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Breaking Down 25 Years of Chicago Bears QB Misery

Paul Thelen@@ThePaulLenContributor IIMay 31, 2013

CHICAGO - NOVEMBER 09:  Rex Grossman #8 and Kyle Orton #18 of the Chicago Bears look on during warm ups against the Tennessee Titans at Soldier Field on November 9, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Hello, my name is Paul and I’m a Chicago Bears fan. 

In Al-Anon, the first step to recovery is admitting that one is powerless to their addiction. As Chicago Bears fans, our torments are not as easily identified as alcohol and narcotics.

Instead, the tragic flaw miserable Bears fans like myself are powerless to is our gullibility to believe that our savior is coming. That a franchise quarterback will deliver us from our 25-year quarterback misery.

It’s why we all own, but hide in the deepest confines of our closets, the jerseys of Jim Harbaugh, Erik Kramer, Cade McNown and Rex Grossman. It’s why we have over time deified the punky QB known as McMahon and muttered idiocies like: “We need to give that Henry Burris kid a shot” or “We’ll be contenders once Grossman gets healthy.”

For 25 years, we’ve waited. Glimpses of deliverance have preyed on our vulnerabilities. Yet, 25 years after McMahon was cast out of Chicago, the Bears have trotted out 27 starting quarterbacks, none of whom have proven to be a long-term answer.

None of these 27 has been elected to a Pro Bowl, at least while in Chicago Bears uniforms. They tend to be elected before arriving in Chicago or after leaving. Instead, Bears nation has been submerged further into the throes of quarterbacking melancholy.

The quarterback drought in Chicago can be divided into four painful eras of unmet expectation. Each era features a slew of mediocre—or even downright terrible, ahem, Jonathan Quinn—quarterbacks and a titular hero who serves as the team’s most promising long-term solution.

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The Jim Harbaugh Era. 1989-93

Starting quarterbacks: 4

Overall Regular-Season record: 40-40

Overall Playoff Record:  1-2

Harbaugh's Stats In Chicago

Year Yards TD's Int's Comp. % Record As Starter
1990 2,178 10 6 57.7 10-4
1991 3,121 15 16 57.5 11-5
1992 2,486 13 12 56.4 5-8
1993 2,002 7 11 61.5 7-8

After the Bears traded Jim McMahon following the 1988 season, the team entered the 1989 season with the undrafted veteran Mike Tomczak and their 1987 first-round selection, Jim Harbaugh. Tomczak had started 15 games in relief of the oft-injured McMahon over the course of the previous three seasons, giving the Bears the misguided illusion that he could develop into a solid starting quarterback. He didn’t.

1989 saw the Bears plummet to 6-10 and Tomczak complete a ghastly 51 percent of his passes. But in typical Bears fashion, the team and its fanbase rallied around the young, audible-loving Harbaugh and handed him the starting quarterback reins going into 1990.

It started smoothly as Harbaugh played well enough to position Chicago into playoff contention. Unfortunately, Harbaugh was injured in Week 15, leaving the Bears in the hands of Tomczak once again.

Chicago was able to hang onto their first-place divisional lead and win their opening playoff game. However, in the second-round matchup with the New York Giants, Chicago was obliterated 31-3.

Tomczak was atrocious in the two playoff games, completing just 29-of-61 passes for 371 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. The good news for the Bears was that Tomczak would never take another snap in Chicago, but they would have to wait another season to see Harbaugh in playoff action.

The opportunity came the following year after an 11-5 regular-season run. During the season, Harbaugh eclipsed 3,000 yards passing—one of only four Bears quarterbacks to accomplish this feat since McMahon’s departure, the others are Erik Kramer, Rex Grossman and Jay Cutler, who has done it three times.

However, in the playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys, Harbaugh struggled and threw two costly interceptions, as the Bears would be sent home from the postseason, losing 17-13. Even though the statistical season was a high-mark for Harbaugh, his numbers were pedestrian among his NFL contemporaries and far from those of a franchise quarterback. 

1992 is best remembered as the final season Ditka presided over the Bears sidelines. Little went right and in an attempt to ignite the Bears smoldering offense, Ditka started Peter Tom Willis in two games—the trifectly-named Willis would throw eight interceptions in those two starts—and Will Furrer one game—who would throw three interceptions in his singular start.

