'The Bears are who we thought they were!' An oral history of a magical Monday night

October 16, 2006. Glendale, Ariz. — A little after 9 p.m. Mountain time, a night’s worth of energy and hysteria had turned to disbelief. All around University of Phoenix Stadium, this newly opened retractable roof gem in the desert, the shock proved palpable.

Glowing from the scoreboards, the night’s final result made no sense.

Bears 24, Cardinals 23? Really?

But how?

In the closing seconds of the third quarter, the Cardinals had led the undefeated Bears by 20 points.

In the final game book being distributed throughout the press box, the Bears’ offensive drive chart showed 14 possessions. Six turnovers. Six three-and-outs. One measly field-goal drive.

And three final kneel-downs in victory formation.


Inside ESPN‘s “Monday Night Football” broadcast booth, Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser cleaned up their desk and collected their thoughts. Had they really just seen a team rally from 20 down midway through the second half to win? Without scoring an offensive touchdown?

All three broadcasters seemed more entranced by the Cardinals’ unraveling than by the Bears’ spirited rally.

“It’s impossible to believe they lost his game,” Kornheiser said aloud, his head shaking like a bobblehead.

“They live where there are snakes,” Theismann quipped. “And they’re snakebitten.”

In the visiting locker room, meanwhile, the 6-0 Bears relished their euphoria and kept an eye on the televisions overhead.

Elsewhere in the stadium’s underbelly, Cardinals coach Dennis Green marched toward his postgame news conference with steam pouring from his ears. Little did Green know he was stomping into YouTube infamy, about to provide the fitting exclamation point on the Bears’ most memorable victory of their most memorable season in the 21st century.

In a 13-win season that ultimately led the Bears to the Super Bowl, no experience was more invigorating than that Monday night in the desert.

Ten years later, the emotions still resonate.

The stage

The buzz around Arizona was undeniable. Not only were the undefeated Bears in town and not only were the Cardinals hosting a “Monday Night Football” game for the first time since 1999, but rookie quarterback Matt Leinart was preparing to make his second career start. The Bears joined the Colts as one of only two undefeated teams. And Lovie Smith‘s team wasn’t just unbeaten. It was virtually unchallenged. Four of the Bears’ first five wins had come by at least 24 points, including a 26-0 thrashing of Brett Favre and the Packers at Lambeau Field in the opener. No team in the league had scored more points (31.2 ppg). No team had allowed fewer (7.2). A week earlier, the Bears hung 40 points on the Bills in a runaway home win.

Olin Kreutz, Bears Pro Bowl center: We saw coming out of camp that we were a legitimate Super Bowl team. Obviously there were other years we felt that too. But to back that up, you have to win. You have to gain momentum. You need to have some success on the field to see who you are. So as we were blowing people away, we had this feeling building like, “Damn, man, we are really, really good.” Then we went to Arizona.

Zach Zaidman, Bears sideline reporter for WBBM-AM 780: You have to understand the roll the Bears were on. They were arguably playing their best football all-around since 1985.

Antrel Rolle, Cardinals cornerback: That night, even well before kickoff, was electrifying. … The night had this whole playoff feel to it.

Lovie Smith, Bears head coach: After five games, we had an idea of what type of team we were. So it was our ideal time to showcase to the national audience who we were, what type of team we had.

But the Cardinals had belief in their left-handed rookie, a Heisman Trophy winner, a two-time national champion at Southern California and the No. 10 overall pick in that spring’s draft. Still, no one could have expected his Monday night explosion. Seven consecutive completions to open the game. An 11-yard touchdown pass to Bryant Johnson on the Cardinals’ first drive. Another TD toss — 26 yards to Anquan Boldin — later in the quarter, plus other two field-goal drives.

Kent Somers, Cardinals beat writer for the Arizona Republic: Coming out of the draft that April, everybody here felt like the Cardinals had finally gotten lucky and landed a player they didn’t expect to fall to them. A quarterback too. On draft day, when Denny called Leinart to say “We’re taking you,” Denny told him right out, “I feel like we got a gift from heaven.” That was the feeling. … Especially here in Pac-10 country, this was the golden boy. He had the looks and the success.

Smith: First things first, they were really pumped up. They certainly didn’t come out playing like a team that had won only one game. “Monday Night Football” will do that to you.

Charles Barkley (as a guest in the “Monday Night Football” booth, after Grossman’s second quarter interception): I told y’all. Arizona’s going to shock the world.

Smith: We ran the ball well all year. That was a big reason we went all the way to the Super Bowl. But that night? They shut us down. They did as much as you could possibly do defensively to win a football game.

Kreutz: We were getting handled as an offensive line. If I remember correctly, they were outnumbering us in the box. … They were really stuffing us. And we never could get our pass game going.

