Great Performance in Bears History

During his rookie year Walter Payton showed flashes of great ability, but none were more apparent than against the Saints.

The Bears' December 28, 1975 regular-season finale against the New Orleans Saints certainly was the bow-wow game of Week 14 (back then, teams were on a 14-game schedule).

Chicago went into the match-up at the new Louisiana Superdome tied with Green Bay in the NFC Central (both had 3-10 records), and needed a victory to at least guarantee that it would not dwell in last place alone. Meanwhile, the Saints and beleaguered quarterback Archie Manning, who had been sacked 50 times prior to meeting the Bears, were bringing up the rear in the Western Division -- a spot New Orleans all-too-often occupied during the 1970s.

Talk about post-holiday blues.

The season was coming to an end mercifully for both clubs, but a crack of light could be seen bursting out of the cellar. A rookie running back named Walter Payton, whom the Bears chose with the No. 4 pick in the '75 NFL draft out of Jackson State (Mississippi) College, was beginning to display first-round draft choice potential.

The previous month, Payton recorded the first 100-yard rushing game of his pro career in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers. But his return to the Deep South set the stage for his NFL housewarming party.

Payton must have had Saints defenders seeing double by the time he called it a day. He rushed for 134 yards on 25 carries (including a 54-yard TD run) and caught five passes from quarterback Bob Avellini for 62 yards. Back then, Payton also ran back kickoffs, which netted him an additional 104 yards on just two attempts.

The man who would affectionately be called Sweetness ended up with 679 yards on the ground for the year -- a figure that made him the Bears' most productive running back since Gale Sayers went over 1,000 yards in 1969.

And the rest, as they say, is history. The late Walter Payton went on to become the NFL's all-time leading rusher, a mark he held until Emmitt Smith broke the record last year. He was named to the Pro Bowl nine times, holds 28 team records and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1993.

Payton finished with 300 yards of total offense that late December Sunday in the Big Easy. The game, won by the Bears 47-17, not only launched Payton into NFL greatness; it also helped break a cycle of losing that had plagued the team for years.

The following year, Chicago finished 7-7 -- its first .500 season since 1968 -- as Payton amassed 1,390 yards. Then in 1977, the Bears went 9-5 and appeared in the postseason for the first time since their 1963 NFL championship campaign.

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