Seven Decades Of Passing Pain: CHicago's Perpetual Pursuit Of A Quarterback
By Alex Bartlett
There are twelve teams in the NFL that have never hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Thanks to one of the greatest defenses in league history, the Chicago Bears are not one of them. But in truth, 1985 was an outlier in a history of falling short during the Super Bowl era in The Windy City.
Any Bears fan will tell you that the biggest cause of this disappointment is the team’s failure to find a franchise quarterback. EVER. This city is accustomed to superstars, but has never found one at the most important position across any sport. With Chicago about to jump on the QB carousel once more, can they break the spell that has cursed them since 1948? Alex Bartlett investigates:
While it may seem far-fetched to call a sporting city that has been graced by the greatness of Michael Jordan, Walter Payton and the Monsters of the Midway cursed, no NFL franchise has endured more misfortune at the quarterback position than the Chicago Bears.
Since the league first introduced a 16-game regular season in 1978, no Bears quarterback has started every game in a season more than once.
To rub more salt into their wounds, fans in the Windy City have watched on as their rivals in Green Bay have been treated to 27 straight years of passing paradise from back-to-back Hall of Famers Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers.
As the latter just notched his third MVP and led the Packers to another NFC Championship game, Mitchell Trubisky’s underwhelming performance in the first round of the postseason once again shined the spotlight on the ever-present quarterback conundrum in Chicago.
'The Three L's'
It is said that the football gods and Bobby Layne laid a curse on the Detroit Lions when the franchise parted ways with their greatest player in the twilight years of his career.
“Detroit will never win another championship,” Layne proclaimed as he left Detroit for Pittsburgh all those years ago.
They haven’t and have since been subjected to over half a century of misery and mishaps. But, perhaps the once Bears back-up is responsible for more NFC North nightmares than he is universally credited for.
In the 1940s the Bears had become the NFL’s dominate force. Under the guidance of ‘Papa Bear’ George Halas – one of the first pioneers of the passing game – Sid Luckman orchestrated the first 400-yard game by a Quarterback in history and led Chicago to four titles.
By the start of the 1948 season, the Bears boasted the finest passing roster in the land, as the Hall of Famer was backed up by three-time National Champion Johnny Lujack and the booze-loving Texan rookie sensation Layne.
With the three L’s at the helm Chicago was the envy of the league. That would soon change.
The Beginning Of The Curse
In 1949 Halas elevated Lujack to starting status and with the belief that the legendary Luckman still had some of his magic left, traded Layne to the New York Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs soon folded into inexistence, thus sending the former Longhorn to the Bears’ division rival Lions.
Lujack lived up to initial expectations and made the pro bowl in his first two seasons starting but the game soon took its toll on the former two-way star’s body and he was forced into retirement at the age of 27 in 1952.
That same year Layne won the first of three titles in the Motor City en route to Canton and seven decades of passing pain and near misses in Chicago commenced.
Having once sparkled under the leadership of Luckman, woeful quarterback play from the likes of Rudy Bukich, Jack Concannon and Bobby Douglass saw the Bears slump in the sixties.
Steelers Steal Bradshaw
By 1969 they were locked in a tie for the league worst 1-13 with the then perilous Pittsburgh Steelers. To decide the first pick in the 1970 draft the NFL arranged a coin toss. As fate would have it the Bears lost and conceded the keys to Louisiana Tech slinger Terry Bradshaw.
After a slow start, Bradshaw and the Steelers formed a formidable partnership winning four Super Bowls in the seventies and creating the first dynasty in the post-merger era.
While The Blond-Bomber steered Pittsburgh to football immortality, Bears fans endured more mediocrity under the leadership of Gary Huff, Bob Avellini and Vince Evans.
1985: A Ray Of Hope
However, as in every well-constructed horror story, there were brief moments of hope, most notably in the form of the charismatic Jim McMahon. The BYU Cougar helped the Bears win their first Lombardi trophy in 1985.
But for all his achievements, McMahon will forever live in the shadow of Buddy Ryan’s 46 Defense. Such was the dominance of the group headlined by the likes of Richard Dent, Mike Singletary and Dan Hampton, that the team went undefeated in five starts by the unspectacular Steve Fuller filling in for an injured McMahon.
McMahon never returned to the lofty heights of the Super Bowl season and after being benched for Mike Tomczak in the 1988 NFC Championship Game, he was traded to the San Diego Chargers.
Scuppered By A Spider Bite
Fast-forward to the nineties and while Air Jordan was putting Chicago on the map winning six NBA titles with the Bulls, the Bears had become a haven for journeymen quarterbacks. Jim Harbaugh, David Krieg and Erik Kramer all had their shot at turning the franchises’ fortunes around and failed, but it would be the journeymen who didn’t come to the Windy City, that haunted the fanbase further.
In the 1997 offseason the Bears offered a try-out to arena league and NFL Europe star Kurt Warner. A week before he was due to fly to Chicago, the future two-time NFL MVP suffered a spider bite on his throwing elbow while on honeymoon. The Bears thus ended their interest in the single caller and the rest is history.
As Warner went on to Super Bowl success with the St Louis Rams, Chicago continued to be the home of quarterback purgatory. Former Steeler Kordell Stewart topped the list of a number of one season starters in the early 2000s before Rex Grossman guided the Bears back to the big game in 2006.
However, ‘sexy Rexy’ was exposed, and Super Bowl XLI became the biggest mismatch at the quarterback position in the games’ history as Peyton Manning’s Colts flexed their muscles and an invisible Bears offense was embarrassed.
With Grossman out the door, hopes turned to Jay Cutler in the late noughties. The former Bronco never delivered on his promised potential and his career in blue and orange was best summarised when he was intercepted four times in the same game by Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall.
The Trouble With Trubisky
That brings it back to the current day and perhaps the most frustrating chapter in the never-ending nightmare of Chicago single-callers. In 2017 GM Ryan Pace traded a first, second and two third round picks to move up one spot and shock the world of the football cognoscenti by taking Mitchel Trubisky.
The next two quarterbacks of the board – Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson – have set the standard for all rookies entering the league since, while Trubisky has never really looked the answer for the Bears.
After a brief flirtation with Philadelphia’s fairytale king Nick Foles early last season, head coach Matt Nagy returned to Trubisky and while the former North Carolina Tar Heel showed brief signs of improvements the Bears once again find themselves looking for the answer at quarterback.
The Next Bears Quarterback
72 years since the three L’s graced the roster at the same time, the search for their replacements still goes on.
Would Carson Wentz or Sam Darnold be any different to Foles, Kyle Orton or even Chase Daniel? Can Pace be trusted to find a replacement in a draft packed with promising young passers given his sketchy track record evaluating the position?
These are all questions that will be answered in the coming months, but, if the long line of sup-par succession at quarterback is to end, the Bears must be bold.
It is very rare a player as young or talented as the aforementioned Watson becomes available and with the relationship between the Texans and the Clemson man broken, Chicago must move heaven and earth to get him in the building.
One thing is certain, whoever takes the reins in Chicago will have to exorcise the demons of decades past to bring sustained success to the fallen giant of the NFC North and lift the lesser-known curse of Bobby Layne.
Formerly the editor of the Sports Gazette, Alex is an experienced sports journalist currently specialising in feature writing. A lifelong Eagles fan, he played the game for three years as an outside linebacker for the Leicester Longhorns and is desperate to see the Delaware Wing-T offense to return to college football.