Grossman: Throughout my career playing quarterback, it just seemed like it was either really easy or really hard. … Murphy’s Law for me on that day. I just could not do anything. It was like a pitcher that gets yanked in the second inning. It just was not my day, and in a lot of cases not our day, but I’ll take the heat for a lot of it.

Theismann (on the broadcast after Grossman’s fourth pick, in the second half): If he was home in Chicago right now, they’d be booing louder than they did in the preseason. He has played very, very poorly tonight. He’s thrown the ball poorly and his decisions have been bad.

Grossman: For me, it was a nationally televised game that created a narrative that I never really quite got over, as far as public perception that the Bears only went to the Super Bowl because they have defense. I think that was the nail in the coffin as far as a perception-is-reality situation.

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The speech

Over the first five weeks of the season, the Bears hadn’t faced a halftime deficit and had outscored opponents 90-12 in the first two quarters, evidence of a team that knew how to put its foot on the gas and not let up. So you can imagine the frustration that set in as the Cardinals pummeled them on a prime-time stage. The retreat to the locker room at halftime that night was unlike any that team had experienced.

Barkley, (in the booth, as the Cardinals settled for a field goal on their final first half possession): When you’ve got momentum and you’re playing at home, you’ve got to go for the jugular. … I’m going to make a prediction. Twenty isn’t going to be enough to win this game.

Zaidman: Lovie was furious. I would talk to the head coach at halftime live on the air every game. And in Lovie’s time up to that point, it was the first time I could feel real emotion from him, compared to all the other vanilla halftime interviews we’d ever done. You could tell he was riled up, that he was ticked off. His voice was getting higher. The emotion was real.

Smith: I have a vivid recollection of coming into halftime. I had grabbed Olin, Brian, some of our captains. I said, “Hey, I need you guys to take the team right away and our coaching staff will start meeting. Just let the guys know we’re not out of this. We’ve played about as bad as we could possibly play and we’re only down 20-0. We have a chance.” And in my mind, that one point meant something to me. I was thinking, hey, we get three touchdowns, we’re up.

The first firework came on the final snap of the third quarter with a Mark Anderson strip-sack of Leinart and a 3-yard fumble return touchdown by safety Mike Brown.

Smith: The Chicago Bears should always have a player like that.

With the Cardinals becoming increasingly conservative on offense, the Bears ganged up against the run. On a second-down run with a little more than 5 minutes left, James ran into a wall of Bears defenders and couldn’t keep Urlacher’s claws off the football.

Urlacher: I knew it was a run. Because they ran the ball every single play in the second half. They took the ball out of Leinart’s hands. The first half he shredded us. But with their lead, they took the ball out of his hands. And we just started playing an eight-man front every play. I honestly felt like I wasn’t blocked most of the time that night. On that fumble, it just seemed like the ball was right there for me. And I just pushed to rip it out.

Tillman: I saw Edgerrin James was stuffed and I’m noticing Brian just unleashing a very aggressive strip attempt. That ball comes right out and it landed right there for me. I’m like, “Merry Christmas. Thank you. See you all later.”

Smith: You’re talking takeaways now, right? For Brian to yank the ball out, he’s tearing the ball from a great player’s hands. And then, where have we heard this before? Charles Tillman involved with a takeaway? And scoring a touchdown? We’ve seen and heard that many times.

Tillman: I’m running and I see (Cardinals tight end Leonard) Pope running with me. I’m like, “Don’t get caught. Don’t get caught.” And I hit that end zone (after a 40-yard fumble return) and it’s like, “I just scored a touchdown! On Monday Night Football! We’re going to win this game!”

Urlacher: We only had two takeaways. But they were both touchdowns. … That was us. We were that good on defense that year. If we needed a pick, we’d get a pick. If we needed a touchdown, we’d score a touchdown.

Kruczek: Brian Urlacher. Great football player. But we gave him a chance. We never kept him off balance in the second half with what we did. And he took advantage of it. He did what he did best. When he was coming downhill, he was a wrecking ball.

Kreutz: I’ve said this a lot and people say I’m biased. But there’s never been a linebacker like him. There has never been a guy who is that big and that fast who could dominate an entire game like he did. I don’t know what you’d classify as the highest level of appreciation in this game, but that’s what I had for Urlacher when I was playing with him.

Smith: That game may have been as good as he’s ever played.

Urlacher: Tackles-wise, it was certainly one of my better games. But it’s hard for me to compare. … But a Monday night game? Pretty damn big.

Tillman: When Brian was dialed in, it was so cool to be a part of it. I had the absolute best view in the house of watching it up close and personal. It was beautiful.

Zaidman: When Urlacher goes into the Hall of Fame, all they need to do is stick a tape in of his performance from that night. That’s proof enough. He was everywhere. Everywhere.

