August 18, 2011
The Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers swung a trade on Friday morning, August 18, 1989, the eve of a preseason game between the clubs, in which QB Jim McMahon was dealt for a conditional 1990 draft pick (it ended up being a second round choice, used to take LB Ron Cox from Fresno State). McMahon himself received a brief wakeup call that morning from Head Coach Mike Ditka informing him of the deal.
McMahon, just days short of his 30th birthday, had been a colorful and controversial character in Chicago. He had also been a winner with the Bears, who went 49-17 with him behind center, including 35 of his last 38 regular season starts, and 3-2 in the playoffs, including a huge win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
However, the 6’1”, 195-pound quarterback also was injury-prone, missing time with a lacerated kidney in 1984 as well as shoulder, knee, and hamstring ailments. He had rotator cuff surgery in 1987. As impressive as his overall starting record had been, it represented a total of 66 out of 101 games the Bears played from 1982 through ’88 (excluding the postseason).
In 1988, he started the first nine games but sprained his knee against the Patriots and didn’t play again until the postseason. He did not start, but appeared in, the “Fog Bowl” win against the Eagles and then started the next week in the NFC Championship game, a 28-3 loss to the 49ers.
A college star at Brigham Young, McMahon was drafted in the first round by the Bears in 1982 and, while he didn’t have the strongest arm, he threw well on the run, had considerable savvy as a play caller, and exhibited a toughness that won the respect of his offensive teammates. However, he was also outspoken, often outrageous, and frequently critical of Coach Ditka.
“Outrageousness is nothing more than a way to wake people up,” was how the maverick quarterback justified his behavior, from wearing headbands that were unapproved by the NFL to mooning a helicopter full of reporters during Super Bowl week. However, the unpredictability was put to good use on the field, where his ability to surprise defenses served him well.
The trade was not completely unexpected, as overachieving veteran Mike Tomczak had played well when McMahon was out and Jim Harbaugh, a rookie in ’88, was waiting in the wings.
“I think he (Ditka) believes he can win with anybody,” McMahon, reacting to the transaction, said at a news conference. “It's his coaching that gets it done, so now, I don't have to deal with that anymore,”
Ditka said that while he liked McMahon and respected him, “My feeling is Jim needs a change of scenery. I think he'll be happier starting for the Chargers and being in a class organization.”
“The Bears are going in a different direction,” player personnel director Bill Tobin added. “Our quarterback situation is healthy.”
The Chargers, for their part, were in need of a starting quarterback. Hall of Famer Dan Fouts retired after the 1987 season and the team had stumbled along at 6-10 in ‘88 with Mark Malone, a disappointment in Pittsburgh who fared no better in San Diego, and journeyman Babe Laufenberg starting. Second-year QB Mark Vlasic led the Chargers to two wins, but was still recovering from a knee injury and had been placed on the physically-unable-to-perform (or “PUP”) list. The week prior to the trade for McMahon, Malone, free agent David Archer, and rookie Billy Joe Tolliver had all been ineffective in a dismal preseason loss to the Cowboys. Malone was immediately released to make room for the newcomer.
McMahon was inserted into the preseason game at Soldier Field the day after the trade. He was behind center for San Diego’s first possession of the second half and received a rousing ovation from the 60,167 fans, but after completing a pass to RB Barry Redden for a first down, he misfired on his next two throws and gave way to the rookie, Tolliver.
The wily veteran started the season for the Chargers, and the results were disappointing. In the season-opening game, San Diego lost by a 40-14 score to the Raiders as McMahon had a 7-for-19, 91-yard performance. However, in Week 2, he completed 27 of 45 passes for 389 yards and two TDs (as well as three interceptions) in a loss to the Oilers. Suffering from an assortment of nagging injuries and with a mediocre supporting cast, in particular a substandard line, McMahon appeared in 12 games and started 11 of them. While there were some successes, the Chargers were just 4-7 in those starts, and Tolliver guided the team the rest of the way to another 6-10 finish. The gritty veteran completed 55.3 percent of his passes for 2132 yards with 10 touchdowns and an equal number of interceptions. He averaged just 5.9 yards per attempt and was sacked 28 times.
Off the field there was more controversy, the low point coming when, in response to an unwanted question, McMahon blew his nose on a reporter. Following the season, a new general manager, Bobby Beathard, took over and, once it became apparent that the fragile and quirky quarterback wouldn’t be starting, would cost too much money, and couldn’t be traded, McMahon was released in April and signed on with the Philadelphia Eagles to back up Randall Cunningham.
Things did not go so smoothly for the Bears in 1989, either. After winning their first four games, they lost DT Dan Hampton to a knee injury, which had a profound effect on the defense. Chicago promptly lost three straight, winning just twice more the rest of the way, and dropped the last six games to finish at 6-10, the club’s first losing record since Ditka’s initial year as head coach in 1982.
Tomczak started the season at quarterback, but proved to be inconsistent and gave way to Harbaugh, who showed toughness and mobility, although also a penchant for taking sacks. Together, they threw for 3262 yards and 21 touchdowns, but with 25 interceptions.
The Bears rebounded to 11-5 in ’90, with an improved Harbaugh at quarterback, and had one last winning season under Ditka in 1991 before dropping to 5-11 in ’92.
McMahon became embroiled in further controversy in Philadelphia, not of his own making this time, when Head Coach Buddy Ryan benched Cunningham for a series in a postseason loss to Washington. The rusty backup, who had thrown just nine passes all year, tossed three incompletions and Cunningham returned to the game, but not without repercussions (the playoff defeat was the last straw in the ongoing battle between Ryan and owner Norman Braman, who fired the brash coach shortly thereafter).
McMahon got his chance to start in ’91 when Cunningham was lost for the year to an injury in the season-opening game. He played well…when he played. Again, McMahon proved too brittle to go the distance. After one more year as a backup, he started for the Vikings in 1993 before finishing out his career with Arizona and Green Bay. Backing up the durable Brett Favre with the Packers, McMahon earned a second Super Bowl ring in 1996 before retiring.