April 26, 2012

1967: Bears Trade Mike Ditka to Eagles for Jack Concannon

In the offseason following the 1966 NFL season, the Philadelphia Eagles lost star TE Pete Retzlaff to retirement while the Chicago Bears were seeking a quarterback due to the retirement talk surrounding 35-year-old QB Rudy Bukich (he stayed on for one more season as a backup). On April 26, 1967 the Eagles traded QB Jack Concannon and an unspecified 1968 draft pick to the Bears for TE Mike Ditka.

Ditka (pictured above) had quickly established himself as one of the premier tight ends in pro football after coming to the Bears as a first draft choice in 1961. He received Rookie of the Year recognition as he caught 56 passes for 1076 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first year and was selected to the Pro Bowl following each of the first five. A hard-nosed player who combined the strong blocking skills expected in the position with excellent pass receiving ability, he was one of the stars of the 1963 NFL Championship-winning team and topped out statistically with 75 catches for 897 yards in ‘64.

However, the 27-year-old Ditka was on the verge of becoming a free agent. He had refused to sign a contract for 1966 and played out his option. He also infuriated owner/Head Coach George Halas by accepting a $50,000 bonus to sign a three-year contract and jump leagues to play for the AFL’s Houston Oilers – a deal that was tossed out once the AFL/NFL merger was agreed to (although he got to keep the bonus).

Having obtained his rights, the Eagles were successful in signing Ditka to a contract. Ditka had often been a critic of the front office while with the Bears, but was diplomatic upon leaving. “I bear no animosity to the Bear team,” he stated. “It’s been a great six years in Chicago and I hope the next six years will be as great.”

The 24-year-old Concannon was Philadelphia’s second-round draft choice out of Boston College in 1964. At 6’3” and 205 pounds, he was known for his flashy running ability as a quarterback in college and showed off the same form in the NFL – at least, on the rare occasions when he played. Backing up veteran QB Norm Snead (along with King Hill) as a rookie, he was given a late-season start against Dallas and passed for two touchdowns while also rushing for 99 yards in just 8 carries. It was enough to make him a fan favorite, but did not guarantee him more playing time.

After mostly sitting on the bench for the next two years, sometimes relieving at quarterback and occasionally returning punts, Concannon got two late-season starts in 1966 (as part of Head Coach Joe Kuharich’s odd three-man starting quarterback rotation), and they were wins. Against the Steelers, he set a club single-game rushing record for a quarterback with 129 yards that lasted until 2010. However, he showed his erratic tendencies in the Playoff Bowl, tossing a costly interception in defeat. For all the excitement he generated, he appeared in just 18 games, completed only 43.7 % of his passes with four touchdowns and eight interceptions, but also rushed for 433 yards on 50 carries for an 8.7-yard average gain. He had a knack for making big plays, but was very much a work in progress.

Philadelphia reportedly gave the Bears their choice of any of the three veteran quarterbacks on the roster, including Snead and Hill. It was considered something of a surprise that Halas went with Concannon (Concannon himself expressed surprise that the Bears didn’t choose one of the others when reacting to the trade).

Ditka played for two seasons in Philadelphia, but they were not the best of his Hall of Fame career. In 1967, foot and hamstring injuries limited him to nine games, and he caught 26 passes for 274 yards and two TDs. The output was even less in ’68 (13 receptions for 111 yards and two scores) due not only to a knee injury but his being suspended by Kuharich for making critical comments regarding his management of the team. In a dreadful 2-12 season in which there was much dissension, Ditka’s voice was just one of those expressing dissatisfaction. Kuharich was relieved as GM and head coach following the year, and Ditka was traded to the Cowboys. He played effectively for four seasons and was part of another championship team in 1971. Ultimately, he reconciled with Halas and the Bears and became a successful head coach of the team, leading it to a Super Bowl victory following the 1985 season.

Jack Concannon (pictured above) ran into injury problems in Chicago, although the club went 5-1-1 in the second half of 1967 with him behind center to finish at 7-6-1. However, it was the same story as in Philadelphia – while he could make big plays and ran for 279 yards, he was still erratic throwing the ball, completing 49.5 % of his passes for 1260 yards and tossing far more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (6). The presence of star HB Gale Sayers made the greater impact on the offense’s output.

A fractured shoulder limited Concannon to seven games in 1968 and backup QB Virgil Carter yielded better results in relief. But from a 7-7 record, the Bears collapsed to 1-13 in ’69 and Concannon found himself competing with rookie Bobby Douglass as well as Carter. It seemed as though Douglass – another quarterback who was better at running than passing – would supplant the veteran, but when the young lefthander went down early in the 1970 season with a broken wrist, Concannon put together his best pro season, throwing for 2130 yards with 16 TDs against 18 interceptions. Chicago bounced back to 6-8. But he was lost to injury in ’71, the team committed to Douglass, and Concannon exited for Dallas, where he was never activated over the course of two years, finishing up with brief appearances with Green Bay and Detroit before retiring.

In all with the Bears, Concannon completed 51.1 % of his passes for 5222 yards with 31 TDs and 52 interceptions, rushed for 586 yards, and provided his share of excitement. However, he lacked the passing ability and consistency to be truly successful as a quarterback in the NFL.