The central storyline for the 2020 Chicago Bears revolves around the same question that has haunted the franchise since Hall of Famer Sid Luckman retired 70 years ago.
Can the Bears finally stabilize the quarterback position?
Even though 2017 No. 2 overall draft pick Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles, who was acquired this offseason in a trade with Jacksonville, will compete for the starting spot when training camp commences next month, both have a lot to do in order to convince anyone either is the Bears’ long-term answer. In May, the Bears declined Trubisky’s fifth-year option — a forboding sign for someone once deemed the team’s quarterback of the future — and the 31-year-old Foles will be playing for his fifth team in five years.
Thus, at least in the near future, the answer is likely “no.”
According to ESPN.com’s own Quarterback Index, the Bears rank last in the Super Bowl era in terms of QB production (48.3 out of a 100 point scale). During that time, the Bears have started a total of 50 quarterbacks, per ESPN Stats & Information research, the most of any NFL team in that span.
The highest NFL passer rating for a Chicago quarterback over that span (minimum five appearances) belongs to Josh McCown, who played in just 11 games for the Bears from 2011 to ’13. The lowest-rated passer during that time was Henry Burris, who appeared in six games for the Bears in 2002, starting only once and posting a 28.2 passer rating.
For the Bears, amid the intermittent high draft picks spent on quarterbacks, it has been a constant parade of has-beens, reclamation projects or dice rolls since 1966. For every Erik Kramer — who set the Bears’ single-season record for passing yards (3,838) and touchdown passes (29) in 1997 — they’ve hit on, there’s a Chad Hutchinson, Jimmy Clausen, Dave Krieg or Chris Chandler. Brian Griese, anyone?
“In my nine years as Bears offensive coordinator, we started nine different guys … It’s crazy,” former Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said.
Of course, Chicago’s perpetual quarterback crisis is fraught with irony. The Bears actually created the modern-day quarterback when team founder George Halas switched the offense from the single-wing to the T-formation and moved Luckman from the tailback spot to quarterback. The Bears and Luckman revolutionized football.
Finding Luckman’s replacement has been a maddening exercise in futility. Why does this keep happening with the Bears? NFL Hall of Famer and team historian Don Pierson attributed this problem to a set of particular recurring failures.
“I’ve broken it down into six categories — bad management, bad trades, bad drafts, bad coaching, bad luck and injuries,” Pierson said.
Let’s take a look.
BAD DRAFTS: BEARS PASSED ON MONTANA, WATSON, MAHOMES
The NFL landscape is littered with high draft picks who flamed out, and this is perhaps the biggest reason the Bears have struggled to develop a franchise quarterback.
Over the years, the Bears seemingly have been averse to selecting a quarterback in the first round. Since 1966, the Bears have selected a quarterback with their first-round pick just four times.
Perhaps as an omen of things to come, the Bears selected Bobby Douglass in the second round of the 1969 NFL draft. More of a runner than a thrower, Douglass amassed a 47.5 passer rating in seven seasons as the Bears went 13-31-1 in his starts. Ten years later, the organization inexplicably passed on a future Hall of Famer in the 1979 draft.
In that draft, the Bears did find one Hall of Famer — cornerstone of the famed 46 defense, defensive end Dan Hampton — in the first round. But as the Bears approached the third round (No. 66 overall), they had a shot at another future Hall of Famer.
“Every mock draft the Bears had done internally had Joe Montana coming to them in the third round,” Pierson said. “So, there’s Montana sitting there in the third round, and [former Bears general manager] Jim Finks gets cold feet because he didn’t want to confuse the Bears’ quarterback situation of Mike Phipps, Vince Evans and Bob Avellini, who took them to the playoffs.”
Instead, the Bears selected running back Willie McClendon out of Georgia. McClendon played four seasons, amassing just 369 yards rushing and two touchdowns before he was out of the NFL.
“So, they decided to pass on Joe Montana,” Pierson said. “I mean, that’s just silly.”
It wouldn’t be until 1982 that the Bears would finally select a quarterback with a first-round pick when they took Jim McMahon, out of Brigham Young, with the No. 5 pick overall. Until then, the Bears hadn’t selected a QB in the first round since 1951, when they picked Bob Williams with the No. 2 overall pick out of Notre Dame. Five years after McMahon, they took Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh with the 16th pick overall.
