The Bears say good-bye to 4-3


(Photos courtesy of the Bill Smith, Chicago Bears)

By Rick Gosselin

Talk of Fame Network

And then there was none.

The Houston Oilers with Bum Phillips as head coach and Curley Culp as the nose tackle started a trend in the NFL in the 1970s that would produce Super Bowl championships and defensive brilliance. Phillips slid Culp over the center and dropped a lineman back, creating a 3-4 defensive front for offenses to block.

The explosion of stand-up edge rushers in the 1980s -- the Lawrence Taylors, Cornelius Bennetts and Pat Swillings -- encouraged more and more teams to try the 3-4 scheme. The 49ers, Patriots, Ravens and Steelers would all win Super Bowls playing a 3-4.

But through it all, three teams remained faithful to the 4-3: the Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins. All continued to win championships with that traditional scheme. The Bears won in 1985, the Redskins won three times under Joe Gibbs and so did the Cowboys under Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer.

By 1985, only five teams were still playing the 4-3: the Bears, Cowboys, Redskins plus the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles. Teams switched back and forth between a 3-4 and 4-3 throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. The Atlanta Falcons, in fact, switched seven times from 3-4 to a 4-3 and back over the last three decades.

But the Bears, Cowboys and Redskins remained loyal to the 4-3. Until 2005.

The Cowboys hired Bill Parcells in 2004, and he played a 4-3 for one season before switching to his preferred 3-4 scheme. Who was Jerry Jones to argue with a Super Bowl champion coach? Then in 2010 the Redskins hired Mike Shanahan, and he went with a 3-4. Who was Daniel Snyder to argue with a Super Bowl champion coach?

That left only the Bears faithful to the 4-3. But not any longer.

The hiring of John Fox as head coach this offseason means a change on defense. Fox brought in Vic Fangio as his coordinator, and the 3-4 is his defense of choice. Fangio coordinated San Francisco’s 3-4 scheme the last four seasons, and the 49ers have ranked in the Top 5 in defense each of the last three years, with a trip to a Super Bowl. Fangio has been a 3-4 loyalist dating to his days with the Saints in the 1980s.

But schemes don’t win. Players do. The right combination of players in a 4-3 is as powerful a force as the right combination of players in a 3-4.

Since 1979, 4-3 defenses have led the NFL 19 times and 3-4 schemes have led 17 times. Those 4-3 schemes have won Super Bowls of late (2014 Patriots, 2013 Seahawks, 2011 Giants), but so have 3-4 alignments (2012 Ravens, 2010 Packers and 2008 Steelers).

The Bears have a couple natural pieces already in place for a 3-4. Jeremiah Ratliff was a Pro Bowl nose tackle with the Cowboys who can now return to his normal position in Chicago with the switch in defenses. And free-agent end Ray McDonald gives Fangio the same bulk at end that McDonald gave Fangio in San Francisco these last few seasons.

But can Jared Allen, at age 33, make the transition to outside linebacker after having spent the previous decade as one of the game’s most dominant forces as an end in a 4-3? Lamarr Houston also must take a step back in the alignment, from end to outside backer. His 300 pounds is a lot to carry in space. In addition, newcomer Mason Foster and holdover Jon Bostic must learn the responsibilities of new linebacker positions.

Do the Bears have the players to execute a 3-4? That makes Chicago one of the better story lines this summer as the Bears become the last of the 4-3 teams to say good-bye.