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The complete history of Bears quarterbacks who were “The Future”

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With Mitchell Trubisky getting his first career start this Monday night against Minnesota, WCG historian Jack M Silverstein looks back at the 12 quarterbacks in franchise history who have been presented as “the future.”

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Vikings v Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

“The future...” Marty McFly said as he walked out of an alley and into 2015 Hill Valley.

He said it with a mix of awe and curiosity, befitting of a teenager who has already traveled 30 years into the past and is now 30 years into the future, wearing a self-drying jacket and self-lacing shoes. He doesn’t know for sure what awaits him, but he feels blessed to have the opportunity to see it for himself.

Bears fans can relate.

On Monday night, Mitchell Trubisky makes his first start — and regular season debut — as quarterback of the Chicago Bears. When the Bears selected him as the number 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft, the media was stunned. Former Bears were stunned. Bears fans were stunned. (John Fox was stunned?)

Yet once we heard his name called, we were greeted with a moment of both awe and curiosity. We were looking at the future.

And yes, ha ha ha, we’ve looked at the future before. Twelve times by my count.

Here, then, is a rundown of the 12 quarterbacks deemed The Future, along with a look at their first career start, and whether or not they fulfilled the moniker.

A note about my methodology.

First, let’s acknowledge that The Future is not always good. Yes, Marty was amazed by hover boards and power-lace Nikes, but he was none too thrilled about the path his own life had taken, and that of his family.

Bears fans have wanted to fire a lot of quarterbacks.

So whether or not a quarterback took the Bears to a championship (spoiler alert: most didn’t) is immaterial. What matters is that the quarterback in question occupied a significant portion of our Bears-watching time, dominated our psyche, and left a lasting legacy.

Second, when it comes to quarterback declarations of The Future, a player has to be deemed as such at the outset of his Bears tenure.

Therefore I am leaving out some memorable and even successful Bears QBs, including solid starters (Bobby Douglass, Vince Evans, Bob Avellini), a franchise record setter (Erik Kramer), guys with winning seasons (Rudy Bukich, Jim Miller, Kyle Orton), one Pro Bowler (Ed Brown), one Hall of Famer (George Blanda), and one QB who steered us to a championship (Billy Wade).

I’m also leaving out Rick Mirer. We traded a #1 pick to get him, and he was only 27, meaning he definitely was hyped as The Future. But he couldn’t even win the starting job out of preseason and didn’t start for the Bears until Kramer got hurt. Therefore by the time he had his first start, he was most certainly not The Future.

That move didn’t work out, to say the least. As for the 12 quarterbacks on this list, what did the future hold?

Let’s find out.

(Oh, and shoutout to Pro Football Reference and Newspapers.com, without which this story would not be possible.)

Chicago Tribune, April 28, 2017

Sid Luckman

Acquired: 1939 Draft, 2nd overall pick

With team until: 1950, his final NFL season

Debut as starter: Week 10, 1939, at Detroit. Luckman actually started the first game of his rookie year, but he did so at end, not quarterback.

Performance: Not bad! The former Columbia star hit Bob Swisher for an 85-yard touchdown pass.

Result: Bears beat the Lions, 23-13

Revealing of things to come? Absolutely. He connected on his first of what would become a franchise-record 137 passing touchdowns, and led the Bears to a win, something he would do many more times during his 12-year career.

Was he the future? And then some. Though Luckman — whom the Bears received in a draft day deal with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Pirates — initially declared his intentions not to play professional football, he turned into the key performer in George Halas’s new T-formation offense. He made his first of three Pro Bowls in 1940, leading the Bears to a record-shattering 73-0 win in the NFL championship game over Washington, the team’s first of four championships in the 1940s.

Luckman set just about every franchise passing record, most significantly for yards and touchdowns, which have only been broken by Jay Cutler. He is the only member of the 1939 draft to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Chicago Tribune, Nov. 13, 1939, from Sid Luckman’s first NFL start at quarterback.

Johnny Lujack

Acquired: 1946 Draft, 4th overall

With team until: 1951, his final NFL season after an early retirement

Debut as starter: Week 2, 1948, at Green Bay. Two notes here. First, an NFL rule allowing players to be drafted before they finished their college careers meant that the Bears picked Lujack in 1946, the year before he won the Heisman trophy at Notre Dame. Lujack joined the Bears for the 1948 season.

