Chicago Bears All-Decade Team: 2000s

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Charles Tillman, CB

Sep 8, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman (33) makes an interception against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Among a handful of players on this all-decade team that also qualify as all-time Bear greats, is Charles “Peanut” Tillman.  Drafted during the Jerry Angelo/Dick Jauron era, Tillman was the 35th overall selection in 2003 out of Louisiana-Lafayette and after three games with the Bears he became a full-time starter at cornerback.

Tillman had the prototypical size to play corner in the NFL but was a relative unknown coming into the league.  That anonymity he enjoyed vanished after a week 15 matchup in Soldier Field against the Minnesota Vikings during his rookie season.  The Vikings at that time had Daunte Culpepper slinging the rock to an in-his-prime Randy Moss, both of whom were Pro Bowlers that year with the latter on his way to one of his most prolific seasons (111 receptions for 1,632 yards and 17 TDs).

The Bears didn’t have much to play for at that point and had inserted rookie QB Rex Grossman into the starting lineup for the last three games of the year, Minnesota being his first start.  Meanwhile the Vikings were still in the playoff hunt, so the game certainly had more meaning for them.

Oct 6, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman (33) warms up before the game against the New Orleans Saints at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Bears led 13-10 with just over a minute to play and the Vikings had driven all the way to the Bears 10-yard line.  Everybody in the stands and every fan around the world watching on television knew what was coming — a fade to Moss.  The pass was thrown as expected but the result was something no one outside of Chicago could’ve dreamed would happen.

Tillman went up with Moss and with one hand ripped the pass away from the all-world receiver, effectively winning the game for Chicago.  From that moment the foundation on which Tillman built his Bear legacy was firmly in place.

Several more examples of big plays at big moments were to follow in his storied career but Tillman rarely seemed to get the recognition he deserved, being voted to only two Pro Bowls (2011, 2012).  He will go down as one of the best Bears cornerbacks ever, but whether or not he’ll get serious consideration for the Hall of Fame is questionable.

After 12 seasons with Chicago, the last two truncated by injury, Tillman left thru free agency and signed with the Carolina Panthers this past April.  Tillman finished with 36 INTs (3rd-most in franchise history), 675 return yards off those INTs with eight defensive TDs (both are 1st in franchise history) and 42 forced fumbles (most in franchise history).

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Nathan Vasher, CB

What’s in a name?  I don’t know, but “Vasher” always sounded like an appropriate moniker for a defensive player and for a few years in the 2000s it was synonymous with playmaker.  You may recall that before Devin Hester returned a missed field goal for 108 yards against the Giants in 2006, Vasher was the first to do it in 2005 against the 49ers.

At cornerback in 2004 Tillman was the emerging second-year player, but injury reduced his season to eight games and cleared the way for Vasher to contribute early.  In seven starts Vasher grabbed five interceptions, the team-high for ’04, and returned one 71 yards for a score.  His 177 total return yards were tops on the defense as well.

Vasher continued his strong play in 2005 on a dominant Bears defense, intercepting eight more passes and scoring on one en route to his only Pro Bowl season.  He would collect three more interceptions in the Super Bowl runner-up year of 2006, but injury limited him to 12 games over 2007-2008 and his performance on the field suffered.  When healthy, Vasher was a legitimate playmaker who fit well in Lovie’s defense.  Unfortunately for the Bears, the version of Vasher they had after signing him to a $28 million extension in 2007 was the oft-injured one.

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The Other Guys at CB…

Jerry Azumah was the dangerous speedster wearing #23 before Hester came along and in 2003, Azumah made it to the Pro Bowl as a return man.  Azumah was a solid corner who had four interceptions that year and was the team’s third-leading tackler behind Tillman and Urlacher, but it was the return game that set him apart.  In ’03 Azumah was one of the league leaders in total kick return yards and yards per return, scoring two TDs on the year.

R.W. McQuarters also was a guy who added value to the return game in addition to his cornerback duties, returning punts for TDs in 2003 and 2004.  During his five-year stint with the Bears (2000-2004) McQuarters’ time at cornerback yielded two touchdowns off of interceptions, one of which was memorable for me.  In the last week of the 2000 season in a game that the Lions needed to win to advance to the playoffs, R-Dub picked off Stoney Case and took it 61 yards to the house as I gleefully watched among the Pontiac Silverdome crowd.

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Mike Brown, FS

Without question one of my favorite Bears of the decade and a guy that we remember fondly thanks in part to our recent safety woes, is Mike Brown.  The hard-hitting, fiery competitor was drafted by the Bears out of Nebraska with the 39th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft and proceeded to start all 16 games at free safety.

In the first four seasons of Brown’s tenure with the Bears there wasn’t really any concern about the injuries that eventually defined his career, as he started 63 of 64 games from 2000-2003.  An Achilles injury in 2004 started the string of bad luck for Brown and he would miss 14 games that year.  In 2005 it was a calf injury that did him in late in the season, preventing Brown from playing against the Panthers in a Divisional round contest that was the first of several Steve Smith torch jobs vs the Bears.

In 2006 it was the dreaded Lisfranc injury that Brown fell victim to and in 2007 a knee injury in the first week of the regular season ended his year.  Unreal.  One of the Bears best defenders and one of the more physically imposing safeties while in his prime couldn’t stay healthy during the Bears championship window, never playing a full season from 2004-2008.  In 2009 Brown played in Kansas City and, you guessed it, started all 16 games.

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Tony Parrish, SS

Lining up at strong safety next to Mike Brown is the guy who Brown started his career playing with, Tony Parrish.  As we all are well aware, the inability to find and keep an effective safety tandem has proved more difficult in recent years than any other roster problem the Bears have.  Throughout the 2000s several players came and went at safety for the Bears and a few I considered for this spot, but I opted to favor old school toughness and thus Parrish gets the nod.

Parrish was drafted by the Bears in 1998 but had his most productive seasons in Chicago in 2000 and 2001 after Mike Brown and Brian Urlacher joined the team.  Parrish started all 32 games over those two years and tallied six INTs, one return TD and three sacks.  Nothing mind-blowing, but his two years in the decade were as steady and productive as any two-year stretch of the other potential candidates for this spot.

The Other Guys at Safety…

Speaking of the other potentials to line up with Brown in the back-end of the defense, Danieal Manning and Chris Harris were the only other real possibilities.  The two of them together were an effective safety tandem in the 2005-2006 stretch when the Bears defense was dominating, and Manning also contributed as a kick return man.  Some names we would rather forget: Adam Archuleta, Kevin Payne and Al Afalava.

Next: All-Decade Team Recap