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The return

In mid-October 2006, Devin Hester had barely begun inching his way toward the top of the NFL’s career return touchdowns list. He was, in Week 6, simply an eager rookie with all of 21 career regular-season punt returns to his name. The fourth of those was an 84-yard touchdown at Lambeau Field five weeks earlier. Thus, Hester had the Cardinals’ attention. And he had his own hunger for the big moment. After the Bears delivered a key third-and-12 stop with 3:17 left, Hester and the punt return unit took the field. The Bears trailed 23-17.

Hester: My only mindset was to break one. I’m saying to myself, “This is my time now. Everybody else is making plays. When are you going to make a play, Devin? Everybody else is playing ball. It’s your time, so step up.”

Zaidman: Once upon a time, the punt return was a time where if you were watching at home, it was your break to go to the fridge, go to the bathroom, go wherever and come back. Then Devin got here. And suddenly every return was must-see.

Hester: When I think back to that first game in Green Bay, that first opportunity for me playing in the NFL, to take that one back to the house was big for me. That was big for the special teams. I showed those guys what I was capable of doing. And that motivated all of us as a group to go out and break one each and every week.

Rolle: Back up. I’ll tell you the most electric play I’ve seen from him. It was in college when we were at the University of Miami. He might have been a freshman. We’re playing Florida. And Devin has a kick return where I swear to you I’ve never seen a man move that fast with a ball in his hands. It was like he was Forrest Gump out there. That’s what it reminded me of. Like everyone else was standing still and he was just slashing through. You knew right away that guy was dynamic, that he had something special.

Player: Unfortunately on that last punt, we had a protection breakdown. I was going to go right with the ball. But the protection breakdown was coming at my right leg. So I had to change my angle and sling the ball back toward the middle of the field. Which caused the ball to carry. So one series of events led to a whole chain of events. If I had stayed on my angle going right, the punt could have been blocked.

Hester: He put a foot into it, man, and kicked it pretty deep. I was backing up to catch it and just wanted to follow my blockers.

Smith: You can’t on that stage, let a great one have a ball like that.

Kreutz: I remember Hester catching that ball in the middle of the field and nudging Ruben (Brown) and saying, “I think he’s gone.”

Player: I was bewildered. It didn’t look like our (coverage) guys were running. I know it was late in the fourth quarter. People were worn out. But every time you go out there on special teams, you have to go balls to the wall and find a way to get the guy. It was like a 50-something yard punt. I hit it good. And he even caught the ball backing up. So there was plenty of time. It was over 5 seconds before he started moving forward with the ball. … We didn’t have a guy within 10-15 yards of him. I don’t know what happened with that.

Rolle: Pfffffft. There was the ball in his hands. I was livid at this point. Because I already knew what was going to happen.

Player: If it was flag (football), I might have got him down grabbing a flag. But he was wide open by the time he got to me. I’m surprised I even got to touch him at all.

Hester: The only thing in my mind was, “Do not get caught.”

Player: It’s like trying to catch a bullet out of a gun.

Hester: That feeling there, man, was one of the best feelings in the game. Coming back from a deficit like that, I get in that end zone and it’s like, “Man, we can pull this thing off.”

Player: I remember looking up at the video board and there was this big picture of me just laughing. Not that anything was funny. Just this pure disbelief. The whole series of events was comical.

Hester: I still have the touchdown ball and a couple photos of that return. They’re at my house, in a display case.

Toub: I have a tape of all his touchdowns in my office. And every once in a while I go back and watch them. I’m just amazed. Still. That one was special.

Player: Hindsight now? Maybe it would have been better to get the punt blocked. The Bears could have recovered it there and not scored. Because their offense wasn’t doing anything all night.

Anderson: That’s the last thing I remember. Hester scoring and that was it. And we were celebrating. Like the game was over.

Kornheiser (on the broadcast, after Hester’s TD): If you’re a sports columnist now, and you’re getting ready to write, it is very hard for you not to put the words “choke” and “Arizona” in the first sentence.

Tirico (on the broadcast, at the 2-minute warning): Those comparisons are made to the ’85 Bears. Mythical teams. A win like this is a mythical type win. From down 23-3, the Bears have come back, without an offensive score and have the lead with 2 (minutes) to go.

Kruczek: That’s the thing people forget. The game wasn’t over. There’s still 2 minutes and change left and Matt (Leinart) is waiting for one more opportunity.

Smith: I’m thinking to myself, they still have time. And lo and behold, Leinart moves them right down the field.

Kruczek: It’s a brilliant 2-minute drive. Matt’s locked in. … With all things considered — this was his second start, the stress we were under — it really was an impressive drive. … And that’s all you can ask for. Considering what had taken place the previous 27 minutes, it was crazy how relaxed he was. Right down the field.

Now if you want to crown them, then crown their ass! But they are who we thought they were! And we let ’em off the hook!

