The dog days of the offseason are finally behind us now that training camp is underway, just in time for our countdown of the Top 100 Chicago Bears of all time to really heat up. As we get closer to the season opener, we get closer to naming the #1 Chicago Bear of all time.
I was a kid when Walter Payton retired and I didn’t take it well. He was my favorite player and I remember irrationally blaming Neal Anderson for forcing Walter out. That may sound ridiculous, but I was 9. I made up my mind that I wouldn’t root for Anderson, then he broke a 45-yard TD run against Green Bay in week 4 and I started to waver a little. By the time he broke the Bears record for longest TD run with an 80-yarder in the Bears 2nd game vs the Packers, I had an Anderson poster on my wall.
Contrary to my childish notion that Anderson forced Walter into retirement, the Bears knew Payton was only planning on playing another season or two before the 1986 draft and used their 1st round pick (27th) on Neal Anderson, a running back out of Florida. Anderson had a prolific college career with 14 games of 100+ rushing yards and was an honorable mention AP All-American in both ’84 & ’85. In hindsight, the Bears got lucky that Anderson fell to them in the draft. There were 5 RBs taken ahead of Anderson in the 1st round that year, including his backfield mate at Florida John L Williams. None of the five backs came close to Anderson’s career production, though 1st overall pick Bo Jackson probably would have had he not suffered a hip injury. The Bears were fortunate that five RB needy teams passed on Anderson, but now they needed to find a way to integrate Anderson into the lineup without insulting Payton and angering legions of Bears fans (like 9-yr old me).
Anderson didn’t see the field much as a rookie and had only 35 carries on the year, but showed flashes of big play potential with a 58-yd TD reception and a 66-yd TD run that was called back due to a holding penalty. In Anderson’s second year the Bears played Anderson at fullback to get him on the field without sending Payton to the bench. Anderson led the Bears in rushing with 586 yards (4.5 ypc) in the strike shortened ’87 season. Walter Payton retired before the ’88 season and Anderson got his chance to take over as the Bears starting running back.
Replacing Bears legend Walter Payton sounds like a daunting task, but Anderson didn’t seem fazed at all. He rushed for 1,106 yards and 12 TDs including the 80-yarder I mentioned earlier in the post and made the Pro Bowl in his first year as the starting RB. Anderson was arguably the best running back in football over the next two seasons (89-90) and made the Pro Bowl 4 years in a row (88-91). 1989 was probably his best year with 1,709 yards from scrimmage and 15 total TDs (11 rushing, 4 receiving).
In 1991 Anderson dealt with some tragic off-field issues that may have impacted his production on the field and also suffered a hamstring injury that seemed to never go away over the next few years. In ’91 his yards per carry dropped under 4 (3.6) for the first time in his career. In ’92 he started off strong with 2 TDs in an opening week win over Detroit, but seemed to have lost his trademark burst and was benched often in the second half of the season in favor of Darren Lewis. By ’93 Anderson had lost the explosive speed that made him such a dangerous play-maker and averaged a career low 3.2 ypc. The last few weeks of the ’03 season, Tim Worley was the Bears starting RB and Anderson decided to retire after the season.
Anderson had the nearly impossible task of taking over for Hall of Fame RB Walter Payton and did it better than anyone could have expected. He finished his 8 year career as the 2nd all-time leading rusher in Bears history with 6,166 yards (now #3 behind Forte). Anderson also added 2,763 receiving yards and was an excellent blocker as well. In his prime (88-90), he was the best all-around running back in the NFL and one of my favorite Bears of all-time.
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.