Wendell Davis was a more than capable receiver in the days of Mike Ditka’s “smashmouth” offense
For those that remember the Mike Ditka years of the Chicago Bears, there was always a dominant defense and an offense predicated on the “smashmouth” fundamental of establishing a strong running identity. Passing was not the focal point and this was nothing new for a franchise that went nearly 30 years between 3,000 yard passers (1962 to 1991) and 25 years between 1,000 yard receivers (1970 to 1995). Wide receivers seldom approached 1,000 yards during Ditka’s tenure and it wasn’t for a lack of talent, with Willie Gault and Dennis McKinnon just a couple of the talented pass catchers on the roster. One receiver nearly eclipsed the mark in 1991: Wendell Davis.
Arrival as a 1st Round selection in the 1988 NFL Draft
In 1988, Chicago was in need of a wide receiver and selected Wendell Davis with the second of two 1st Round picks that year. Brad Muster (more on him in another article) was the first selection at #23 and then Davis at #27 with a pick acquired from the Washington Redskins as part of a deal for linebacker Wilber Marshall. Davis was a two-time All-American selection at Louisiana State University and was one of the top-rated wide receivers in the 1988 Draft.
Slow start, eventual ascension as a receiver
Davis got off to a slow start as a rookie in 1988. He found himself fourth on the depth chart behind veterans Dennis McKinnon, Dennis Gentry, and Ron Morris and only caught 15 passes for 220 and 0 touchdowns. 1989 saw him start seven games and catch 26 passes for 397 yards and 3 TDs. He improved again in 1990 starting 12 games and recording 39 catches for 572 yards and 3 TDs. That season also established him as a starter for the Bears.
Career year followed by career ending injury
In 1991, Wendell Davis nearly became the first and only receiver to break the 1,000 yard barrier during Ditka’s reign. He caught 61 passes for 945 yards and 6 TDs while starting all 16 games. Quarterback Jim Harbaugh also started all 16 games that season and produced the Bears first 3,000 yard season (3,121) since Billy Wade in 1962 (3,172). The Bears finished 11-5, but lost in the Wild Card Round to the Dallas Cowboys.
The next season saw the Bears struggle to a 5-11 mark, costing Mike Ditka his job after 11 seasons as head coach. Both sides of the ball struggled, but Davis still managed to catch 54 passes for 734 yards and 2 TDs in 15 starts.
1993 saw Dave Wannstedt arrive as head coach and Ron Turner as offensive coordinator. The offense struggled to move the ball and Davis only saw 20 targets in the first 5 games.
Disaster struck in the 5th game of that 1993 season at the Philadelphia Eagles. Playing on the awful Veterans Stadium turf, Davis blew out both of his knees when his feet stuck in the turf as he jumped for a pass. He would sit out the entire next season to recover. He attempted a comeback in 1995 with the Colts, but was unable to perform at his previous level.
Post-playing career and place in Bears history
After retiring as a player, Wendell Davis returned to the NFL as a wide receivers coach for the San Francisco 49ers with head coach Mike Singletary in 2009. He was released with the rest of the coaching staff when his former quarterback Jim Harbaugh was hired in 2011.
It’s difficult to say how Davis’ playing career would have continued had he not suffered such a devastating injury. However, the fact that he nearly eclipsed 1,000 yards in Mike Ditka’s run-oriented offense speaks volumes about his ability.
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