>> Watch the full rant here

Somers: We were on a very tight deadline that night. So I’m up in the press box writing away and I never made it down to Denny’s postgame press conference. Next thing I know, our columnist Paola Boivin comes back up and we’re comparing notes really quickly. She looks at me and says, “Well, Denny kind of went off.” Then I see the replay and I’m thinking, “Kind of? Kind of?”

Urlacher: You see that and you’re thinking to yourself, “Whoa. This dude is pissed.”

Zaidman: It had gotten quiet in the Bears locker room. There’s a bunch of Bears players just staring up at the live feed (of the news conference) and listening. And Denny pounds the lectern and delivers his rant and storms off. And I’ll never forget this hush that was all across the Bears locker room. And then it just erupted. Somebody yells, “Go, Bears!” and the celebration gets even more raucous than it already was.

Kreutz: Watching that in the locker room, that was funny to us. We were cheering him on, to say the least. … It made that win all that much better. You always love to see the frustration in someone losing because you beat them in their house.

Grossman: I don’t know why he was taking it out on, or even talking about, the Bears. They lost the game. They played amazing — and lost. I didn’t take it personally because I thought we were going to be crowned. And we were crowned NFC champions. I do have an NFC champion ring that I can crown myself with.

Kornheiser: I know that everybody thinks Denny Green melted down. In that moment, I never thought that at all. Denny was 100 percent right. He devised a game plan to beat the Bears. And they were going to beat the Bears. And when he said, “If you want to crown their asses, then crown their ass,” he was saying “Look, they’re not invincible. We were there with them for 58 minutes.” So when everybody was fixated on the notion that Denny went ballistic, I thought he was completely within the bounds of what happened.

Kruczek: Denny had been so spot-on with his vision for the game. He had always been a players’ coach, very supportive of his players and staff. And he knew going in the chance we had. I think that had an affect on him more than most losses. Coaches take all losses the same most of the time. This one was different.

Rolle: They say you’re supposed to take a day or two to stomach a loss and then move on to the next game. But that one took awhile. It really did. That one took awhile.

Player: I truly believe that if we win that game, everybody’s career takes a whole different spin. That loss, in my opinion, was just devastating. It sucked the life out of him as a coach. And the morale of our team was just gone after that.

Urlacher: If we didn’t already know it, we proved to ourselves that night that we could win in different ways. We won a damn game 24-23 without scoring an offensive touchdown. That showed us that whatever we needed to do to win a game, we could do.

Smith: As classic and exciting a game as you’ll ever be a part of. And you look at the players who made the plays. Your big players, in the big games, are supposed to really rise to the occasion on that national stage. And it’s Brian Urlacher. Mike Brown. Charles Tillman. Devin Hester. … Some things are just meant to be.

Urlacher: I’ll never forget all the Bears fans that were there that night. It was incredible. And so many of them didn’t leave. But the funny part is that I had rented a box there that night. I had a lot of friends and other people coming to that game. And I had a bunch of buddies who were in from Vegas. And come to find out later, they all left in the middle of the third quarter and went back to Vegas. They got back and couldn’t figure out what happened. Screw them. Leaving the game early.

Kreutz: For me, that night was special in that it showed a team that was going to fight together all the way until the end. We were in a position deep into that game where we could have said, “Oh, well. It’s Arizona’s night. It’s Monday night. We’ll take this loss and leave at 5-1.” But that team wasn’t going to accept that. To a man, 5-1 wasn’t going to be good enough.

Smith: That flight home was all adrenaline. Everybody realized what had happened. There have been a lot of great Monday night games. But man, just watching a game and saying, “How did that happen?” Man, this is one you remember.

Hester: Down 20 points at halftime, man. So were we going to lay down and make it a priority to come out of that game injury-free? Or would we continue to fight and say, hey, we’re not laying down for nobody. That’s what we did.

Zaidman: It’s without question the greatest game I’ve ever seen in person. You win a game like this, you believe you can do anything. Who comes back down 20-0 at halftime without any offense? You needed amazing play after amazing play after amazing play.

Smith: We were pumped up after the game and I said it. Hey, we’re a team of destiny. And you want to stop yourself right away. But that’s how you feel. When things like that happen, you feel like it’s a team of destiny.

Tillman: Honestly, that’s the best football memory I have from my entire career, on the field. It’s that game right there. Because when you talk about team and playing for the man next to you, that’s what that game represents. … You take the adrenaline and us believing and put that all together and it’s scary because you saw what 53 guys can do when they really focus and put their minds to it. It was beautiful. It was so beautiful.

Smith: I can still feel it. I can. That’s that drug of football that you can never replace. There’s no medicine to cure those feelings you have. That’s why we stay in the game, because of moments like that, wins like that.


Twitter @danwiederer

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A Bears special section cover from the Oct. 17, 2006 Chicago Tribune. 

Chicago Tribune Bears Special Section Cover October 16, 2006

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