To be sure, McMahon led the Bears to their only Super Bowl win in 1985 and still holds the best win-loss record of any Bears quarterback at 46-15. Harbaugh had moderate success, going 35-30 as a starter for the Bears before leaving in 1993. But then it would be 12 years until the Bears took another quarterback in the first round.
In the 1999 NFL Draft, the Bears selected UCLA quarterback Cade McNown with the 12th overall pick. Like Harbaugh and McMahon, McNown was a highly successful college quarterback, setting a number of records at UCLA, winning the Johnny Unitas Award as college football’s best quarterback and coming in third in Heisman Trophy voting. However, McNown simply could not replicate that success at the pro level, plagued by injury, inconsistency and a questionable work ethic. McNown was gone after just two seasons, having gone 3-12 as a starter, posting a 67.7 passer rating.
After McNown’s failure, the Bears next used one of their two first-round picks in 2003 on Florida quarterback Rex Grossman.
Like McNown, Grossman was a highly decorated college quarterback with a gunslinger mentality. A Midwest kid, Grossman’s Indiana roots made him a seemingly good fit for the Bears. In three seasons in Gainesville, Grossman threw for 9,164 yards and 77 touchdowns, was a remarkably efficient passer (161.8 in 1999), won an SEC championship and finished second in Heisman Trophy voting in 2001. He chose to forgo his final year of NCAA eligibility.
After joining the Bears, however, it was a slow progression. Part of that was planned, as Grossman was to learn the job under veterans such as Chandler and Kordell Stewart. Grossman also suffered injuries in each of his first three NFL seasons. Finally named the starter in 2004, Grossman’s inconsistency and lack of preparation drew criticism early and often.
“I’ve broken it down into six categories – bad management, bad trades, bad drafts, bad coaching, bad luck and injuries.”
NFL Hall of Famer, Bears team historian Don Pierson on the Bears’ QB futility
“I love Rex, but his preparation was inconsistent, and that’s how he played,” Turner said. “That Super Bowl year, Rex had some really good games, but he also had some really awful games.”
Grossman’s 2006 season illustrates this. The “shark teeth” nature to his peaks and valleys that season displayed moments of greatness and the depths of mediocrity. Still, Grossman was named the 2006 NFC Offensive Player of the Month for September as the Bears — behind the league’s best defense — stormed their way to Super Bowl XLI, where they eventually lost to the Indianapolis Colts.
But even as the Bears prospered, Grossman’s often erratic play worried everyone, including head coach Lovie Smith, who replaced Grossman the following season with Brian Griese and later Kyle Orton. Grossman’s last year in Chicago was 2008.
“Everyone in Chicago also said, there’s ‘Good Rex’ and ‘Bad Rex,’ and that was the thing that hurt him,” Turner said. “He had tremendous talent, but the inconsistencies in his preparation showed up on game day.”
It would take another 14 years for the Bears to select a quarterback in the first round: Trubisky out of North Carolina with the No. 2 overall pick in 2017.
The Bears find themselves in their current quarterback predicament because general manager Ryan Pace traded up to draft Trubisky second overall in 2017, ahead of Houston Texans two-time Pro Bowler Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, who would go on to become a Super Bowl MVP.
The Bears’ original plan called for Trubisky, who started only one full season at North Carolina, to sit and learn for at least one year behind veteran Mike Glennon (who was signed as a free agent to a three-year, $45 million deal ($18.5 million guaranteed). However, Glennon struggled so mightily that then-Chicago head coach John Fox reluctantly turned to Trubisky to jump-start his team’s fortunes in Week 5.
“[Trubisky] was forced into duty too early,” former Bears quarterback and preseason television analyst Jim Miller said. “I don’t think their record is any different if Mike Glennon starts that whole year. So, Mitch is forced in — he wasn’t ready.
“Quick decisions, the requirement to process a lot of information — and I think that’s been a struggle for him,” Miller added. “Head coach Matt Nagy said at the end of last year Mitch still needs to learn to read defenses. Until he does that and understands what he is seeing, I think he is going to struggle. This is really the tell-tale year for him. This is going to decide the story of where he’s at, this season.”
