was the centerpiece of the team’s talent.

The defense featured a then-revolutionary 46 alignment. At the heart of this defense was Hall-of-Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary, while fellow Hall-of-Fame inductees Richard Dent and Dan Hampton formed the bookends of the defensive line. The result was one of the greatest defenses to ever inhabit a football field.

In addition, the Bears of this era are considered by many to be one of the most iconic and colorful teams in NFL history. With nicknames like coach “Iron Mike” Ditka and William “The Refrigerator” Perry, and over-the-top personalities like that of McMahon, Ditka, and Ryan, this era of the team’s history still remains vivid in the collective consciousness.

All of this talent, skill, and ego culminated in a 15-1 record and a 1985 Super Bowl victory. Over the course of the playoffs, the Bears shutout the New York Giants 21-0, the Los Angeles Rams 24-0, and trounced the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX 46-10.

Adding to the lore of the 1985 Bears is “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” a musical routine recorded shortly after the team's one and only loss of the season in the 13th week to the Miami Dolphins. In this performance, the Bears proudly announce their intention of winning the Super Bowl, an act of bravado that would have made them look quite foolish if they had not so easily reached their goal.

The often-contentious relationship between Ditka and Ryan would result in Ryan’s departure to coach the Philadelphia Eagles in 1986. Though the Bears would continue to be a contender for most of Ditka’s Bear coaching career, they would not reach the Super Bowl again under his reign.

Former Bear Coach Dave Wannstedt
Former Bear Coach Dave Wannstedt | Source

1993-2003: The Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron Coaching Eras

During the 1990s and early 2000s, the Bears were again a run-of-the-mill team. Coaches Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron would both reach the playoffs once, but little else of note would take place.

Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher
Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher | Source

2004-2012: The Lovie Smith Era and 2006 Super Bowl Appearance

Under Head Coach Lovie Smith, the Chicago Bears would again come to prominence, culminating in a Super Bowl appearance in 2006.

During their Super Bowl run, Devin Hester electrified crowds with kick and punt returns, quarterback Rex Grossman, running back Thomas Jones, and wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad were offensive standouts, and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris and Hall-of-Fame middle linebacker Brian Urlacher starred on defense.

Super Bowl XLI pitted the Chicago Bears against the Indianapolis Colts. It was not only the first Super Bowl to feature an African-American head coach, but the first Super Bowl to feature two African-American head coaches: Smith of the Bears and Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts.

The more offensive-minded Colts would prevail in this closely combated championship 29-17.

Lovie Smith’s coaching career with the Bears would be a successful one, but ultimately his inability to win a Super Bowl would lead to his dismissal in 2012.

Jay Cutler's tenure at the Bears would see three head coaching changes.
Jay Cutler's tenure at the Bears would see three head coaching changes. | Source

2013-2017: Poor Performance Under Marc Trestman and John Fox

Between 2013-2017, the Bears posted an overall record of 27-57, with their best season record being 8-8 and their worst a dismal 3-13. During this time the Bears had two coaches, Marc Trestman and John Fox.

Jay Cutler was quarterback of the Bears during the majority of this period, and his ability to show flashes of brilliance compounded by inconsistent play was the perfect recipe for killing coaching careers.

Khalil Mack brings new hope to the Bear faithful.
Khalil Mack brings new hope to the Bear faithful. | Source

2018-Present: Emergence of the Chicago Bears Under Matt Nagy and Renewed Enthusiasm

The present-day Bears are a team marked with renewed enthusiasm. Under coach Matt Nagy, the Bears went 12-4 in 2018, and victory narrowly elluded them in their wild card contest against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Bears are expected to be a contender in 2019, with talented players such as quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and linebacker Khalil Mack.

Staley Da Bear
Staley Da Bear | Source

The History of the Chicago Bears Mascot and Logo

The New York Yankee and Brooklyn Dodger football teams copied the names of their respective, local baseball teams in hopes of capitalizing on brand recognition. Similarly, George Halas changed the Chicago mascot to the Bears in 1922 to complement the Chicago Cubs.

Depictions of the Chicago Bear have varied over the years, but most commonly resemble that of a brown bear or grizzly. In 2003 Staley Da Bear was introduced as an anthropomorphic mascot that inhabits the sidelines of Soldier Field and many events sponsored by the Chicago Bears.

Also like the Cubs, the Bears' emblem is a large C, but the wishbone C emblem that was eventually settled on was acquired from the University of Chicago in the 1940s.

