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Bobby Douglass: A Bears Quarterback Who Was One Of A Kind

Think Bears QB's have been shaky in recent years? Read about Bobby Douglass, a quarterback with a great arm who never quite learned how to make it work.

<em>Photo courtesy Leo Bauby,</em>
Photo courtesy Leo Bauby,

There always seems to be a quarterback controversy surrounding the Chicago Bears.

The Bears' only Super Bowl win was quarterbacked by Jim McMahon, who had talent but also great instincts. Had McMahon not been injured, the Bears might have won more than that one championship in an era when they made the playoffs every year and had many other great players.

Now, the Bears have turned to Jay Cutler, a QB of great talent but -- apparently -- bad judgment and a bit of overconfidence that can be viewed as arrogance, to lead them back to the postseason. It didn't work last year and based on the preseason results so far in 2010, may not this year, either.

More than 40 years ago, the Bears turned to another young, mobile, tall, blond quarterback to lead them back to the glory that seemed to be seeping away with the aging of George Halas and injuries to key players. After the 1968 season, the Bears needed a QB. They had dispatched the talented Virgil Carter to Cincinnati after he called Halas "chickenshit", abbreviated to "chicken-bleep" in the newspapers of the time; Rudy Bukich was ancient (36 was considered ancient in those pre-Brett Favre days), and Jack Concannon was erratic.

So the Bears spent a second-round draft pick in 1969 on a 6-4, blond hard thrower out of the University of Kansas, Bobby Douglass. Douglass had led Kansas to its first Big Eight title in 20 years and was one of the tallest QB's in his era.

He was also lefthanded. At the time Douglass was drafted, a lefthanded QB was viewed like a lefthanded catcher in baseball would be -- a freak, a rarity. Since then, of course, men like Steve Young, Boomer Esaison and Ken Stabler have become stars and thrown from the left side, but only four of them had played in the league before Douglass. The best-known of those was Allie Sherman, who later became coach of the New York Giants in the early 1960's. Offensive sets weren't drawn up for lefthanded quarterbacks... and the Bears, who were changing coaches in 1969, didn't really have anything for Douglass, who didn't play until the season's sixth game and whose only win that year wound up costing the Bears. On November 9, 1969 at Wrigley Field, Douglass threw a pair of touchdown passes and led the Bears to a 38-7 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was the Bears' only win of the year; they wound up tied with the Steelers at 1-13 for the league's worst record. In those years, a coin flip was the tiebreaker. The Steelers won it and drafted Terry Bradshaw. The Bears traded the #2 pick to the Packers for three guys who had zero impact.

Douglass, at 6-4, 225, was a big guy with a strong arm. Too strong, said most of his receivers; they kept complaining they'd get open and he'd overthrow them anyway. Coach Jim Dooley and his successor, Abe Gibron, had no idea what to do with him. Big and strong, he was eager to learn but failed to mind any of his lessons. At one point Dooley actually had Douglass, then a bachelor, move into his house during the season so he could better absorb his teaching. It didn't work; in 1971 Douglass threw five TD passes -- and 15 interceptions.

Bears management thought up wilder schemes; they considered making Douglass a tight end (presaging a similar idea which they tried, and failed, with a future QB who also wore #10, Kordell Stewart). They actually considered changing their helmet color to orange, so Douglass could better spot his receivers. That didn't happen, but it was during Douglass' tenure at QB when the Bears put the orange "C" within the white "C" that had been the helmet logo before the early 1970's.

And then they realized Douglass could run. And run, and run, and run. In 1972, when the Bears were awful and finished 4-9-1, Douglass scrambled and ran and dodged his way to 968 rushing yards. That set a record for rushing by a quarterback in a single season which stood for 34 years until Michael Vick broke it in 2006 -- by 71 yards, and Vick had two more games in a 16-game season. To put it in better perspective, Douglass finished 11th among all rushers that year and led the league with 6.9 yards per carry. Vick's total of 1039 yards in 2006 was almost 200 yards behind the top ten.

The Bears didn't win many games with Douglass starting -- overall he was 13-31-1 -- but man, was he fun to watch. On November 14, 1971, the Bears had just tied a game against the Washington Redskins at 15-15. Douglass was holding for the extra point; the snap was bad. Rolling out, he located Dick Butkus -- an eligible receiver -- and threw a complete pass to him, sealing a 16-15 win. He is one of only seven Bears quarterbacks (Billy Wade, Concannon, Erik Kramer, Cade McNown, Rex Grossman and Cutler are the others) to throw four TD passes in a single game in the last 50 years. Douglass did it at Wrigley Field on November 22, 1970, a 31-13 win over the Buffalo Bills.

In 1975 Douglass was traded to the Chargers, and later played a couple of years with the Saints and finished up as a backup to David Whitehurst on the 1978 Green Bay Packers. But he wasn't quite done with sports. He'd been a popular figure on the Chicago social scene in the 1970's; he was once a part-owner (as a first investor in what eventually became Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises) and host at the popular Pump Room, and White Sox owner Bill Veeck, knowing popularity could translate into ticket sales, had a plan.

Veeck knew Douglass had a strong left arm. And so, in the summer of 1979, Veeck signed Douglass, who had just turned 32, to a minor-league deal with the Sox and sent him to Triple-A Iowa (which was the Sox' top affiliate until 1982), hoping he could quickly get himself into pitching shape so he could be called up in September and sell some tickets. The experiment lasted all of four relief appearances; Douglass gave up only six hits in seven innings, but issued 13 walks with no strikeouts. No one could hit him because he couldn't throw strikes... in baseball as in the NFL, not hitting his target.

Douglass finished his NFL career with 36 touchdown passes, 64 interceptions and 2654 rushing yards. Since his retirement he's remained a popular figure in the Chicago area, running football camps for kids during the summer. He'll be signing autographs along with another popular ex-Bear, kicker Kevin Butler, on Wednesday at the Northern League Gary RailCats game at US Steel Yard in Gary.

Bobby Douglass was controversial, and ultimately, unsuccessful as a pro quarterback. But he brought fun to watching an otherwise sad-sack Bears team. Some call the current NFL the "No Fun League". In some ways, that's very true, as compared to the way the game was played 40 years ago.