Over the past ten years, the Bears have seen highs (Super Bowl appearance) and lows (Drafting in the top 5 of the Draft). However, from 2001-2011, the Bears have had one of the best decades of their history. After suffering through six losing seasons in the 90s, the Bears made the playoffs four times during the 2000s, including making the NFC Championship Game in 2010. So what was the best Bears team during this period? What about the worst? Let’s dive in and try to find out.
10) 2004: 5-11 regular season record, no playoffs
After parting with ways with Dick Jauron after the 2003 season, the Bears hired then St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith as their head coach going into the 2004 season. As is the case with many head coaches, there was a bit of a transition period between coaching regimes. The Bears finished 5-11 during Smith’s first year at the helm, and the team was plagued by a revolving quarterback carousel and anemic offense.
Over the course of the year, the Bears started four different quarterbacks: Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel, Jonathan Quinn and Rex Grossman and because of the instability at the quarterback position, the 2004 Bears offense was one of the worst of all time. Their offense, according to Football Outsiders, had the third-worst play-for-play offense, in history. Over the course of the year, the Bears scored a total of 231 points and accounted for 3,816 yards of offense – both dead last in the NFL. The Bears broke 20 points only four times all season; the same amount of times they were held to single digits. While they won one more game than the 2002 team did, there was an aura of futility in this group that makes them the worst Bears team of the past decade.
9) 2002: 4-12 regular season record, no playoffs
The 2001 season was one of the most pleasant surprises in Bears history and hopes were high for the following season as virtually everyone returned. Soldier Field underwent renovations for the entire year and because of this, the Bears were forced to play their home games at Memorial Stadium on the campus of the University of Illinois. After defeating the Vikings and Falcons to start the season 2-0, things quickly went down hill for the Bears as they lost their next eight games.
The Bears were decimated by injuries to starters on both sides of the ball. At one point, the Bears were without Rex Tucker, Jim Miller, Ted Washington, R.W. McQuarters, Warrick Holdman and Anthony Thomas during the season and were forced to start third string quarterback Henry Burris in the Bears’ finale against the Buccaneers. Although the Bears finished with 12 losses, six were by a touchdown or less. Still though, the Bears had trouble on both sides of the ball finishing 27th in the league in points scored and 23rd in points allowed in addition to finishing 23rd in turnover margin.
8) 2003: 7-9 regular season record, no playoffs
The 2003 season marked the end of the Dick Jauron era in Chicago. The Bears parted way with the coach after his fourth losing season in five years. After two years of Jim Miller, the Bears failed to find consistent play at the quarterback position. Chris Chandler, Kordell Stewart & rookie Rex Grossman all started for the Bears at some point during the season, but none were effective and as a result, the Bears wound up finishing under .500 for the second year in a row. The Bears 2003 season got off to a disastrous start as the team started 0-3 including a 49-7 opening week loss at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers. However the team rebounded (sort of) by winning three out of their next five games giving them a 3-5 record at the season’s halfway mark. With the Bears sitting at 5-8 and the playoffs virtually out of sight, they turned the reigns over to rookie Rex Grossman. The rookie was impressive in his first two starts, leading the team to wins over the rival Vikings and the Redskins. Having picked up a bit of confidence, the Bears traveled to Kansas City hoping to end the season on a high note.
Throughout most of the year, Dick Jauron’s seat remained warm – with many feeling that a win on the last week of the season might save his job for at least another year. However early in the game, Grossman was knocked out and did not return. The rest, as they say, is history. The Bears went on to lose by a final of 31-3. The next day, GM Jerry Angelo called a 2 P.M. press conference in which he announced that Jauron would not return for a 6th season at the helm.
7) 2007: 7-9 regular season record, no playoffs
After back-to-back playoff seasons, there was little doubt that Lovie Smith appeared to be the man for the job. Coming into the 2007 season, hopes were high for a repeat of the previous year’s success. Little did fans know, that the Bears were about to plummet from first-worst in the NFC North in just one short year.
Many will question what the exact reason for the Bears struggles were in the season but there appear to be three obvious reasons. First is the continuing quarterback carousel that IS the Bears franchise. The Bears started three different quarterbacks during the 2007 season, and did so for the SEVENTH time in ten years. Second, was the departure of defensive coordinator Ron Rivera who left for the same position with the Chargers. As soon as Rivera left, the drop in defensive production was startling. Third, was the trade that sent veteran running back Thomas Jones to the Jets for a second round pick. With that trade, the Bears were ready to hand Cedric Benson the keys to the running game. The problem was that Benson was nowhere near ready to take control of the ground game.
The Bears struggled mightily during the 2007 season, and it’s a wonder how they managed to win seven games. Injuries took a devastating toll on the team with as many as eight players missing time on the defensive side of the ball. The running game was nonexistent as the Bears finished 30th in the league in rushing. The defense? Well, the Bears finished the season 28th in total team defense, 27th in pass defense and 24th in run defense.
