Cutler, Collins, Hanie & the Curse of Sid Luckman

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 24, 2011



By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts all-time passing out leader
 
Jay CutlerGate has only heightened our fascination with Chicago's historic, ongoing and unbelievably frustrating inability to join the modern age of pro football.
 
In fact, the dearth of production at quarterback in Chicago, the way the position has haunted the organization for 60 years, remains one of the most curious statistical stories not just in football, but in all of North American sports.
 
You watch the modern NFL: the one in which offensive stats and individual performances are greater than ever and in which rocket-armed quarterbacks fling passes all over the field against handcuffed defensive backs.  
 
You love it!
 
Yet, for some reason, modern offensive football has taken the I-294 ring road around the Midway for six long decades. The Bears organization, for whatever reason, is simply stuck in a time warp in which great offensive players are few and far between, especially at quarterback. Hey, it's only the most important position in sports.
 
No game in the past 60 years symbolized that frustration better than Chicago's 21-14 loss at home to the hated Packers on Sunday, in a historic clash for the NFC championship between these storied, 90-year-old rivals.
 
You know how it all went down: Jay Cutler was supposed to be the big-armed quarterbacking savior the organization has awaited since Sid Luckman all but invented the modern position in the NFL back in the 1940s.
 
But Cutler's never quite lived up to the hype in the regular season. And now he's living down in infamy for an injury that has engendered the wrath of Bears fans and his own "union brothers" (insert laugh track here).
 
Cutler sprained an MCL. Critics say he could have played. We don't know. But the case against him was made tougher by the TV camera, which so influences the court of public opinion: Cutler spent most of the second half dispassionately watching the NFC title tilt on the sidelines, as his defense stifled one of the best offenses and best quarterbacks in football.
 
In Cutler's place walked Todd Collins who, as we noted on Sports Illustrated.com after the game, played football with future President Ford at Michigan in 1933. OK, Collins is not that old. But he is old enough that I played football against him in high school (both Bay State boys). And I'm 41.
 
Nobody close to this age should be on an NFL football field ... as BrettFavre proved against Chicago, of all teams, back in December, when his grey-bearded near lifeless body was carried off the frozen tundra of TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota.
 
How the in the name of Papa Bear Halas does a team march into a conference title game with somebody like Collins as their second-string quarterback? There are hundreds of able-bodied young men out there who played a decent game of quarterback in major college football over the past 15 years or so. And the Bears can't find one who's a better option than a guy who's started four games in the past decade and who's looking down the barrel of the Big 4-0?
 
Seriously, how the f*ck is this guy even in the NFL?
 
There's no explanation for a team to put itself in that situation, except, as you'll see, for the Curse of Sid Luckman.
 
Collins came in and was comically bad: 0 for 4 and lucky to avoid what should have been two picks on those four attempts. He was so bad that he was yanked before the end of the third quarter. Turns out Collins was actually injured. But given his performance, it was safe to assume at the time that Lovie Smith had pulled a Chuck Barris and hit the gong on his game.
 
That left the Bears with only one option at quarterback: Caleb Hanie, a second-year QB out of Colorado State. Not Colorado. Colorado State.
 
Hey, it was only the biggest Packers-Bears game since 1941, when Luckman himself was a young quarterback in the NFL's very first playoff game. Yes, the Curse of Sid Luckman is a cruel, spiteful  vixen.
 
Admit it. You had never heard of Hanie until he walked onto the field. To his eternal credit, he nearly pulled off a miracle, leading Chicago to two fourth-quarter touchdowns, including a 35-yard scoring pass that was the longest play of the game by either team.
 
Hell, we almost witnessed one of the greatest miracles in history: Smith becoming the first coach since Mike Holmgren to lead his team to two NFC titles. Holmgren did it with BrettFavre at the MVP-peak of his Hall of Fame career. Smith would have gone to Super Bowls with Rex Grossman and Caleb Hanie. 
 
THE CURSE of SID LUCKMAN
Of course, the Curse of Sid Luckman would not allow such thrilling offensive miracles. In between exciting the nation and giving Bears fans a cruel sense of hope, Hanie threw a pick-six to nose tackle B.J. Raji that proved the difference in a 21-14 game.
 
And then, in the final moments, with Hanie leading the team into striking distance of overtime ... against the Packers ... at a frosty Soldier Field ... in a comeback for the ages ... for a trip to the Super Bowl! ... in a battle of the NFL's oldest rivals!! ... with the new FREAKIN' overtime rules!!! ... in what could go down as the GREATEST GAME IN PACKERS-BEARS HISTORY!!!!
 
Yes, at that moment, with history unfolding before our very eyes, the Curse of Sid Luckman struck again, and struck hard: Hanie threw a game-sealing INT into the waiting arms of Sam Shields.
 
