In The ’85 Bears, the new 30 for 30 documentary about the team that won Super Bowl XX, one man above all others emerges as the heart and soul of that great team. And it’s not Walter Payton, Mike Ditka, Jim McMahon or Refrigerator Perry.
The real star of The ’85 Bears, which premieres on ESPN on February 4, is Buddy Ryan, the team’s defensive coordinator and mastermind of the 46 defense. The film opens with recent footage of the 81-year-old Ryan undergoing physical therapy and looking frail and weak, but those scenes are contrasted with footage of the energetic Ryan on the practice field, and with interviews from his former players, who can’t stop gushing about how much they loved to play for him.
Ryan was hired as the Bears’ defensive coordinator in 1978, and his players loved him so much that they pleaded with George Halas to keep Ryan in charge of the defense when Halas hired Ditka as the head coach in 1982. They got their wish, and Chicago got what may have been the greatest defense in NFL history.
The documentary follows the familiar 30 for 30 format of combining old highlights with new interviews and narration (by Vince Vaughn, also one of its producers), and is reminiscent of The U, which chronicled the 1980s Miami Hurricanes football team and is probably the most popular installment in ESPN’s documentary series. At its best, The ’85 Bears captures just how fun a team those Bears were, with their brash personalities, their “Super Bowl Shuffle” and the way they enjoyed absolutely destroying opponents, beating teams by scores including 45-10, 44-0, 36-0, 21-0 and 24-0 on the way to Super Bowl XX, which they won 46-10. That team was a sight to behold.
The documentary does have its flaws, however, dragging at times and also failing to capture what made Payton such a beloved figure in Chicago: The movie focuses so much on Payton’s disappointment with not scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl that it makes him look selfish, when in reality Payton was always a good soldier while he toiled for years on bad Chicago teams before the Bears finally became winners late in his career.
That focus on Payton late in the documentary has the potential to turn an otherwise strong film into a downer, but the ending returns us to Ryan, and there it becomes uplifting, as his players become visibly moved as they read a letter from their old coach.
At a screening of The ’85 Bears in Chicago on Wednesday night, Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary addressed the crowd afterward and became choked up as he tried to describe how much Ryan meant to him. To hear the players tell it, the real star of that team was Ryan. And he’s certainly the star of this show.