They should not have bothered. Luckman became a , but the Bears have not had a good quarterback since.
Luckman still holds the Bears’ career records for passing yards and touchdowns despite playing in an era of 12-game seasons and leather helmets. That is akin to a stagecoach’s holding a track record. Since his retirement, the Bears have been cursed with six decades of quarterback mediocrity.
Coach George Halas groomed two successors for Luckman: Bobby Layne and the Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack. When Lujack won the starting job, Halas traded Layne, a future Hall of Famer. ( fans contend there is a Curse of Bobby Layne.) After a great 1949 season, Lujack earned All-Pro honors in 1950 although he threw 4 touchdown passes and had 21 interceptions, largely because the Bears went 9-3. Future Bears quarterbacks took Lujack’s example to heart, striving to achieve victory while committing as many turnovers as possible.
George Blanda eventually replaced Lujack, but Blanda became tired of Halas’s quarterback juggling and left football in 1959. The retirement did not stick, and Blanda played 16 more seasons in Houston and Oakland, perfecting the lovably grizzled quarterback archetype that recently ruined. Billy Wade, the of the Kennedy era, stabilized the quarterback position in the 1960s, helping the Bears beat the Giants for the in 1963. The Bears drove 14 and 5 yards for touchdowns in the title game, prompting one Giants defender to say of Wade, “If the defense doesn’t give him the ball on the 5-yard line, he’s dead.”
The Bears abandoned the passing game in 1969 by drafting , an Age of Aquarius proto-Tebow with matinee-idol looks, a fullback’s physique, a powerful arm and the accuracy of a Farmers’ Almanac. A typical Douglass passing season: 5 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 30 sacks and a 40.4 percent completion rate. Coach Jim Dooley moved in with Douglass to teach him the finer points (or even the coarser points) of quarterbacking. Douglass, in turn, married a Playboy Playmate. Though not while Dooley bunked with him. That would have been awkward.
The Bears later traded a first-round pick to acquire Mike Phipps: a 30-year-old draft bust, two years removed from a 4-touchdown, 19-interception season. That trade worked exactly as well as you would expect. Phipps spent the next five years sharing a job with the Queens native Bob Avellini. Running back led the Bears to the 1977 playoffs while Avellini looked busy during 10-7 and 13-9 victories. After Avellini threw four interceptions in a 37-7 playoff loss to the , safety Charlie Waters said: “We were inviting him to throw. We laid back and made it look like he had men open.” That sort of thing never happens to .
Rapper, headband model and ballistics dummy Jim McMahon squeezed some legitimately between feuds with coaches and commissioners, and endless time on injured reserve. McMahon went 6-0 or 5-1 as a starter several years and would be a Hall of Famer if the played six-game schedules in the 1980s. The Bears spent the second half of that decade cycling through the punky McMahon, the spunky , the clunky Mike Tomczak and , who can use those early experiences to rebuild Alex Smith’s confidence with the .
Some Bears passers had fleeting success. Rudy Bukich was 33 and on his fourth team when he threw 20 touchdown passes in 1965. He got with the program in 1966, throwing 10 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions.
No list of successful Bears quarterbacks is complete without Erik Kramer, sadly. Kramer played in the 1987 replacement games and the Canadian Football League before setting the Bears’ single-season touchdown-pass record with 29 in 1995. Kramer went 8-17 as a starter in his next three seasons, plunging the Bears into yet another dark age of failed prospects (), washed-up veterans (Dave Krieg, ) and guitar-strumming former baseball pitchers ().
When Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman arrived, even common euphemisms for bad quarterbacks on good teams like “game manager” and “fiery leader” became inadequate. When a player throws four interceptions but gets credit for a victory because of a heroic punt returner, there is only one description that fits: typical Bears quarterback. Orton and Grossman were so much like Avellini and Tomczak that it took the Bears four years to realize that they needed to be replaced. The team traded for Jay Cutler, who celebrated with four interceptions in his first start.
Cutler, like Wade and McMahon, is just competent enough to not hinder the Bears during a championship run. In the 60 years since Luckman, that is the highest praise any Bears quarterback has earned.
Mike Tanier is a contributing editor at FootballOutsiders.com.