Chicago Bears Top 100: #63 Tom Waddle

We’re heading into the dog days of the offseason, counting the days until the Chicago Bears 2014 season kicks off. Thanks to Bear Goggles On contributor and the fine editor of Blackhawk Up Keith Schultz’s suggestion, we’re going to do a Top 100 list of the all time Chicago Bears.  It’s a fun way to pass the time and take a stroll down memory lane.

If I wasn’t trying to be objective then Tom Waddle would probably be in top 25, but an unbiased writer may not have Waddle in the top 100 at all, so I figured this was about a fair spot. Before I get started, I should note that Waddle was one of my favorite Bears so objectivity might be a lost cause.

Tom Waddle joined the Bears as an undrafted free agent in 1989. Despite being Boston College’s 3rd all-time leading receiver with 139 catches, having the most catches ever in one game (13), and having the most catches in one season (70), Waddle slipped through the draft without being selected. The scouting report on Waddle coming out of college was that he had great hands and ran precise routes, but was too slow (4.78 40-time) to be an NFL wide receiver.

For the first two years of Waddle’s career with the Bears the scouting reports seemed accurate; The Bears released Waddle 4 times over his first two seasons. He was unable to make an impact while on the roster or even see the field very often with only 3 catches over two years. Waddle hung around though, partly because he was one of Ditka’s favorites, and eventually got a chance to play in the ’91 opener when injuries to Ron Morris and Anthony Morgan opened up the 3rd receiver slot. He only caught two passes for 48 yards, but one of them was a diving grab on the game winning 37-yard TD and the legend of Tom Waddle was born.

Waddle went on to post a solid 55 catch, 599 yard, 3 TD season in ’91 which included a couple big performances on a national stage. Waddle had 8 catches for 102 yards during a national televised overtime win vs the Jets and 9 catches for 104 yards and the Bears only TD in a playoff loss to the Cowboys. Fellow receiver Wendell Davis led the team in catches (61), yards (945) and receiving TDs (6), but Waddle was the Bears go-to guy on 3rd downs and made so many tough catches over the middle that he became a fan favorite and even earned a place on the “All-Madden” team.

With his place on the roster secured and a starting WR spot, Waddle continued to be the Bears most reliable WR and make ridiculous catches in traffic in clutch situations. He was also involved in some memorable plays during two otherwise un-memorable seasons (12-20 record). Two of my favorites were when he beat All-Pro corner Deion Sanders for a TD in ’92 and a 70-yd TD reception from P.T. Willis against the Browns. Waddle put up solid numbers in both  ’92 (46, 674, 4) and ’93 (44, 552, 1) while continuing to sacrifice his body to make acrobatic catches over the middle and establishing himself as a fan favorite. I’ll never forget Waddle being helped to the sidelines after a tough catch over the middle with Soldier Field fans chanting his name.

His stats in ’93 seem pedestrian by today’s standards but he actually led the team in both catches and receiving yards. Despite being the team’s leading receiver, 2nd year head coach Dave Wannstedt (Boo!) was determined to make the Bears offense faster and moved Waddle out of the starting lineup. Waddle still contributed with 25 catches for 244 yards but all the hits he had taken over the years started to catch up with him and he missed time with a concussion and a knee injury. Heading into free agency the next season, Wannstedt was cleaning out all of “Ditka’s guys” and offered Waddle a choice between a league minimum salary or an incentive laden contract with no money guaranteed. It was clearly an insulting offer designed to force Waddle to move on. He did, accepting an offer from the Bengals, but he got hurt again in training camp and decided to retire instead.

In Waddle’s injury-shortened six-year career with the Bears he caught 173 passes for 2,109 yards and 9 touchdowns, but the stats don’t tell the whole story. Waddle was an underdog, but he became the Bears most reliable receiver for a few years because he was willing to do whatever it took to make the catch. He was fearless over the middle, routinely sacrificing his body for the team and Chicago loved him for it. I was in my early teens during Waddle’s prime and his poster was on my wall next to Chicago icons Payton, Grace, Jordan, and Roenick, not bad company for a guy who was too slow to make it in the NFL.

What do you think of the ranking?  Too high?  Too low?  I guess you’ll have to check back to see who finished ahead of him to judge for yourself.  We’ll be counting down a different person each day as we inch our way to the September 7th season opener.

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