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Whether the 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens or 2002 Bucs can claim the NFL's best-ever defense, one thing is clear: Bears coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan rode herd on the most colorful cast of without-the-ball characters since facemasks became de rigueur.
There was end "Danimal," Dan Hampton, whose intensity was legendary. And linebacker Mike Singletary, who set the standard for wide, piercing eyes.
And tackle Steve McMichael planted a chair into a chalkboard the night before Super Bowl XX after Ryan gave what sounded like (and turned out to be) a farewell speech. "You know what we did after that?" safety Gary Fencik once told the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "We went on our milk-and-cookie break."
And there was tackle William Perry. He weighed in at what then was a rather large 325 pounds. He was nicknamed "Refrigerator" because he was as big as one and because anything inside one would not survive once he opened the door. The amiable, gap-toothed Fridge became a celebrity when Ditka used him as an offensive lineman near enemy goal lines, then became a phenomenon when he played fullback and scored a few touchdowns, running over defenses the way a tank flattens trees.
The defense, and an offense led by headband-wearing, helicopter-mooning quarterback Jim McMahon, made the Super Bowl Shuffle video even before the Bears shut out the Giants 21-0 and Rams 24-0 in the playoffs and crushed New England 46-10 in Super Bowl XX.
We caught up with Ditka on his cell phone on the Dan Ryan Expressway and asked Da Coach to assess this season's Bucs defense with his Class of '85, collectively and position-by-position. Here's what he thinks:
"Our defense had so many personalities. I think it became a national thing with the characters we had. I never tried to rein them in. I let the little stuff go because they got their work done. ... I've never seen a team have as much fun as that one.
"I think (Tampa Bay's) defense compares favorably to that one. I can't see why not. ... It's very well coached. I think philosophically what they do is very sound. They're going to take certain things away from you. They have a tendency to bend, not break. That's good. That's the way to play defense.
"The key to rating a defense basically is how many points you give up, period." The Bucs gave up a league-low 196 this season; Philadelphia was second at 241.
"The Bucs certainly have shut down a lot of fine teams. Holding the 49ers offense to six points is pretty impressive, believe me. I'm not really impressed with the 49ers defense, but their offense I always felt would be able to carry them. Then (the Bucs) came out and shut 'em down. Plus, they kept (San Francisco's) offense off the field by running the ball. They did the right things.
"The Bucs are a good, solid team. It's going to be a tough game for them up in Philadelphia because they've got to get over the mental thing of not being able to win in cold weather. That's got to be the furthest thing in their minds. They've just got to go up there and play football."
Here is Ditka's defensive position-by-position analysis (Bears player first):
Dan Hampton vs. Greg Spires
"Spires is good, but Dan Hampton's in the Hall of Fame. It's pretty hard to compare them."
Steve McMichael vs. Chartric Darby
"If (Anthony) McFarland was in there it would be a pretty even matchup. (McFarland broke his right foot Dec. 15.) Steve McMichael is a very underrated football player. He was outstanding for us, one of those guys who would sacrifice himself, tie up two guys, keep blockers off the linebackers, yet he had a tremendous tenacity on the field. He was mean. I don't know very much about Darby. I've watched him play. I know a little more about McFarland. I think McFarland's a better pass rusher than Steve was, but I don't know if he can play the run any better."
William Perry vs. Warren Sapp
"Sapp's got so much acclaim throughout the years. When I got the Fridge he was one of the best athletes I'd ever been around. That's why we used him in the ways we did (occasionally lining Perry up at fullback; Sapp has been a goal-line offensive lineman) and we had fun with him. He was a hell of a football player when his weight was where it should've been. When he got heavier he lost his ability to move. But in '85 he was hell. When I saw him come out of college it was like watching Sapp come out of college; these are guys you didn't want to have to block. You figure you'd rather have them on your team than trying to block them and that's been borne out over the years with both of them. I'd say Sapp probably has the advantage. He's a much better pass rusher than Fridge was."
Richard Dent vs. Simeon Rice
"Rice is a hell of a football player. Dent should be in the Hall of Fame. Richard was an outstanding football player, and I'm not really sure I understand why he's not in the Hall of Fame, why only two players off that defense are in there. I'm not taking anything away from Simeon but Richard Dent was a superior football player Maybe in time he will accomplish all the things that Richard did, but at this point, Richard was the far better of the two."
Otis Wilson vs. Al Singleton
"Al Singleton's good, but I had this conversation with somebody the other day about Otis. He was good, period. He was strong, he played in Buddy Ryan's defense about as good as you could. He didn't get the acclaim because we had Mike Singletary in the middle and Wilber Marshall on the other side."
Mike Singletary vs. Shelton Quarles
"When you compare a middle linebacker, and as good as the one you have down there is, I mean Mike Singletary is one of the best football players I've ever seen. He was the leader of our defense. He was a coach on the field, a tenacious tackler. We very seldom took him off the field. As good as Quarles is, and he is a good athlete, you can't make that comparison."
Wilber Marshall vs. Derrick Brooks
"They're both kind of the same player, impact players. They make things happen. They're difference makers. There was a time when I thought Wilber Marshall was the best outside linebacker in football when we had him. He would put some hurt on you. That's just the way he played the game. He wasn't a great man-to-man cover. We used him a lot in blitz situations because that was one of his strengths. Brooks is a much better all-around cover guy. I think Brooks is more effective in pass coverage, handling receivers."
Mike Richardson vs. Brian Kelly
"Kelly has the advantage. I don't think there's any question about it. Brian's a better football player now than Mike was. Richardson was a safety. We put him at corner, and he did a good job for us. He wasn't a great cover guy, but he was effective."
Leslie Frazier vs. Ronde Barber
"Ronde's a great football player, but I thought Les Frazier was as good a corner as there was in the league at that time. He made some plays that really solidified our run to the playoffs. There was one interception in Green Bay that might be the best I've ever seen, coming over the top of the receiver without interfering with him. His career was cut short; he got hurt in the Super Bowl game. I like Ronde; he makes plays and in that defense he's a very solid football player. But I would have to give the advantage to Frazier."
Dave Duerson vs. John Lynch
"When Lynch is around the line of scrimmage, he's so effective. When you're on offense you always have to account for him. If you don't know where he's at, he's going to make the play. Dave probably had better pass skills than John and not as good tackling skills."
Gary Fencik vs. Dexter Jackson
"I don't know that much about Jackson, but I know one thing: Gary Fencik also should be in the Hall of Fame. He was a hell of a football player, the guy who coordinated our secondary. When we asked him to come up to the line of scrimmage and make the plays, he made them. He was a lot like Lynch in that sense. He had no fear of hitting. I'd say Jackson probably has better range than Fencik did, though. I think Jackson probably would play the ball better than Fencik."