Nicknames and Theme Song

The nickname “Monsters of the Midway” and the team theme song “Bear Down, Chicago Bears” were also obtained from the University of Chicago during the 1940s.

The term “Da Bears” is a reference to the Chicago Bears that was made popular by the recurring Saturday Night Live skit “Bill Swerski’s Superfans” in the early 1990s.

Chicago Bear Colors

Halas chose a color scheme that mimics that of the Illinois College Football Team: navy blue, burnt orange, and white. Halas chose not to copy the Illinois color scheme exactly. Most notable in this deviation, the navy blue in the Bears’ color scheme is much darker than that of the Illinois college team. Without close inspection, the Bears’ navy blue can easily be mistaken for the color black.

Chicago and Green Bay have the longest active rivalry in the NFL.
Chicago and Green Bay have the longest active rivalry in the NFL. | Source

Notable Rivalries and Games

  • Green Bay Packers: the longest-running and one of the most competitive rivalries in NFL history, Green Bay leads the series 98-95-6, including two playoff contests that the teams have split. The Packers-Bears rivalry began in 1921, the second year of the NFL’s existence.
  • Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings and Bears have been going at it since Minnesota’s first regular season game on September 17, 1961, which the Vikings won 37-13. The Vikings currently lead the rivalry at 60-54-2
  • Detroit Lions: This is another of the NFL’s very long-lived rivalries, which began in 1930. One of the most famous Bears-Lions contests was in 1932, when the Lions (then called the Portsmouth Spartans) faced off against the Bears in what many consider the NFL’s first playoff game. Due to a blizzard, it was also the first ever indoor game. The Bears were victorious, 9-0. Chicago has a lopsided lead in the series at 99-74-5.
  • Arizona Cardinals: Though no longer a rivalry, the series between the Cardinals and Bears is of note because it is the oldest in NFL history. Like the Bears, the Cardinals were in existence at the NFL’s inception in 1920 (then as the cross-town rival Chicago Cardinals). Both teams still occasionally play, but because their matchups don’t occur on a yearly basis, it is no longer considered a rivalry. The Cardinals and Bears first played on November 28, 1920, a game the Bears won 7-6. The Bears lead the series with an overall record of 59-28-6.

Old Soldier Field
Old Soldier Field | Source

Chicago Bears Stadium History

  • Staley Field (1920): Staley Field was the Bears home for the single season they played in Decatur, Illinois. With just a 1,500 seat capacity and a $1 admission fee, it was soon clear this would not be a profitable business model.
  • Wrigley Field (1921-1970): The Bears began playing games in Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, in 1921 and would play their final game there on December 13, 1970.
  • Soldier Field "Old Soldier Field" (1970-2002): Due to an NFL mandate that all stadiums accommodate at least 50,000 fans, the Bears were compelled to leave Wrigley Field after 50 years. They played their first regular season game at Soldier Field on September 19, 1971 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a game they won 17-15.
  • Soldier Field "New Soldier Field" (2003-Present): On September 29, 2003, the Chicago Bears played their first game on a completely renovated Soldier Field, a game that was lost to division rival Green Bay Packers 38-23. After a complete stadium overhaul, only parts of the Soldier Field facade would remain intact. As a result of these changes, the stadium would lose its National Historic Landmark status in 2006.

Brian Piccolo succumbed to cancer in 1970.
Brian Piccolo succumbed to cancer in 1970. | Source

Most Important Players

The Chicago Bears have had a long and illustrious history. As a result, they have garnered more Hall-of-Fame honors and have immortalized more players by retiring their numbers than any other NFL franchise.