Second, though this was Week 2, the Bears did not play in Week 1. So Lujack was the team’s starting quarterback for his first possible NFL game.

Performance: Though he started at quarterback, he starred on defense, intercepting three passes. He also scored on a rushing touchdown and kicked two extra points.

Result: Bears beat the Packers, 45-7

Revealing of things to come? Yes. Lujack took the mantle as the team’s full-time quarterback in his second season, 1949, in which he led the NFL in passing yards with 2,658, and in passing touchdowns, with 23. In 1950 and 1951 he was a Pro Bowler, earning All Pro honors in 1950.

Was he the future? He was supposed to be. A collegiate superstar, Lujack was part of a towering trio of quarterbacks with Luckman and 1948 1st rounder Bobby Layne. When Layne made his first start in 1948, the Tribune called the ailing Lujack “the heir apparent to the quarter back throne.”

It was not to be. After four years in the NFL, Lujack retired, choosing to become the quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame. “I felt that was a good way to repay Notre Dame and (head coach Frank Leahy) for giving me a scholarship,” he says in the 2014 book The Game Before the Money.

Chicago Tribune, Sept. 27, 1948.

Bobby Layne

Acquired: 1948 Draft, 3rd overall

With team until: 1948. He spent only one season in Chicago before George Halas sold him to the New York Bulldogs in June of 1949.

Debut as starter: Week 11, 1948, vs. Washington, though he played some quarterback (or “quarter back,” with the space, as it was known) in his first professional game, the day that Lujack made his first start.

Performance: Bad. Despite a big win for the Bears, Layne was singled out for his ineffective play. On a day when Luckman threw for two touchdowns and Lujack kicked six PATs, the Tribune’s Harry Warren wrote of Layne:

“Bobby Layne, the Bear rookie from Texas, didn’t have a happy day. He tried 10 passes, and his one completion failed to gain an inch.”

Result: Bears beat D.C., 48-13

Chicago Tribune, Nov. 29, 1948

Revealing of things to come? No. Layne was a five-time Pro Bowler, earned two All Pro selections, twice led the NFL in passing yards, and retired after the 1962 season tied for the all-time lead in passing touchdowns, and second all-time in passing yards. The only problem was that he did almost all of that on teams other than the Bears.

Was he the future? No. In June of 1949, the Bears sold Layne to the New York Bulldogs for “a bundle of cash” and two players to be named later. Bulldogs owner Ted Collins called it the biggest deal in the history of the NFL. Said Halas:

“Layne is not only a fine boy, he is an excellent competitor who wishes to play regularly, not sit on the bench. As to our situation, Luckman will play two more seasons and we also have another fine quarter back in Johnny Lujack.”

Chicago Tribune, June 14, 1949.

Bob Williams

Acquired: 1951 Draft, 2nd overall

With team until: 1955, his last year in the NFL

Debut as starter: Week 1, 1952, at Green Bay

Performance: Good. He completed 12 of 22 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns, with no turnovers. Wrote Edward Prell of the Tribune:

“Bob Williams, making a dazzling comeback after a jittery first half performance, fired to lanky Gene Schroeder. The Virginia gentleman eluded Bobby Dillon and ran for a touchdown. When George Blanda kicked goal the score was 17 to 7.”

Result: Bears beat Packers, 24-14

Revealing of things to come? No — his 1952 season with a 3-4 record in seven starts was merely adequate.

Was he the future? No. His career was interrupted for two years while fighting in the Korean War. This was not really a surprise — when the team drafted him in 1951 with the #2 overall pick, Halas said he expected the team would be without Williams “for several years” while he served. But he was definitely tabbed as the future — Halas said he expected Williams to be with the team “for eight years or so.”

Chicago Tribune, January 20, 1951

Zeke Bratkowski

Acquired: 1953 Draft, 2nd round

With team until: 1960

Debut as starter: Week 1, 1954, at Detroit

Performance: Bad. In the 1st quarter, Bratkowski connected with fellow rookie Harlon Hill on a 64-yard touchdown. Remove that play, and he finished 1-11 for 54 yards, 0 touchdowns and three interceptions.