BAD TRADES: CUTLER’S LEGACY COMPLICATED
Over the years, if the draft proved to be a minefield for the Bears to select quarterbacks, they helped their cause very little with large-scale trades on which they pinned QB savior hopes.
In 1997, the Bears traded a first-round pick to Seattle for quarterback Rick Mirer. Coming off a 1996 season in which the Bears used three quarterbacks — Kramer, Krieg and Shane Matthews — the Bears and head coach Dave Wannstedt looked desperate for a solution and stability at quarterback. In Seattle, they saw perhaps what they missed in the 1979 draft in Mirer.
Indeed, not only did Mirer physically resemble Montana, but his storied career at Notre Dame included a 1992 Sugar Bowl win, a 1993 Cotton Bowl win and the most offensive productivity of any player in Notre Dame history — 41 career touchdown passes, 5,997 passing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. The Seahawks selected Mirer with the No. 2 pick overall in the 1993 draft.
He won offensive rookie of the year in 1993, setting the Seahawks’ rookie passing records, but after two somewhat inconsistent seasons, the Seahawks and new head coach Dennis Erickson had seen enough. But the Bears’ brass thought Mirer could be reinvigorated in Chicago and was worth trading the draft pick.
However, the dynamic running/passing combination everyone saw at Notre Dame was replaced by a player with nervous feet, low confidence and a penchant for throwing on the run. Some blamed bad habits Mirer picked up in Seattle, others blamed the Bears for plopping Mirer into a jumble of quarterback soup in which none of the players felt secure or comfortable. Mirer lasted only one season in Chicago, posting a miserable 37.7 passer rating in just three starts.
In April 2009, then-general manager Jerry Angelo swung for the fences and acquired cannon-armed Jay Cutler from Denver in exchange for a pair of first-round picks, a third-round pick and Kyle Orton (the Bears also got back a fifth-round choice).
Over eight seasons, Cutler became the most statistically decorated quarterback in franchise history. At 102 games, Cutler by far started the most games of any Bears quarterback in the Super Bowl era. He passed for more than 23,000 yards, 154 touchdowns and an 85.2 passer rating. For perspective, in nearly every category Cutler’s numbers more than double McMahon’s, who sits third in games started for the Bears. Cutler’s pass attempts also are more than double McMahon’s and he correspondingly threw double the interceptions.
But McMahon’s legacy was cemented by the Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl win. Cutler’s legacy, on the other hand, is, well, complicated.
“I said at the time that I was not for the trade,” Turner said. “I said at the time that Orton was getting better and the guys in the locker room loved him. Kyle was a leader. The team respected him. There is no doubt we would have won a lot of games and Orton would have had a very, very good career had we just left him as the starter. I was not for the trade at all. But the trade was made, you deal with it, and you move on. I can understand why Jerry [Angelo] made the trade, but I didn’t think it was best for the team, and a lot of guys in the locker room didn’t think so, either.”
Turner worked with Cutler for only one season.
“It was just an up-and-down year,” Turner said. “Jay was up and down. I don’t think he ever bought into what we were doing. He wanted his own coordinator in there. He wanted someone different. His demeanor and his attitude and his preparation kind of showed that. Everyone talks about Jay’s demeanor and body language and stuff like that, but it was just a situation where he didn’t totally buy in and it just didn’t work.”
Cutler’s attitude and body language became stuff of legend.
“Just my opinion of Jay, he seemed kind of aloof,” Miller said. “I don’t know if he ever embraced the city like I did or other quarterbacks did. I think you have to have a connection, and I don’t think he ever had that connection where he was all-in.”
INJURIES: McMAHON, KRAMER DERAILED
Injuries also adversely affected the careers of Bears quarterbacks, which subsequently derailed the Bears’ postseason hopes in routine fashion. McMahon led the Bears to their only Super Bowl championship in 1985 but struggled to stay healthy in subsequent years.
Kramer enjoyed one of the most prolific seasons by a Bears quarterback in 1995, when he passed for 3,838 yards, 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The next year, he threw just three touchdowns and six interceptions while plagued by injury.
