The Chicago Bears have seen great seasons from their own players many times over the years. Gale Sayers posted 22 touchdowns in just 12 games as a rookie in 1965. Walter Payton accounting for 2,121 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns in 1977. Devin Hester posted seven return touchdowns in 2007. Charles Tillman forcing 10 fumbles in 2012. The list is so impressive. Yet there are other seasons that fans tend not to remember.
There is one that goes painfully overlooked to this day. Former Jets and Dolphins GM Mike Tannenbaum alluded to it in a recent tweet. Using the Approximate Value system made by Pro Football Reference, he posted the 10 highest-rated seasons the NFL has seen in the past 40 years. There were some obvious ones. LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006. Tom Brady in 2007. Darrell Revis in 2009. Yet right there nestled in the group was a familiar face.
Wilber Marshall in 1986.
Top 10 single season performances by AV since 1980
🔺Marshall Faulk (‘99)
🔺LaDainian Tomlinson (‘06)
🔺Lamar Jackson (‘19)
🔺Tom Brady (‘07)
🔺Derrick Brooks (‘02)
🔺Stephon Gilmore (‘19)
🔺Ray Lewis (‘00)
🔺Wilber Marshall (‘86)
🔺Randall McDaniel (‘95)
🔺Darrelle Revis (‘09)
— Mike Tannenbaum (@RealTannenbaum) June 12, 2021
Most Bears fans remember him fondly as a member of the fabled 1985 defense. A core piece to that historic unit and its “46” blitz system. While Marshall was really good that year, his masterpiece actually came a season later in ’86. Not only did the Bears set the single-season record for points allowed, Marshall put up production that shouldn’t be possible for a linebacker.
In 16 games, he had 105 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 3 recovered fumbles, 5 interceptions, and a defensive touchdown. The guy was everywhere. He could not be stopped no matter what opposing offenses tried to do. That season earned him a rating of 23 on the AV scale. That remains the highest a Bears linebacker has ever produced. The only one to get close was Brian Urlacher with a 20 during his All-Pro year in 2001.
Chicago Bears forever ruined Marshall’s legacy
An incredible season to be sure. So why does nobody remember it? The most likely explanation is because Marshall didn’t stick around in Chicago much longer. After another good year in 1987, the linebacker was hoping to get a lucrative new contract from the Bears after his outstanding play the previous four seasons. Rightfully so. However, the organization wasn’t willing to meet the price. A five-year deal for $6 million.
So the Washington Redskins signed him instead. Though the Chicago Bears did end up with two 1st round picks in that deal as compensation, Marshall got the last laugh. He won a second Super Bowl with Washington in 1991 and continued to play at an All-Pro level for years after he left. The Bears were never able to replace him and the defense continued a steady decline over the following years.
Want to know where their reputation for being cheap came from?
It was moments like that. Not willing to pay a great player who was ascending in his career. This in an era where the salary cap didn’t exist and the team was raking in cash as they continued to string together winning seasons. If Marshall had been rewarded as he deserved and stayed in Chicago? It is likely that the amazing 1986 run would be talked about way more today among Bears historians. Such is the reality of business in the NFL.