Ditka got sacked and the Bears entered 1993 hoping for a rejuvenated Harbaugh. They didn’t get one. Harbaugh would go on to have his worst season in Chicago in 1993, as he threw just seven touchdown passes in 15 starts. The floundering season culminated the Harbaugh era in Chicago but marked only the beginning of the team's arduous search for McMahon’s replacement.

In a turn of events that can only be classified as 'Bearsian,' Harbaugh led the Indianapolis Colts to the AFC Championship in 1995 and was elected to the Pro Bowl. 

The Erik Kramer Era 1994-98

Starting quarterbacks: 6

Overall Regular-Season Record: 33- 47

Overall Playoff Record:  1-1

Erik Kramer's Stats in Chicago

Year Yards TD's Int's Comp % Record As Starter
1994  1,129  62.7  1-4 
1995  3,838  29  10  60.3  9-7 
1996  781  48.7  1-3 
1997  3,011  14  14  57.7  4-9 
1998  1,823  60.4  3-5 

In the offseason of 1994, the Chicago Bears released Harbaugh and signed Erik Kramer, formerly of the Detroit Lions, to a four-year contract in hopes that he could be their long-term answer at quarterback. They also signed former first-round pick Steve Walsh to serve as Kramer’s backup.

The 1994 season began with Kramer performing well, but after his third start, he would be sidelined with a shoulder injury. In relief, Steve Walsh and the Bears employed a conservative offense and found success.

With some rotating between the two quarterbacks, the season ended with Walsh going 8-3 and Kramer recording a 2-3 results column. The effort was enough for the Bears to make the playoffs and win a road playoff game over divisional foe Minnesota with Walsh at the helm.

In their second playoff game, the 49ers dump-trucked Walsh and the Bears 44-15. Despite the rugged exit from the playoffs, Bears fans were enthralled by the success Chicago found in 1994.

After drafting Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam in the 1995 draft, who would smoke his way out of the league just three years later, the Bears entered the 1995 season booming with confidence.

Kramer beat out Walsh in training camp and would go on to set the Chicago Bears single-season records in passing yards and passing touchdowns—records that still stand today. Despite the offensive explosion, the 1995 season ended in heartbreak.

The Bears missed the playoffs because of a tiebreaker—an improbable, last-second Week 17 win by the Atlanta Falcons over the San Francisco 49ers that is reminiscent of the Vikings' tiebreaker win over the Packers in 2012 that also left the Bears out of playoff contention.

Missing the playoffs was a jagged pill to swallow, but after Kramer’s promising season, surely the Bears had found their long-term answer. Right?

Nope.

Looking retroactively at the 1995 season, it may have been one of the cruelest seasons of the 25-year quarterback drought for Chicago Bears fans. For as 1996 approached, Bears fans had the delusions of a Super Bowl run on their minds.

The lofty hopes were soon dashed as Chicago tripped to a 1-3 start and Kramer was sidelined with a serious neck injury, leaving the team in the hands of the aging Dave Krieg. The Bears would finish 7-9 and all vestiges of their offensive burst in 1995 had disappeared.

In the 1997 offseason, concerned with Kramer’s injury and diminished on-the-field production, the Bears executed one of the worst transactions in team history by trading the 11th overall pick to the Seattle Seahawks for Rick Mirer.

The trade backfired early, as Kramer beat out Mirer in training camp and was named the Bears starter for Week 1. Kramer and the Bears lost their first three games so the Bears turned to the newly-acquired Mirer in Week 4.

Over his next two starts, Mirer would throw for just 200 yards and three interceptions.

It gets worse.

Mirer was only able to manufacture six points in the two starts. In his third start, he had just 58 yards at halftime and was finally pulled for Kramer. The Bears would start the season 0-7 and finish at 4-12.

1998 wasn’t any better. Kramer was once again lost for the year during a Week 8 win against the Houston Oilers. Steve Stenstrom took over the quarterbacking duties, going just 1-7 in his eight starts.