We're not criticizing Hanie. Hell, he was the story of the game. He performed unbelievably well given the circumstances. But it was too much to ask an unknown third-string QB to overcome the league's No. 1 pass defense, a 14-0 deficit ... and the Curse of Sid Luckman. 
 
We don't know what George Halas did to Sid Luckman at the end of his career. Maybe ol' Sid was pissed that Papa Bear drafted nearby Notre Dame hero Johnny Lujack in 1946: the year before his Heisman-winning season, while Luckman was still at the peak of his career.
 
Maybe the Football Fates themselves were mad at Halas for getting greedy and for trying to corner the market on QB riches.
 
Whatever the reason, the organization has never been the same since  Luckman walked off into a leather-helmet sunset. And we can think of no other reason but evil curses.
 
What, you got a better reason to explain why 128 guys have passed for more than 14,686 yards in their NFL careers ... and not one of them has topped that mark with the Bears?
 
We saw a microcosm of Chicago's entire history since 1950 in the NFC title game: the defense played well, holding the Packers offense to 14 points and picking off the prolific Aaron Rodgers twice. But the Bears were  handicapped by an injured fallen star QB, a second-stringer who simply should not be in an NFL uniform and a third-stringer who gave a tantalizing taste of hope, only to pull the rug out from under the feet of Chicagoland.
 
The funny thing is, you didn't have to be a Potentate of Pigskin to predict with absolute certainty that the quarterback position would let down the Bears. After all, they've let down the Bears almost every single year for six decades.
 
It's simply unbelievable that one team – a bedrock NFL franchise that consistently fields great defenders and elite defenses – would fail so miserably for so long at the single most important position in all of sports.
 
We simply call it the Curse of Sid Luckman.
 
THE CURSE of SID LUCKMAN: BY the NUMBERS
You already know Luckman is STILL the team's all-time leading passer. We've talked about it a number of times. It's a feat made remarkable by the fact that he passed for just 14,686 yards, about four seasons of work for a an average modern quarterback, and by the fact he last played 60 friggin' years ago. Actually, Luckman last saw significant playing time back in 1948.
 
Yet he's still the best and most productive quarterback the Bears have ever seen, more than a half century later.
 
Think of how incredibly the sport has evolved since 1950. Granted, teams have never matched the scoring levels of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The 1950 season, Luckman's last, is still the third-highest scoring season in history (45.88 PPG), and the 1948 season, Luckman's last of note, remains the top-scoring season in NFL history (46.48 PPG).
 
But individual offensive production has skyrocketed – for everybody but the Bears.
 
We wrote about Chicago's "beached whale of NFL offenses" in great detail in 2009, after the Bears acquirted Cutler. Here are some notable offensive leaders in Chicago history, at least in the passing game:
 
All-time leader, passing yards: Sid Luckman (14,686). Last played in 1950.
 
All-time leader, TD passes: Sid Luckman (137) last played in 1950; Billy Wade is a distant second (68). He played for the Bears only from 1961 to 1964, with a couple snaps afterward.
 
Last Bears QB to lead the NFL in passing yards: Johnny Lujack in 1949 (2,658 yards)

Last Bears QB to lead the NFL in TD passes: Johnny Lujack in 1949 (23)
 
Last Bears QB to lead the NFL in passer rating: Billy Wade in 1961 (93.7)
 
Last Bears QB to pass for 4,000 yards: crickets.
 
That's right. It's never happened. Five quarterbacks topped 4,000 yards in 2010; 10 did it in 2009. Chicago fans have never seen a 4,000-yard passer ... at least not one in a Bears uniform.
 
In fact, Chicago has watched a quarterback top 3,000 yards, a humble number by today's standards, just seven times. And two of those have been by Cutler in the last two years.
 
Hell, Jay Cutler is f*ckin' Dan Marino by Chicago's lowly standards.
 
Single-season leader, passing yards, TD passes: Erik Kramer in 1995 (3,838 yards, 29 TDs)
 
All-time leading receiver: Johnny Morris (5,059 yards). He last played in 1967 and produced just one 1,000-yard season (1,200 in 1964).
 
Number of 1,000-yard receivers: 11, and just seven in the 41 seasons since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970.
 
Last 1,000-yard receiver: Marty Booker, nearly a decade ago (2002).
 
Bears receivers who have led the NFL in receptions: Jim Keane in 1947 (64); Johnny Morris in 1964 (93); Dick Gordon in 1970 (71).
 
All-time leader in receptions: Walter Payton (492); yes, a running back
 
Mike Ditka, by the way, caught 12 TDs as a rookie tight end with the Bears in 1961. Only one Bears pass catcher  has topped that TD total since: receiver Dick Gordon, with 13 way back in 1970.
 
Team scoring: The Bears have fielded a top-10 scoring offense just seven times in the Super Bowl Era (since 1966). The Bears last led the league in scoring in 1956.
 