As the Tribune reported:

“Bratkowski, the Bears’ prize rookie, started at quarter and led them to a 10 point lead the first two times they gained possession ... but the next two times the Chicagoans got the ball, attempts to launch a drive were ruined by Lion interceptions and Bratkowski was withdrawn in favor of the injured Blanda.”

Result: Lions beat Bears, 48-23

Revealing of things to come? Yes. Bratkowski was with the Bears until 1960, and was never our full-time starter. We sent him to the Rams, where he compiled a 3-21 record in two-and-a-half seasons. He then went to the Packers, where he earned two Super Bowl rings backing up Bart Starr and retired after the 1971 season.

Was he the future? No.

Chicago Tribune, Sept. 27, 1954

Jack Concannon

Acquired: 1967 trade for Mike Ditka

With team until: 1971

Debut as starter: Week 3, 1967, at Minnesota

Performance: Decent. The Bears limited Concannon’s action to nine passes. He completed seven, for 42 yards, and essentially just did what was asked of him.

Result: Bears beat the Vikings, 17-7

Chicago Tribune, Oct. 2, 1967

Revealing of things to come? Not really. Concannon spent five seasons in Chicago, going 17-22-1 in 40 starts. The team’s best season during his tenure was his first, when they finished 7-6-1 in 1967.

Was he the future? He damn well was supposed to be. Concannon was the #1 pick in the 1964 AFL draft, and a mid-2nd round pick in the 1964 NFL draft, heading to the NFL’s Eagles. He backed up Norm Snead in three years in Philly, winning his only three starts. In 1967, the Bears acquired him in a trade for Mike Ditka.

The Tribune’s sports page declared “CONCANNON TO BEARS; EAGLES GET DITKA,” signifying his importance. Concannon was 24 years old with little wear-and-tear; as far as I can tell, his arrival was similar to Cutler’s 42 years later. As the Tribune’s David Condon wrote the next day:

“Fans have to like the deal bringing Jack Concannon to the Chicago Bears. No matter what the expense, the Bears need a quarterback. He’s the name of the game in pro football. And they got a young man who can figure to spend more than a decade in the Chicago uniform.”

I mean, that describes the Cutler acquisition to a T. They even have the same initials.

Chicago Tribune, April 27, 1967

Gary Huff

Acquired: 1973 Draft, 2nd rounder

With team until: 1976

Debut as starter: Week 12, 1973, vs. the Rams

Performance: Bad. Huff — who started in place of the injured Bobby Douglass — went 9 of 19 for 79 yards and a 58.9 rating. The Tribune pretty casually wrote that “the Rams made a mockery of Gary Huff’s first start as a Bear quarterback,” and reported that one Ram told a Bear after the game, “Thank Bobby for not playing. That made it easy.”

Result: Rams beat the Bears, 26-0

Revealing of things to come? Pretty much. Huff spent four seasons in Chicago, amassed a 5-17 record, and played his final two NFL seasons with the Buccaneers.

Was he the future? Not really. He started 11 games in 1974 and nine in 1975, going 5-15. I don’t think there was really anyone else to throw to the wolves at that point, and out of the ashes of his play rose a pair of 6th rounders, Bob Avellini and Vince Evans, who started the bulk of the team’s games from 1976 to 1981.

Chicago Tribune, Dec. 3, 1973

Jim McMahon

Acquired: 1982 Draft, 5th overall

With team until: 1988

Debut as starter: Week 11, 1982, vs. Lions. This was the team’s 3rd game played of the season following the strike, so it was kind of a reset game for the season.

Performance: Up and down, but more up than down. McMahon went 16 of 27 for 233 yards, with two touchdowns and three interceptions.

Result: Bears beat the Lions, 20-17

Chicago Tribune, Nov. 22, 1982

Revealing of things to come? Yes. Despite a rocky debut, McMahon energized the Bears. The team won and the word was out: the future is here.

