May 14, 2016

1973: Falcons Deal Bob Berry to Minnesota for Bob Lee


On May 14, 1973 the Atlanta Falcons traded starting QB Bob Berry along with their 1974 first draft choice to the Minnesota Vikings for QB Bob Lee and LB Lonnie Warwick, two players who had played out their options.  

Berry was surprised at learning of the trade that sent him back to the Vikings, the club he had started out with in 1965. Collegiately, he had starred at Oregon, where he led the Ducks to three straight winning seasons (something they hadn’t done in 30 years) and passed for 4148 yards and 37 touchdowns.  Minnesota obtained his rights from the Philadelphia Eagles, who chose him as a future selection in the eleventh round of the ’64 NFL draft. He saw little action in his first three seasons in Minnesota but became the starting quarterback for the Falcons in 1968, where he was reunited with Norm Van Brocklin, the head coach when he joined the Vikings in ’65 who was now in Atlanta. Lacking ideal size (5’11”, 185) and with a weak arm, Berry compensated with mobility, passing accuracy, and good leadership qualities.

Berry was a Pro Bowl selection in 1969 and led the NFL by averaging 8.9 yards per attempt in 1971, when he also completed a NFC-high 60.2 percent of his passes. Overall in Atlanta, he threw for 8489 yards and 57 TDs, giving up 56 interceptions, with a completion percentage of 56.4. But typically his throws were short, often to his backs and TE Jim Mitchell, and Berry took many sacks. After achieving a 7-6-1 record in ‘71, the first over .500 in franchise history, the Falcons essentially held steady at 7-7 in 1972 and Van Brocklin became disenchanted.  

“His won-lost record was the yardstick,” explained Van Brocklin of the decision to deal Berry. “We need an improvement in our passing game other than in completion percentages. We needed more than a short yardage quarterback.”

The quarterback the Falcons got in return, Bob Lee (pictured above), was a 17th round draft pick out of the College of the Pacific in 1969 and had been Minnesota’s punter as a rookie. He saw some action at quarterback in 1970 and ‘71, even starting a playoff game, but in 1972 Lee was stuck behind Fran Tarkenton, who was back in Minnesota following five years with the Giants, and threw just six passes.

The Falcons were intending to use QB Pat Sullivan, the Heisman Trophy winner out of Auburn who was drafted the previous year, but it was journeyman backup Dick Shiner starting the season with Lee, who was set back by an injury in training camp, in reserve. However, when Shiner went down with an injury in the fourth week, and with the team at 1-3, Lee took over the starting job and the Falcons responded with seven straight wins on the way to a 9-5 record, barely missing the postseason.

Lee wasn’t required to go to the air often, averaging 12 completions per game as he threw for 1786 yards and 10 touchdowns against 8 interceptions. He was helped by a sound running game led by HB Dave Hampton and a good offensive line, plus a defense that could keep games close. Placekicker Nick Mike-Mayer also had a career year, kicking 26 field goals.

The bubble burst in 1974, however, as Lee completed just 45.3 percent of his passes for 852 yards and three touchdowns while giving up 14 interceptions. Sullivan and Kim McQuilken took over the starting quarterback duties with equally disastrous results as the Falcons dropped to 3-11. Coach Van Brocklin was gone after eight games, replaced by Marion Campbell, and in the 1975 NFL draft Atlanta traded up to get California QB Steve Bartkowski in the first round. Lee, the subject of adulation the previous year, was released.

     

As for Bob Berry (pictured at right), he spent the remaining three years of his career backing up the durable Tarkenton in Minnesota. He threw all of 78 passes, completing 47 for 450 yards and six TDs. Ironically enough, Lee returned to the Vikings in 1975 and ended up replacing Berry as Tarkenton’s backup, spending four seasons with the club in his second stint before moving on to the Rams in 1979 and ’80. He went to two Super Bowls, one with each club, but only as a backup quarterback.  

With regard to other players involved in the 1973 deal, Lonnie Warwick had been with the Vikings for eight years and was the starting middle linebacker for most of them. He was 31 at the time of the trade and had struggled with injuries the previous two seasons. Warwick spent two years with Atlanta as a backup in a strong unit that included MLB Tommy Nobis and OLBs Greg Brezina and Don Hansen.

The first draft choice that the Vikings obtained from the Falcons was used to take LB Fred McNeill from UCLA with the seventeenth overall pick in 1974. McNeill spent twelve seasons with Minnesota, moving into the starting lineup at right outside linebacker in his fourth year and staying there until 1985.   

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