A mere one year after making it to the Super Bowl, it appeared as though the Bears would have to start from scratch again. The Rex Grossman and Cedric Benson experiments seemed to had run their course, and it was time to start over at both positions with fresh faces. The 2007 season was certainly one of the most disappointing seasons for the Chicago Bears.
6) 2008: 9-7 regular season record, no playoffs
Usually a 9-7 record is good enough to earn a playoff spot, but unfortunately for the Bears, 2008 was the exception to that norm. Coming off of a disappointing 7-9 year, the Bears entered 2008 with new faces while parting ways with others. In fact, the Bears parted ways with their leading passer, rusher and receiver before the start of the 2008 season. Brian Griese was shipped to Tampa Bay for a sixth round pick, Cedric Benson was cut after several run-ins with the law in Texas and Bernard Berrian signed a 6 year, $42 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings.
As for the season, the story was inconsistency from the quarterback position. Rookie running back Matt Forte was one of the bright spots for the Bears as he finished the season with 1,238 rushing yards while also being the team’s leading receiver. In addition to losing Bernard Berrian, the Bears also parted ways with Mushin Muhammad leaving a massive void at the receiver position. While Forte catching 63 passes was a good site to see in terms of his versatility, it also spoke volumes about the Bears lack of a receiver threat.
To borrow a line from Dennis Green, the 2008 Bears “were who we thought they were,” and that is a middle of the road team who beat who they were supposed to beat and lost to whom they were supposed to lose to. The Bears ranked 26th in total offense and 21st in total defense. The Bears had some incredibly frustrating losses during the season including a home loss to Tampa Bay in which the Bucs game-winning drive was kept alive by a personal foul penalty by Charles Tillman after a third down stop, as well as a two point loss on the road at the Falcons which saw the Bears score a touchdown to take the lead with 11 seconds remaining, only to squib the ensuing kickoff, have the Falcons complete a 26-yard pass, and hit a game-winning 48 yard field goal as time expired. The Bears have nobody to blame but themselves for falling short of the playoffs in 2008.
5) 2011: 8-8 regular season record, no playoffs
Man, what a frustrating season. Coming off their NFC North title in 2010, hopes were high for a repeat performance in 2011. The Bears seemed to be well on their way to a second consecutive playoff appearance after rattling off a five game winning streak during the season. However during the Bears final victory during that streak, quarterback Jay Cutler broke his thumb, which ended his season and also the Bears hopes of returning to the playoffs. Matters were made worse just a short two weeks later when running back Matt Forte was lost for the remainder of the year with a knee injury. The Bears were 7-3 after a week 11 victory over the Chargers, but went on to lose five out of their last six games to finish the season at 8-8 overall.
Had it not been for injuries to Cutler & Forte, I firmly believe this team could have been number one on this list. The Bears were rolling and showed no signs of stopping until injuries to their two stars derailed their season. After defeating the Chargers the Bears were 7-3. The Bears lost their next four games, at Oakland, vs. Kansas City, at Denver and vs. Seattle. It’s not crazy to think that with a healthy Cutler and Forte, the Bears couldn’t have one all four of those games putting them at 11-3 heading into a week 16 showdown on Christmas Day at Green Bay. While most Bears teams of the past were built on defense, the 2011 version seemed to be the opposite. The Bears ranked sixth in the league in points per game at 26 per, while the defense ranked 16th in points per game allowed at 21 per. In addition, the Bears pass defense was ranked second to last in the entire NFL making the 2011 version of the Chicago Bears defense one of the the worst statistical defenses under Lovie Smith’s tenure. Despite finishing only 8-8, the Bears still sent five players to the Pro Bowl. The 2011 season can only be thought of as a “what could have been.”
4) 2005: 11-5 regular season record, loss to Carolina Panthers in NFC Divisional Round
Entering Lovie Smith’s second season, it appeared as though the 2005 season would end before it ever began. Rex Grossman, who was set to enter his first full year as the Bears starter, suffered a broken ankle in the second game of the preseason again the St. Louis Rams. Backup quarterback Chad Hutchinson was cut after struggling in the Bears remaining preseason games. That meant rookie quarterback Kyle Orton would be handed the reigns to lead the Bears for the 2005 season.
The 2005 season got off to a rocky start as the Bears dropped three out of their first four to start the year 1-3. However just when it appeared that Lovie Smith’s second season at the helm might be lost, the Bears went on a tear, winning eight games in a row to bring their record to 9-3 after week 13. Despite the Bears egregiously bad passing game, the Bears managed to win games thanks to a dominant defense and solid running game. The 2005 Bears set an NFL record for fewest points allowed at home during the season. In eight home games, the Bears gave up an average of 5.5 points per game, a number that was unprecedented by NFL standards.
