Thirteen years ago, catalyzed by the NFL’s most opportunistic defense and a home-run hitting rookie returner the likes of which we had never seen before and very well may never see again, the Bears stormed into South Beach on a mission two decades in the making.
It took all of Super Bowl XLI’s first 13 seconds – the time Devin Hester needed to receive Adam Vinatieri’s kickoff, hit his hole up the middle, burst to the right sideline, flip on the afterburners and leave the Indianapolis Colts in 92 yards of dust en route to the record books – for a 7-0 Bears advantage over the NFL’s most prolific offense, led by the legendary Peyton Manning.
The Bears’ thieving stop-unit created another jolt of electricity less than two minutes later, with their NFC-leading 27th interception (only the ravens had more with 30), Chris Harris halting the Colts’ opening drive before it infiltrated enemy territory.
Make room on the Chicago sports pantheon, ’85 Bears? After all, Hollywood couldn’t have crafted a more fitting opening game script for Lovie Smith’s squad.
Not so fast.
After climbing the pocket and escaping the grasp of Tank Johnson on third-and-long, Manning’s next deep shot on the Colts’ second series found Reggie Wayne behind a busted coverage for a 53-yard touchdown. The two teams then quickly exchanged fumbles – Gabe Reid’s on the ensuing kickoff and Manning’s on the next play on a botched center-QB exchange – before the Bears struck again, with a short touchdown from Rex Grossman-to-Muhsin Muhammad, set up by the longest run of Thomas Jones’ season, a 52-yard gallop.
It would mark the last time in the past 13 years that the Bears would play, much less lead in a Super Bowl.
Of course, more drama would unfold that Sunday at Dolphin Stadium, since renovated and renamed Hard Rock Stadium and the site of this Sunday’s battleground for the 49ers and Chiefs in only the second South Florida Super Bowl since XLI.
Still trailing by only one score early in the fourth quarter thanks to their star-studded bend-but-don’t-break “D,” as well as some atypical errors by Manning and fellow future Hall of Famer Vinatieri, Bears QB Rex Grossman looked to retake the lead on a deep ball to Muhammad. The problem: Illini product and Chicago’s own Kelvin Hayden didn’t even consider biting on Muhammad’s double move. Instead, the Colts second-year corner camped under the ill-fated throw and, sticking close to the left sideline, weaved in and out of traffic for the game-sealing 56-yard pick-six.
Grossman tossed his 23rd interception of the season on the next possession, and minutes later, Manning and Tony Dungy’s Colts celebrated as the Bears commiserating commenced.
If only Bears fans knew then that the commiserating would still be continuing 13 years later. It’s a span over which Manning became the first quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl with two different teams; Brian Urlacher and Marvin Harrison were enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where Wayne perhaps, Manning assuredly and Hester deservedly will be welcomed when they’re first eligible this year and over the next two, respectively; the Bears fired not only Smith but also his two successors; and Chicago has won only two division titles and one playoff game.
The more things change, the more they stay the same?
Fittingly, ex-Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub is shepherding another first-team All Pro rookie return maven, Mecole Hardman, with the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV – like XLI, pitting the irresistible force against the immovable object.
But all is not lost for the Bears. The memories of that ’06-07 club, like the immortal ’85 Bears, will live forever and Chicago is still just one season removed from stirring the ghosts of ’06, if not ’85. And all the makings of those elite takeaway defenses and explosive return games remain in the picture.
Of course there is also still the specter of a first-round quarterback leading an offense still struggling to find their way, hoping to avoid squandering a super defense.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, indeed.