Mike Ditka, who lost a half-dozen key players to retirement, free agency and injury and himself suffered a heart attack at midseason, was named The Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year today.
Ditka led the Chicago Bears to a 12-4 record and their fifth straight division title. It was the second time the award has gone to Ditka, who also won in 1985, when Chicago won the its first Super Bowl.That year, the Bears overwhelmed their opponents en route to a 15-1 regular-season mark and three lopsided playoff victories. This year was a struggle from the start as Ditka had to paste together a team that included 13 rookies.
"You talk about a guy who epitomizes the fighter who staggered in the corner but came out slugging," says Dave McGinnis, the team's linebacker coach.
Chicago was picked by many forecasters to finish behind the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Central after losing running back Walter Payton and safety Gary Fencik to retirement and linebacker Wilber Marshall to the Washington Redskins in the first major free agent transfer in a decade.
That was compounded by season-ending injuries to linebacker Otis Wilson and defensive tackle William Perry and by Ditka's heart attack, suffered Nov. 2. Ditka was back on the sidelines just 11 days later as the Bears beat the Redskins 34-14 in Washington.
But with all the problems, Chicago still managed to tie Cincinnati and Buffalo for the best record in the NFL, 12-4, and will have the home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Ditka got 33 votes in the balloting by writers and broadcasters who cover each of the NFL's 28 teams. Buffalo's Marv Levy had 23 and Cincinnati's Sam Wyche was third with 19.