The 2005 Bears weren’t the flashiest team, but the fact that Lovie was able to lead this team to the playoffs for the first time since 2001 after losing his starting quarterback before the year started gave the fan base hope that they had found their coach for the long-term.
3) 2001: 13-3 regular season record, loss to Philadelphia Eagles in NFC Divisional round
The 2001 season was one of the most enjoyable seasons I’ve had as a Bears fan. Why? Because it seemingly came out of nowhere. Prior to 2001, the Bears had not had a winning season since 1995 and it was a 9-7 season at that. Then, consider that after 2001, the Bears didn’t have another winning season until 2005. So, it should come as to surprise that the 2001 season was a magical one for all Bears fans.
The season itself was amazingly entertaining. Every team has a year in which everything just seems to go right, and for the Bears, 2001 was that year. The Bears led the league with five comeback wins during the season highlighted by back-to-back wins at the hands of safety Mike Brown’s interception returns for touchdowns. The Bears 13 wins were the most since 1986. Rookie running back Anthony Thomas was named offensive ROY, and quarterback Jim Miller and wide receiver Marty Booker formed the Bears most successful quarterback-receiver combination in Bears history.
The Bears wound up with the number two seed in the NFC, but ultimately fell to the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round. The defense was once again strong, allowing fewer than 13 points per game, good enough for a top 5 ranking in the league. The weakness for the Bears has always been an inconsistent offense. Bears fans got a taste of how successful the team could be when both the offense & defense are clicking.
2) 2010: 11-5 regular season, loss to Green Bay Packers in NFC Championship
After failing to reach the playoffs for the third straight year in 2009, the Bears opted to make coaching changes. In January of 2010, the Bears fired offensive coordinator Ron Turner & offensive line coach Harry Hiestand in addition to two other assistants. To replace Turner, the Bears hired former Rams coach Mike Martz.
But that’s not the only way the Bears upgraded their team. Because they were void of a first round pick in the upcoming draft (Jay Cutler trade), they decided to make a big splash in free agency by nabbing the best available free agent in Julius Peppers. But that’s not all; in addition to Peppers, the Bears brought in veteran running back Chester Taylor to help take the load off of Matt Forte.
The Bears got off to a fast start in the 2010 season starting the year 3-0 including wins at Dallas and at home against Green Bay. However after the hot start, the Bears hit a bit of a rough patch losing three out of their next four games including two head scratchers to Seattle and Washington. Still though, the Bears remained focused, and led by quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte, the Bears won seven out of their last nine to finish the regular season at 11-5.
The Bears entered the playoffs as the NFC’s number two seed. After the Seahawks upset the Saints in the Wildcard round, the Bears exacted some revenge on a regular season loss against the Seahawks by defeating them 35-24. The win set up an NFC Championship game with the rival Packers at Soldier Field. The Packers jumped out to an early lead and maintained the lead into the fourth quarter. The Bears lost Cutler in the third quarter to a knee injury and as a result had to turn to oft-used backup Caleb Hanie. The Bears finally got on board in the fourth quarter with a 1-yard Chester Taylor touchdown run, but the Packers clinched the game when defensive tackle B.J. Raji intercepted Caleb Hanie’s pass and returned it for a touchdown.
Although the Bears quest for a Super Bowl came up one game short, it was still a successful season by all accounts.
1) 2006: 13-3 regular reason record, NFC Champions, loss to Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl
The number one spot on the list isn’t that hard to figure out. The 2006 Chicago Bears were the best Bears team of the past decade. Although the team won 13 regular season games, the team still had to overcome shaky quarterback play from Rex Grossman. As has been the case with most Bears teams, the strength of the 2006 version of the Bears was the defense and special teams highlighted by the electric returns of rookie Devin Hester. Hester made his mark immediately by returning a punt for 84 yards and a touchdown in his first game; a 26-0 Bears win over the rival Packers. Hester went on to score six return touchdowns during his rookie year, however none were more memorable than his NFL-record 108 yard return against the New York Giants on Sunday Night Football. The Giants, attempting to cut the Bears lead to a mere point early in the fourth quarter, lined up for a 52-yard field goal into the wind. Jay Feely missed it short, and the result of the play was one of the most memorable touchdowns in NFL history.
The 2006 Bears were a special team. They finished the year tied for second in points scored and third in points allowed. Eight members of the team (Olin Kruetz, Tommie Harris, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Robbie Gould, Devin Hester and Brendon Ayanbadejo) made the Pro Bowl; the most of any NFC team. The defense was once again the backbone of the Bears. They finished fifth in total defense including sixth against the run. Their Super Bowl run came up one victory short, falling to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Still though, for a team that had suffered through 15+ years of futility, it was a breath of fresh air and a sign that the Bears were here to stay.