For consecutive years, the Bears finished 4-12 and by the end of the 1998 season, it had become apparent that Erik Kramer’s health wouldn’t allow him to become the Bears long-term starter.

The Cade McNown Era 1999-02

Starting quarterbacks: 5

Overall Regular-Season Record: 28-36

Overall Playoff Record:  0-1


Year Yards TD's Int's Comp % Record As Starter
1999  1,465  10  54  2-4 
2000  1,646  55  1-8 
   



The Bears drafted southpaw Cade McNown with the 12th overall pick in the 1999 draft, giving gullible Bears fans the notion that he would grow into their ever-elusive franchise quarterback.

In a surprising move at the time, Chicago released Kramer during training camp and entered the 1999 season with Shane Matthews as their starting quarterback. Chicago employed the idiotic strategy of playing McNown for one series each game in a failed attempt to groom the youngster.

Instead, the ploy seemed to only obstruct any momentum Matthews and the Bears offense were able to find. Matthews got hurt after starting 3-2 and the Bears turned to McNown to replace him.

Chicago would lose the next three games, as the rookie would throw six interceptions. His struggles led to the emergence of Jim Miller, who would throw for a gargantuan 422 yards and three touchdowns in his first start and 357 yards and a touchdown in his second.

Miller brought about resurgence in the Bears offense. Before Bears fans could get too excited about Miller’s shocking play, the quarterback would be suspended for testing positive for steroids, missing the remainder of the regular season.

Miller’s suspension forced the Bears to return to McNown as their starting quarterback, who in his first start would explode for 301 yards and four touchdowns in a win against the Detroit Lions. The Bears ended the season at 6-10, but the one sensational start by McNown created a false sense of hope as they transitioned into the new millennium.

McNown was named the team’s starter before training camp commenced in 2000, with Miller and Matthews serving as his backups. Any glimmer of hope that Cade McNown was a franchise quarterback vanished after his 1-7 start in 2000. He digressed week-by-week until finally the Bears made the switch to Jim Miller.

Miller won his first start, completing a impressive 24-of-35 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown. In his second start, he would rupture his Achilles tendon and end up on injured reserve. Matthews took over as the team’s starter, finishing 3-3 and bringing the Bears to a season record of 5-11.

The Bears traded McNown to Miami and entered the 2001 season with Matthews and Miller at quarterback and with little expectations. Miller started 13 games throwing for 2,229 yards, 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Despite his mediocre play, Chicago endured a thrilling season that featured consecutive game-winning interceptions for touchdowns by safety Mike Brown. Because of the distraught, depressing nature of this article, I feel obligated to show the amazing, miraculous returns of Mike Brown.

Chicago rode their magical 13-3 record into the playoffs, but were summarily beaten badly at home by Philadelphia. Neither Miller nor Matthews were great in 2001, but the defense and running game was able to mask the quarterback futility. 

Chicago hoped the magic of 2001 would carry over to the 2002 season, but instead the Bears returned to their all-too-familiar 4-12 record. Miller battled injuries all season, starting just eight, and the corpse of Chris Chandler started seven.

Henry Burris was given the team’s final start, a brutal 7-for-19, four interception debacle that paid homage to Cade McNown incompetence.

The Rex Grossman Era 2003-08

Overall Regular-Season Record: 52-43

Overall Playoff Record:  2-2

The Stats of Rex Grossman in Chicago

Year Yards TD's Int's Comp % Record As Starter
2003  437  52.8  2-1 
2004  607  56  1-2 
2005  259  51.3  1-0 
2006   3,193  23  20  54.6  13-3 
2007  1,411  54.2  2-5 

The Bears drafted the strong-armed Grossman late in the first round in the 2003 draft. They cut the injury-addled Jim Miller and after free agent Jake Plummer spurned the Bears' $30 million offer, Chicago signed a worn-down Kordell Stewart to compete with fellow corpse Chris Chandler while Grossman developed.

Stewart was abysmal in his first start, going 14-of-34 and throwing three interceptions in a 49-7 thrashing at the hands of the 49ers. The rest of his season wasn’t much better as the elder Stewart finished by completing just 50.2 percent of his passes and threw just seven touchdowns to 12 interceptions.

