Photo Credit: John Croft, Star Tribune File
The Vikings brought the end of Mike Ditka.
Though “Da Coach” had one more stop on the NFL coach train before calling it quits, running the New Orleans Saints into the ground in the process, Ditka will forever most be known for his tenure as head coach of the Monsters of the Midway. The perfect figurehead for the most memorable team in NFL history.
And the Vikings got him fired. Or at least, they helped set the wheels in motion that would ultimately lead to a poor Bears season after which Ditka was fired. Same thing.
Here is how they did it.
The 1985 Bears were, and still are, a national sensation. The star power, the personalities and the on-field dominance captivated the country en route to a 15-1 record and one of the most lopsided Super Bowl wins in history.
But that Bears team never made their way back to the Super Bowl after 1985 and by 1992, that Bears team was long gone. Yes, Mike Singletary, Steve “Mongo” McMichael and Richard Dent were still manning the defense but all of them were approaching the end of their Bears careers.
Still, the Bears were an 11-5 team in 1991. They had a vibrant quarterback named Jim Harbaugh, a plucky, fan-favorite receiver in Tom Waddle and a talented running back in Neal Anderson on the offense. There was optimism that the veteran defensive unit could make one last run at a championship.
Instead, Chicago fans got to see in realtime the final stages of the decline of the once-fearsome Bears front. Through the first four games of the 1992 season the Bears allowed a less-than-stellar 27.5 points per game, though they had enough offensive firepower to walk away with a 2-2 record. Chicago needed a major turnaround game against the Vikings in week five.
The Vikings were a middle-of-the-road team in 1991 and brought in head coach Dennis Green to resurrect the franchise. Under Green’s leadership, Minnesota came out firing to start 1992, going 3-1 and scoring 27 points a game. What was more, two of those wins had come against division opponents. Behind the arm of Rich Gannon, 10 years before he would be league-MVP, Minnesota was exceeding expectations as they welcomed the Bears to the Metrodome for week five.
The upstart-Vikings that fans had seen through four weeks was nowhere to be found early in this one. Minnesota turned the ball over three times on promising drives, once on a Rich Gannon redzone interception and twice on Terry Allen fumbles. They also had a Roger Craig touchdown run called back due to a holding penalty. All told they were down 20-0 entering the fourth quarter with no sign of offensive production in sight and the defense allowing too many big plays.
But then, early in the fourth, the real fireworks started.
Ditka called a run play for Anderson but Harbaugh instead audibled to a pass play. Harbaugh took a three-step drop then fired to Waddle running a hitch on the left side. Unfortunately, Vikings corner Todd Scott read the play perfectly, jumping the route for the interception and returning it all the way for Minnesota’s first touchdown of the game.
After the play, Harbaugh went to the sideline and caught the most vicious chewing-out that Ditka ever gave. And the cameras caught all of it.
For whatever reason, that play lit a fire under the entire Viking team. Gannon found Cris Carter in the back of the endzone for a 16-yard touchdown five minutes later. On the next drive with the Bears moving the ball, John Randle made a shoestring tackle on Harbaugh for the defensive stop and get the ball back to the offense with a chance to win the game. Gannon drove the Vikings down to the Bears one-yard line where Craig leapt over the line for the go-ahead touchdown with less than two minutes remaining.
Chicago was unable to respond and the Vikings completed what was at the time the largest fourth-quarter comeback in franchise history.
After the game, Harbaugh took responsibility for the bad audible and the Bears’ loss. Ditka pointed the finger the same way but with slightly less tact. Ditka not-so-subtly insinuated that if Harbaugh checked out of another play again, it would be the last snap he would take in a Bears uniform.
Ultimately, Harbaugh did start 13 of 16 games for the Bears but with minimal success. After winning the next two games, Chicago would lose six in a row, finishing the season 5-11. Ditka was fired at the end of the year.
So, in a roundabout way, the pick-six by Scott put into motion the Bears fall from grace that would cost Ditka his job. The Vikings, on the otherhand, would somewhat surprisingly finish with an 11-5 record, winning the NFC Central by two games in the late-Dennis Green’s first season as head coach. Though they would lose in the first round to the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins, that week five game and that image of Ditka fuming on the sidelines remains ingrained in the minds of fans who saw it happen.
Andy Dalton and the Bengals destroy the Browns