“I think he made a mistake in the offseason after the 1995 year,” Turner said. “The year before that, after the 1994 season, he stayed in Chicago and worked out a lot at Halas Hall and was in the office watching film when he could be. Then he has the successful year in ’95, and the next offseason they went back to California where he told me he planned to train when he wasn’t back in Chicago for OTAs and stuff like that.
“I don’t think that helped him. I told him, ‘Erik, I think you are making a major mistake. You had all that success last season when you spent the offseason here and working out with our guys here.’ But he made that decision, and sure enough he got hurt. Now, I don’t know if he got hurt because he made the decision to train in California, but he suffered a hamstring injury in the preseason and just never got back in sync that year.”
Miller had a terrific year in 2001, when he guided the Bears to a surprise 13-3 record and a division title, but Miller suffered a nasty shoulder injury in Chicago’s home playoff loss to the Eagles.
“That shoulder injury was more severe than anybody thought,” Miller said. “I came back the following year and my shoulder wasn’t right. I ended up playing the whole year with it. I did a lot more damage than anybody thought. It took me six surgeries to get my shoulder right. It was just unfortunate. I felt I had found my place. I felt very comfortable in Chicago. I was ready. I felt I was ready. I felt this was the perfect city for me — blue collar like me, they think like me and they appreciate hard work and effort.”
The Bears released Miller before the 2003 season.
Arguably Cutler’s best stretch came in 2011, prior to suffering a season-ending thumb injury in the Bears’ 10th game versus the Chargers. The Bears, 7-3 at the time of Cutler’s injury, went on to lose five consecutive games and miss the playoffs.
“I remember telling my family at the time that Jay was carrying the team,” former Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie (2008-11) said. “The offense was not operating the way [offensive coordinator Mike] Martz wanted it to operate, but Jay is just making a lot of stuff happen because he’s moving around and making crazy plays with his arm and his feet. Everyone likes to hate on Jay, but you saw what happened when he was gone.”
BAD COACHING CREATES ‘TOXIC ENVIRONMENT’
According to Pierson, Mike Ditka might have been many things but a great quarterbacks coach he was not. Bears fans might remember vividly Ditka routinely berating Harbaugh on the sidelines as well as in postgame dress-downs.
“McMahon knew more offense than anybody in the building. Coaching was a problem in that era, too,” Pierson said.
Cutler, too, learned quickly that the grass isn’t always greener when it comes to coaches. The continuity needed for success was lacking, as the Bears changed playcallers (Martz, Mike Tice, Marc Trestman, Adam Gase, Dowell Loggains) five more times before Cutler’s time in Chicago concluded.
“They fired Turner and [quarterbacks coach] Pep Hamilton after 2009,” Hanie said. “I liked both of those guys, but the thought at the time was that Jay needed more creativity. The first hire the Bears made was Tice as offensive line coach. Then they hired Martz as the OC. After working with those guys for two years, I came to learn that Tice and Martz were polar opposites in how they viewed offense.
“Huge, huge conflict. When the s— hits the fan during the season, then people start playing the blame game. That was a big problem in that era. There was some finger-pointing going on behind the scenes. I remember hearing the dirty laundry. The coaches didn’t keep it to themselves. That was a very toxic environment.”
BAD LUCK: EVEN A ROSARY COULDN’T SAVE BEARS’ QB
Not even divine intervention could save Chicago’s quarterbacks.
“In 1984, they had seven or eight quarterbacks they had to play,” Pierson said. “One game they had to play a quarterback named Rusty Lisch. Now, Rusty is a very religious guy. So, Rusty screws up and Ditka pulls him out of the game and just cusses him up and down. Later on in the same game, another Bears quarterback gets hurt and Ditka has to put Lisch back in the game.
“Well … Lisch won’t go back in. Ditka is furious, ‘What do you mean he won’t go back in?’ The assistant coach tells him, ‘Mike, you can’t talk to Rusty like that.’ On the plane ride home Lisch is reading the Bible and Ditka walks up to him and goes, ‘I hope there is something in that book about job opportunities, because you’ll need one on Monday.’ Lisch responded by bringing Ditka a rosary on Monday to try and calm him down.”
It didn’t work, either.