DEFENSE wins CHAMPIONSHIPS? (if only)
Adding a layer of statistical curiosity to the dearth of production in the passing game is the fact that the Bears are routinely a defensive juggernaut.
 
In fact, stout defenses have defined the organization for decades. Symbolically, these defenses have been represented by an incredible array of talent at middle linebacker that began, fittingly for our little conspiracy theory, in the immediate aftermath of Sid Luckman's Curse.
 
Hall of Famer Bill George (1952-65) is credited as one of the men who helped invent the modern position of middle linebacker. George was replaced by Hall of Famer Dick Butkus (1965-73) who was eventually replaced by Hall of Famer Mike Singletary (1982-92) who was eventually replaced by perennial Pro Bowler Brian Urlacher.
 
By the way, just noticed this: the guys at profootballreference.com track the top player in approximate value for each organization. Bill George, the Hall of Fame linebacker who last played nearly a half century ago, is the top player in Bears history by their calculations. Their conclusion is a perfect one for our conspiracy purposes.
 
Given this history, it's no surprise that this past Sunday, on a day when the quarterbacks failed miserably for Chicago in the NFC title game, Urlacher was probably the team's top star: he led the Bears with tackles (10), recorded their only sack, and thwarted a scoring drive when he picked off Aaron Rodgers at Chicago's own 6 yard line. In our SportsIllustrated.com post-game grades, we gave Urlacher and the linebacking corps and A- for their effort.
 
Butkus certainly shared in Urlacher's frustration. He's remembered as one of the most feared players in history. But the Bears enjoyed winning records just twice in his career (9-5 in 1965; 7-6-1 in 1967). Butkus never played in a postseason game ... mostly because his offenses, and his quarterbacks, sucked.
 
But Chicago's defenses have dominated more than symbolically. They've also dominated statistically. The 2010 Bears ranked No. 3 in Defensive Passer Rating, No. 4 in scoring defense, No. 6 in Bendability, No. 6 on the Defensive Hog Index.
 
The Bears have fielded a top-four unit in scoring defense four times in the past decade; they've  fielded a top-four unit in scoring offense four times since 1962.
 
It's created some very large problems for Chicago. Basically, they need more than just a good defense to win a championship. They need some of the greatest defenses of all time.
 
Simply look at their only two championship teams since Sid Luckman's departure: the 1963 Bears and the 1985 Bears.
 
The 1985 Bears are perhaps the most feared unit in the memory of most contemporary football fans. They led the NFL in scoring defense (12.4 PPG) and were even stingier the following year (11.9 PPG). The 1985 Bears famously shutout both playoff opponents (Rams, Giants) and then laid an ass-whupping for the ages on the Patriots, 46-10, in Super Bowl XX.
 
But the 1963 defense was even better. In fact, you could argue that the 1963 Bears fielded the greatest defense in post-war NFL history.
 
Chicago surrendered just 144 points (10.29 PPG) that year. (A number of defenses since 1963, mostly in the Dead Ball Era, were stingier.)
 
But they were statistical light years ahead of the the No. 2 defense in 1963, from Green Bay, which surrendered 206 points (14.7 PPG). And the 1963 season was also one of the highest-scoring years on record: the average game produced 43.96 points – the 11th highest scoring season on record.
 
So the Bears dominated on defense in a year otherwise famed for offense. For example, Y.A. Tittle set a then-NFL record with 36 TD passses in 1963.
 
Chicago held eight of 14 opponents to a touchdown or less. Only one team scored three touchdowns against them: the Lions trailed Chicago 35-0 at the half, when Earl Morrall struck the hibernating Bears for three long touchdown passes (67,60 and 38 yards) in garbage time. The Bears won, 37-21.
 
The Bears squared off in the NFL title game that year against the record-setting Tittle, who who led the Giants Big to a league-best 32.0 PPG.
 
It was ugly: the Bears knocked Tittle senseless, in one of the most famous beatings in NFL history. He was picked five times, knocked around countless times, and shot up with more drugs on the sideline than a tranquilized circus elephant.
 
The Bears won a defensive struggle, 14-10.
 
So there you have it: Luckman and the Bears dominated the QB position, and the NFL, in the 1940s, winning four titles (1940, 1941, 1943, 1946). In the 60 seasons since he's retired, they've won just two titles. And it took two of the most dominant defenses ever, in 1963 and 1985, to help Chicago overcome its dearth of talent on offense.
 
They say that defense wins champions. But if that were true, Chicago would be contenders year after year.
 
Instead, the Steelers know the truth. The Packers know the truth. And now you know the truth: defense wins championships, but typically when paired with a productive, playmaking quarterback. 
 
Chicago seems to be the only place that has yet to get the memo. Maybe Sid Luckman, who did double duty as a fair defensive back, intercepted it.

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