Chicago Bears' Retired Numbers

Number
Player Honored
Position
Years of Service
Description of Contribution
3
Bronko Nagurski
FB-LB-T
1930-1937 & 1943
A 4 time All-Pro, Nagurski was an old-time player with modern size and speed. At 6'2" and 226 lbs, he would have been a force to be reckoned with in any era.
5
George McAfee
HB-DB
1940-1941 & 1945-1950
This one time All-Pro was on 3 championship teams and devastated opponents as both an offensive and defensive force.
7
George Halas
E
1920-1928 Player, 1920-1967 Coach, 1921-1983 Executive
Halas both played and coached the team in its infancy. It is as an owner and coach that his visionary skills stood out.
28
Willie Galimore
HB
1957-1963
A fabulous running back and Civil Rights Activist, Galimore had his life tragically cut short in an automobile accident at 29.
34
Walter Payton
RB
1975-1987
Arguably the greatest running back of all time and a 9 time Pro Bowl selection, Payton's life was cut short at 45 due to a rare liver disease.
40
Gale Sayers
RB-KR-PR
1965-1971
During his window of effective play, Sayers may have been the scariest offensive weapon to ever play the game. Injuries ended his career early.
41
Brian Piccolo
RB
1966-1969
A beloved teammate and quality running back, Piccilo's life was ended at 26 due to embryonal cell carcinoma.
42
Sid Luckman
QB-HB-DB
1939-1949
Luckman is best known for being the signal-caller of "The Monsters of the Midway," who won 4 of 5 championship appearances in the 1940s.
51
Dick Butkus
LB
1965-1973
The quintessential linebacker, Butkus earned 8 Pro Bowls and 5 All-Pro honors over the course of his career.
56
Bill Hewitt
FB-E
1932-1936
Hewitt was a 4 time All-Pro and 2 time NFL Champion whose life was cut short at 37 in a car crash.
61
Bill George
LB-G-MG-DT
1952-1965
George excelled at linebacker, earning 8 Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections in his 14 years with the Bears.
66
Bulldog Turner
C-T-LB-G
1940-1952
Bulldog lived up to his name, earning 7 All-Pro honors and winning 4 NFL Championships over his 13 year career.
77
Red Grange
HB-BB-DB-TB
1925 & 1929-1934
Grange was the first big-time college recruit, a harbinger of the recruiting system in place today.
89
Mike Ditka
TE
1961-1966
The league's preeminent tight end when he was healthy, knee injuries shortened his window of dominance.

Chicago Bears' Hall-of-Fame Inductees

Name
Position
Years with Bears
Year Enshrined
Pro Bowl and All-Pro Selections
*Alan Page
DT
1978-1981
1988
9 Pro Bowl, 6 All-Pro
Bill George
LB-G-MG-DT
1952-1965
1974
8 Pro Bowl, 8 All-Pro
Bill Hewitt
FB-E
1932-1936
1971
4 All-Pro
*Bobby Layne
QB
1948
1967
6 Pro Bowl, 2 All-Pro
Brian Urlacher
LB
2000-2012
2018
8 Pro Bowl, 4 All-Pro
Bronko Nagurski
FB-LB-T
1930-1937 & 1943
1963
4 All-Pro
Bulldog Turner
C-T-LB-G
1940-1952
1966
4 Pro Bowl, 7 All-Pro
Dan Fortmann
G-LB
1936-1943
1965
3 Pro Bowl, 6 All-Pro
Dan Hampton
DE-DT
1979-1990
2002
4 Pro Bowl, 1 All-Pro
Dick Butkus
LB
1965-1973
1979
8 Pro Bowl, 5 All-Pro
Doug Atkins
DE
1955-1966
1982
8 Pro Bowl, 1 All-Pro
Ed Healy
T-G-E
1922-1927
1964
4 All-Pro
Gale Sayers
RB, KR, PR
1965-1971
1977
4 Pro Bowl, 5 All-Pro
George Blanda
QB, K
1949-1958
1981
4 Pro Bowl, 1 All-Pro
George Connor
T-LB-DT-G
1948-1955
1975
4 Pro Bowl, 4 All-Pro
George Halas
Coach
1920-1983
1963
 
George McAfee
HB-DB
1940-1941, 1945-1950
1966
1 Pro Bowl, 1 All-Pro,
George Musso
G-T
1933-1944
1982
3 Pro Bowl, 1 All-Pro
George Trafton
C
1920-1921 & 1923-1932
1964
2 All-Pro
Red Grange
HB-BB-DB-TB
1925 & 1929-1934
1963
2 All-Pro
Jim Finks
Executive
1974-1982
1995
Elected as an Administrator
*Jimmy Conzelman
HB-QB
1920
1964
1 All-Pro
Joe Stydahar
T
1936-1942 & 1945-1946
1967
4 Pro Bowl, 4 All-Pro
John Driscoll
HB-QB-TB-BB
1920, 1926-1929, & 1956-1957
1965
6 All-Pro
Mike Ditka
TE
1961-1966
1988
5 Pro Bowl, 2 All-Pro
Mike Singletary
LB
1981-1992
1998
10 Pro Bowl, 7 All-Pro
*Orlando Pace
T
2009
2016
7 Pro Bowl, 3 All-Pro
Richard Dent
DE
1983-1993 & 1995
2011
4 Pro Bowl, 1 All-Pro
Sid Luckman
QB-HB-DB
1939-1950
1965
3 Pro Bowl, 5 All-Pro
Stan Jones
G-DT-T
1954-1965
1991
7 Pro Bowl, 3 All-Pro
Walter Payton
RB
1975-1987
1993
9 Pro Bowl, 5 All-Pro
*Walt Kiesling
G-T
1934
1966
1 All-Pro
Link Lyman
T
1926-1928, 1930-1931, & 1933-1934
1964
2 All-Pro
(*) Did not spend the majority of their career with the Chicago Bears
Walter Payton's number 34
Walter Payton's number 34 | Source