Was he the future? Absolutely! Despite his persistent injuries that frequently put the team’s position in peril, McMahon was a leader, a winner, and the team’s last Pro Bowl quarterback, which he earned in 1985. He is also the last Bears quarterback to lead the franchise to a championship, and was the first to do so since Billy Wade in 1963 — who also wore #9.

Chicago Tribune, April 28, 1982

Jim Harbaugh

Acquired: 1987 Draft, 26th overall

With team until: 1993

Debut as starter: Week 14, 1998, at L.A. Rams

Performance: Not great. Harbaugh went 11 for 30, gaining only 108 yards and tossing two picks against zero touchdowns. Headline: “Harbaugh ineffective at QB in one-sided loss to Rams”

Result: Rams beat the Bears, 23-3

Revealing of things to come? No. After a full season not starting and two years primarily on the bench, Harbaugh took the keys to the offense in 1990 and led the Bears to a division championship. He led the team to the playoffs in 1991, too, and did the bulk of the work in 1992 and 1993 before leaving for the Colts.

Was he the future? Kind of. This is a case where the future simply wasn’t what we hoped it would be. The team drafted Harbaugh specifically as a hedge against McMahon. “If we knew McMahon’s health, I don’t think this would have been made,” explained player personnel director Bill Tobin about the Harbaugh pick.

Regardless, Harbaugh held the starting job for four years, and seemed capable enough to do so earlier had he been called upon in a full-time capacity.

Chicago Tribune, April 29, 1987

Cade McNown

Acquired: 1999 Draft, 12th overall pick

With team until: 2000

Debut as starter: Week 6, 1999, vs. Philadelphia

Performance: Flashy, with lots of potential. Cade went 17-33, for 255 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. His 80-yard touchdown to Marcus Robinson was covered here.

Result: Eagles beat the Bears, 20-16

Chicago Tribune, Oct. 18, 1999

Revealing of things to come? Not really. Cade looked pretty good against the Eagles, after spot duty early in the season in which the coaching staff played him one series per game. After that Eagles game, I thought Cade looked like a star in the making.

Was he the future? Decidedly not. Despite some spectacular plays, McNown could never hold down the starting job for a full season, losing time to veterans Shane Matthews and Jim Miller. He went 3-12 over two years and was traded to the Dolphins in August of 2001. Due to a shoulder injury on his throwing arm, he never played again.

Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1999

Rex Grossman

Acquired: 2003 Draft, 22nd overall pick

With team until: 2008

Debut as starter: Week 15, 2003, vs. Minnesota

Performance: Rex didn’t do much. He also didn’t have to. 157 yards and no turnovers made him one of the team’s star rookies that day, along with cornerback Charles Tillman, who ended the game with his famous Randy Moss interception.

Result: Bears beat the Vikings, 13-10

Chicago Tribune, Dec. 15, 2003

Revealing of things to come? Kind of. The team clearly loved Rex, and he gave both teammates and certainly fans a spark after backing up Kordell Stewart and Chris Chandler all season. Rex was usually a fan favorite, and this game kicked off that trend.

Was he the future? Kind of. He played only three games in 2003, was lost for the season in Week 3 of 2004, missed most of 2005 with an injury, lost his starting job in 2007, and played only one game in 2008. He did help lead the Bears to Super Bowl XLI, and did contribute to the team’s crushing loss in that game. All in all, I would say that yes, he was the future.

Chicago Tribune, Dec. 15, 2003

Jay Cutler

Acquired: 2009 via trade

With team until: 2016

Debut as starter: Week 1, 2009, at Green Bay

Performance: Up and down, the ultimately down. He kept us in the game and took us out of it all at once.

Result: Packers beat the Bears, 21-15

Chicago Tribune, Sept. 14, 2009

Revealing of things to come? I hate to say it, but yes. In a nationally televised game against our arch rival and the man (Aaron Rodgers) who would prove to be the prime QB antagonist of his Bears career, Cutler gave us everything: 277 yards passing, an incredible touchdown pass, four egregious interceptions, a chance to win, and a loss.

Was he the future? Yes, he was. He owns every significant passing record in franchise history and held the starting job year in and year out despite all sorts of disasters.

After eight seasons, the Bears parted ways with Cutler.

On Monday, the heir apparent Mitch Trubisky gets his first start.

The future is now.

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images