Rex Grossman’s three solid starts were among the few salvageable components of the Bears' 2003 season, as the gun-slinging rookie led the Bears to a 2-1 record. Overall, Chicago went 7-9 on the season.

Grossman began the 2004 season as the Bears' starting quarterback. Late into his third start, the curse of Bears quarterbacks struck Grossman as he tore up his knee diving for the end zone, summarily ending his season.

What followed was a despicable blur of forgettable quarterbacking performances by Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel and Jonathan Quinn. In their collective 12 starts, the three misfits combined for just eight touchdowns and threw 13 interceptions. The Bears' record ended at 5-11.

2005 began horrifically as Rex Grossman broke his ankle in the preseason. Entering the 2005 regular season, the Chicago Bears quarterback misery was at an all-time high.

Between Cade McNown busting, the injuries to Jim Miller and Rex Grossman and the atrocities of Stewart, Hutchinson, Krenzel and Quinn, Bears fans were starving for results and had only the water-gun powered arm of Kyle Orton to deliver for them.

He didn’t, as the rookie threw for just 1,869 yards, nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 15 starts; but the Bears defense was able to carry the team to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth.  They lost handily to Carolina at home in the playoffs, but the exceptional overachieving by the Bears gave the team and fanbase confidence entering 2006.

Finally healthy, Rex Grossman started off the 2006 season red hot, throwing for eight touchdowns to just two interceptions over his first four games. The remainder of his season was extremely erratic, but Grossman’s 3,193 yards passing was the most by a Chicago Bear since Erik Kramer.

Grossman dug the Bears into some massive holes, such as this unforgettable game against the Arizona Cardinals, but overall, Grossman played above the lowly Bears QB standard. More importantly, he stayed healthy.

The Bears rode their defense, Devin Hester and Grossman’s teeter-totter of a season to the Super Bowl in Miami. Bad Rex emerged against the Indianapolis Colts, as the Bears lost in a rather convincing fashion. 

The result of the Bears' Super Bowl run brought about the demise of Rex Grossman in Chicago. After the tumultuous 15 years of quarterback frustrations, the Bears organization and fanbase lost their sense of reality. Being so close to winning a Super Bowl drove us both mad. We forgot that Grossman was still, speaking by means of experience, a young quarterback.

When he returned in 2007 and hit speed bumps, we all went completely cukoo. When Grossman’s fragile mental psyche felt the harsh criticisms of fans after each misstep, it internally combusted and his play deteriorated significantly. Grossman became as worthless as a gun-shy hunting dog.

I don’t mean to entirely dismiss his atrocious play following the Super Bowl, but retroactively re-visiting the 2007 and 2008 seasons makes me wonder how much of the Bears continued quarterback misery lay at the doorsteps of the fervent and impatient Bears fanbase.

The next two seasons saw an aged Brian Griese steal a paycheck from the Bears and the ultra-conservative Kyle Orton refuse to challenge defenses, as the Bears stumbled to a combined 16-16 record, each season failing to make the playoffs. Our old pal Rex was 19-11 as starting quarterback in Chicago.  

The Jay Cutler Era 2009-present

Starting quarterbacks: 5

Overall  Regular-Season Record: 36-28

Overall Playoff Record:  1-1

Jay Cutler's Stats in Chicago

Year Yards TD's Int's Comp % Record As Starter
2009  3,666  27  26  60.5  7-9 
2010  3,274  23  16  60.4  10-5 
2011  2,319  13  58  7-3 
2012  3,033  19  14  58.8  10-5 
           

And now here we are, still miserable, but once again clinging to the hope that we have found our franchise quarterback. Call me a hopeless romantic, or too emotionally scarred by the previous four eras, but Cutler has showed enough in during his tenure in Chicago for us to have hope.

He is the most talented and productive quarterback Chicago has seen occupy Soldier Field since Jim McMahon and has gone 34-22 as a starting quarterback. His replacements during his era are just 2-6.

Maybe under the tutelage of Marc Trestman and the improved offensive parts, the moody QB known as Cutler can deliver Bears fans from out of our quarter-century-long melancholy.

Here’s to another year of hoping, Bears fans. 

Sincerely, a fellow crazy, hopeless, gullible Bears fan.