Chicago Bears' Career Statistical Leaders

Category
Number
Player Name
Most Games Started
184
Walter Payton
Consecutive Games Played
191
Steve McMichael
Games Played
245
Patrick Mannelly
Pro Bowls
10
Mike Singletary
Points
1,207
Robbie Gould
Passing TDs
154
Jay Cutler
TDs
125
Walter Payton
Rushing TDs
110
Walter Payton
Receiving TDs
50
Ken Kavanaugh
Def. TDs
9
Charles Tillman
Int. TDs
8
Charles Tillman
Punt Return TDs
13
Devin Hester
Kick Return TDs
6
Gale Sayers
KR & PR TDs
18
Devin Hester
Passing Yards
23,443
Jay Cutler
Rushing Yards
16,726
Walter Payton
Receptions
492
Walter Payton
Receiving Yards
5,059
Johnny Morris
All-Purpose Yards
21,803
Walter Payton
Interceptions
38
Gary Fencik
Sacks
124.5
Richard Dent

Chicago Bears' Season Statistical Leaders

Category
Number
Player Name
Year
Points
144
Kevin Butler
1985
Passing TDs
29
Eric Kramer
1995
TDs
22
Gale Sayers
1965
Rushing TDs
14
Gale Sayers, Walter Payton(2)
1965, 1977 & 1979
Receiving TDs
13
Ken Kavanaugh, Dick Gordon
1947, 1970
Def. TDs
3
Charles Tillman
2012
Int. TDs
3
Charles Tillman
2012
Punt Return TDs
4
Devin Hester
2007
Kick Return TDs
3
Gale Sayers
1967
KR & PR TDs
6
Devin Hester
2007
Passing Yards
3,838
Eric Kramer
1995
Rushing Yards
1,852
Walter Payton
1977
Receptions
118
Brandon Marshall
2012
Receiving Yards
1,508
Brandon Marshall
2012
All-Purpose Yards
2,440
Gale Sayers
1966
Interceptions
10
Mark Carrier
1990
Sacks
17.5
Richard Dent
1984

People Also Ask

Who Owns the Chicago Bears?

  • A.E. Staley Company (1920-1921)
  • George Halas and Dutch Sternaman (1921-1932)
  • George Halas (1932-1983)
  • Virginia Halas McCaskey (1983-present)

How Did the Chicago Bears Get Their Name?

Like many early NFL teams, the Bears name was given to complement the local baseball team, the Chicago Cubs.

What Kind of Bear Is the Chicago Bears Mascot?

The earliest depictions of the Chicago bear tended to resemble a black bear, but more recent representations favor the North American brown bear or grizzly.

When Was the Last Time the Bears Were in the Playoffs?

The Bears' last playoff appearance was in 2018. The Bears' stellar record of 12-4 was only good enough to earn a wild card berth, and they narrowly lost in the first round to the Philadelphia Eagles, 16-15.

How Many Times Have the Bears Been to the Playoffs?

This question is up for debate depending on how one classifies the 1932 playoff/extra game. Because the Portsmouth Spartans and Chicago Bears tied their previous two regular season meetings that year, an extra match was needed to determine the League Champion.

If this game is viewed as a playoff, then the Bears have 27 playoff appearances. If this game is viewed as an extension of the regular season, then the answer is 26 playoff appearances.

References

1. Oldest.org. 10 Oldest Teams in the NFL. Retrieved September 11, 2019.

2. Profootballhof.com. Hall of Famers by Franchise. Retrieved September 9, 2019.

3. Profootballreference.com. Pro Football Statistics and History. Retrieved September 6-12, 2019.

4. Staleymuseum.com. History of the Decatur Staleys/ Chicago Bears. Retrieved September 10, 2019.

5. Wikipedia. Chicago Bears. Retrieved September 10, 2019.

6. Taylor, Roy.(2003). Chicago Bears History. Retrieved September 10, 2019.

7. Associated Press. (2007, January 21). Smith, Dungy are first black coaches in Super Bowl. Retrieved September 11, 2019.

8. Bacon. (2019, March 18). What Kind of Bears Are The Chicago Bears? Retrieved September 10, 2019.

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