November 21, 2009

1982: Jim McMahon Leads Bears Over Lions in First Pro Start

The Chicago Bears finished with a mediocre 6-10 record in 1981, and the 86-year-old owner, “Papa Bear” George Halas, asserted his authority one last time to change the direction of the team and try and recover some of the past glory of the Monsters of the Midway.

First, he rehired the defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan. Second, he replaced Head Coach Neill Armstrong with former star tight end Mike Ditka, who had been an assistant in Dallas and provided a very vivid link to the last Chicago championship team in 1963. And third, he and Ditka selected a quarterback in the first round of the 1982 draft, something the Bears had not done since 1951.

Jim McMahon had been a record-setting passer at Brigham Young. On the downside, he was just six feet tall, had a bad knee, and vision that had been impaired in a childhood accident. But his upside was that he had been operating in a sophisticated offense at BYU and showed tremendous potential.

The Bears started off with losses in the first two games. Veterans Vince Evans, the incumbent starter, and Bob Avellini had played at QB, although McMahon saw significant action in the second week. But then the season was interrupted by the eight-week player’s strike.

When the strike ended and NFL games resumed on November 21, 1982, McMahon was given his first starting assignment against the visiting Detroit Lions at Soldier Field. Things got off to a shaky start for the rookie as he threw two interceptions in the first quarter, one of which was returned for a touchdown by safety Ray Oldham. But McMahon brought the Bears back from a 14-3 deficit, first hitting WR Ken Margerum with an 11-yard TD pass in the second quarter and then TE Emery Moorehead on a 28-yard pass play that put Chicago in front, 17-14.

Detroit came back to tie the score with a 32-yard Eddie Murray field goal, but McMahon led the Bears on a drive that culminated in a game-winning field goal of 18 yards by John Roveto. The 20-17 win gave the Bears their first win of the season, Ditka his first victory as a head coach, and McMahon a win in his first start.

McMahon completed 16 of 27 passes for 233 yards with two TDs and three interceptions. FB Matt Suhey had the most receptions (6, for 46 yards) while Moorehead had the most receiving yards with 78 on his three catches, including the one TD. RB Walter Payton, who had been the team’s primary offensive weapon for the better part of seven years, had a typically solid performance with 87 rushing yards on 21 carries.

By contrast, QB Eric Hipple of the Lions completed just 15 of 32 pass attempts for 119 yards with a TD and two interceptions, and was sacked seven times for a loss of 62 yards – a testament to Ryan’s defense. Star RB Billy Sims gained just 67 yards on his 20 runs.

The Bears were still a work in progress and concluded the strike-shortened season with a 3-6 record. McMahon completed 120 of 210 passes (57.1 %) for 1501 yards, with 9 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. As modest as his numbers might appear, his passer rating of 79.9 was the best by a Chicago quarterback since 1965, the completion percentage was the second best in team history, and none of his last 105 passes were intercepted. He was selected to the NFL All-Rookie team. To be sure, the offensive line was a sieve and McMahon had to run far too often (the quarterbacks collectively were sacked a NFC-high 33 times).

McMahon would prove to be a successful quarterback for the Bears, if also a brittle and occasionally controversial one. But the pieces that Halas put in place in 1982 would culminate in a championship in 1985 (the “Papa Bear” wouldn’t live to see it – he died in 1983).