Would Payton Have Ever Left Chicago?

LeBron James ripped the hearts out of Cleveland fans Thursday, announcing before a prime-time TV audience that he is headed to Miami. Would Walter Payton have ever left the Chicago Bears?

Just think, Bears fans, if Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton had decided to leave Chicago seven seasons into his career.

That's what Akron native and northeast-Ohio enthusiast LeBron James did Thursday to Cleveland, yet another kick in the balls to what is arguably the most tortured sports city in the country, as "The Chosen One" fell on his Cavaliers sword after seven years and bolted for the glitz and glamour of South Beach to form a supposed super team with fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Selected No. 4 overall in the 1975 NFL Draft out of Jackson State, Payton quickly developed into one of the game's elite ball carriers and made the Pro Bowl five of his first six seasons. After the 1981 campaign – his seventh in the Windy City – was complete, he had led the league four times in carries, twice in yards from scrimmage and won a rushing crown in 1977 with a career-best 1,852 yards. He could run and he could catch and he could throw, and, at only 5-10 and 200 pounds, No. 34 may have been the toughest S.O.B. to ever put on a pair of Roos.

While Payton was born in Columbia, Mississippi, one of the most passionate and loyal fan bases in all of sports would tell you he belonged to Chicago.

But in terms of team success, after seven individually-incredible seasons authored by Payton, the Bears had a cumulative record of 50-56 to show for it. Only twice did they qualify for the playoffs, winning what was then the NFC Central in 1977 with a mark of 9-5 and then again in 1979 at 10-6, but both times Payton and Co. were one-and-done in the postseason. Despite having perhaps the game's premier player in his prime, the Monsters of the Midway just couldn't compete with the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had won four Super Bowls in Payton's first six years as a pro.

James has been every bit as magnificent on the hardwood through seven seasons as Payton was on the gridiron. The 6-8, 250-pounder is averaging 28 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists per contest for his career, which is a remarkable box score for a single night, let alone a 548-game stretch. He has been an All-Star six times, an MVP twice and is the NBA's active scoring leader in terms of points per game.

As a team, the Cavaliers have accomplished a lot more in seven seasons with James than the Bears did in seven seasons with Payton. They have qualified for the playoffs five years in a row, and their combined record of 127-37 in 2008-09 and 2009-10 is tops in the league. In 2006-07, James led the Cavs to their one and only NBA Finals appearance in franchise history, and although they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs, upsetting the perennial Eastern Conference champion Detroit Pistons in the previous round was an accomplishment in itself.

Sure, James was yet to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy. But even Michael Jordan – unquestionably the greatest basketball player of all time – didn't win it all with the Chicago Bulls until he was 27 years old. James is still only 25.

Looking ahead at 1982, there wasn't much for Payton to be excited about in Chicago. His coach, Neill Armstrong, had assembled a forgettable 30-34 record in four years and wouldn't return. His quarterback, Vince Evans, was coming off a year in which he completed only 44.7 percent of his passes and put together a miserable touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11-to-20. On the other side of the ball, the Bears were a below-average defense, finishing 19th in the NFL in yards allowed and 15th in points allowed – and this was with 28 teams, not 32 like today.

RB Walter Payton
George Rose/Getty

But Payton had a new boss in 1982: Mike Ditka. He also got a new signal caller: Jim McMahon. The next April, the Bears had what many believe to be the best draft class ever, selecting tackle Jimbo Covert, receiver Willie Gault, cornerback Mike Richardson, safety Dave Duerson, guards Tom Thayer and Mark Bortz and end Richard Dent. All seven developed into top-notch starters, with Covert and Dent making six Pro Bowl appearances between them. Those two are worthy of being enshrined in the Hall of Fame – Dent has been a finalist six times.

In 1984, the Bears won what turned out to be the first of five consecutive division titles.

In 1985, well, you know.

Yes, I'm quite aware of the fact that this is an apples-and-oranges comparison. Free agency didn't exist in the NFL until 1990, three years after Payton retired. Even if he wanted to leave for theoretically-greener pastures elsewhere, actually doing so would not have been easy.

That being said, had free agency been a part of the NFL landscape eight years earlier, before Ditka, before McMahon, before the 1983 draftees, I have a hard time believing Payton would have reached for the nearest parachute and let Chicago go down in flames. Can you imagine Payton conspiring with Steve Largent, Anthony Munoz and Lawrence Taylor for two years – structuring their contracts accordingly as far back as four years, like James, Wade and Bosh apparently did – so they could form a super team with Joe Montana and Co. in San Francisco? Say it ain't so, Sweetness.

Fittingly, Payton ended up playing for what some believe to be the most dominant, memorable and revered team the NFL has ever seen, going 15-1 in 1985, pitching back-to-back shutouts to get to Super Bowl XX and then destroying the overmatched New England Patriots 46-10 for the rights to the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Already the league's all-time leading rusher and a first-ballot lock for Canton, Payton was finally a champion and secured his legacy as one of the legends of the game. For a city that has experienced its share of iconic sports figures, the late Payton remains Chicago's most beloved.

While James may have never achieved such status in Cleveland, not without winning a championship, even a fist full of rings in Miami won't feel as, well, sweet.

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John Crist is the Publisher of BearReport.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.

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