“When I drop back, I’m thinking 100% to pass. But if there’s a breakdown, I’ll scramble.” — Bobby Douglass, 25 years old, November 1972
“Oh, I loved running. But back then, quarterbacks weren’t supposed to run. I would have loved to play for a coach who used my ability.” — Bobby Douglass, 75 years old, November 2022
It’s Lions week! And I’ve got a Lions story for you.
But it’s also Justin Fields week! And I’ve got a Bobby Douglass story for you.
Spoiler alert: They’re the same story.
Growing up in the 1980s and really the 1990s, there were certain Bears quarterbacks I heard about from my father, uncle, grandfather and older relatives and friends. Obviously any Bears QB who comported himself halfway professionally summoned the name of Sid Luckman.
My dad’s guy was Billy Wade, he of the ‘63 champs, and early on there were McMahon comps to Wade — both guided championship Bears teams in #9 — until finally it was all about Mac, and the pain of knowing “That Jim Harbaugh, I like him, he’ll do, but he’s no McMahon.”
(The screams from my father’s mother when news broke that we shipped Mac to the Chargers. We were out to dinner together and a news report came on at the restaurant. The SCREAMS, I tell you. The indignance. The OUTRAGE.)
So it was Luckman for the good and McMahon for the gutsy. When we had someone undersized out there (say, Rex), I heard about Doug Flutie. Someone uninspiring but steady (say, Orton), I heard about Bob Avellini.
But oh, if a Bears quarterback ran for with even a modicum of reckless success, we only heard one name.
“He’s an amazing athlete,” Raiders quarterback Daryl Lamonica said after Douglass shredded Lamonica’s Raiders for 127 rushing yards in the 1972 season finale. “If I ran that much, I’d be in shape.”
I don’t know if that’s a compliment, an insult, or something in between, but it does epitomize the feedback I always heard from my elders on Douglass. They talked about what he was and DEFINITELY delved into what he wasn’t.
And that duality is a perfect introduction to a Bears history look-back that is fitting for this week’s game against Detroit.
Let’s go back 50 years, to Tiger Stadium, the day a Bears quarterback set an NFL record while taking a loss.
Bobby Douglass beats Greg Landry while Greg Landry beats Bobby Douglass
“It’s a play that either works or doesn’t,” Bobby Douglass said on Oct. 15, 1972. He was describing his 57-yard touchdown run on a bootleg left, but he could just as well be describing the totality of the Bobby Douglass experience.
When Justin Fields rushed for 178 yards on Sunday, Douglass came up again and again. Fields broke two of Douglass’s Bears records (more on that below), including rushing yards in a game by a quarterback. Douglass’s mark was the aforementioned 127, which ended his record-shattering season at 968 rushing yards.
But because he nearly doubled the previous season record for rushing by a quarterback, his season record-setting game was not against the Raiders. It was six weeks prior, when the Bears traveled to face the Detroit Lions and quarterback Greg Landry.
One year earlier, Landry came into the final week of the season needing 19 yards rushing to break the QB season rushing record, then held by Green Bay’s Tobin Rote, who ran for 523 in 1951. Landry gained 25 yards in his team’s final game and set the new record at 530.
Douglass destroyed that. After just seven games of the 1972 season, Douglass had rushed for 504 yards on 71 carries. His passing and rushing stats were shockingly close:
- 81 pass attempts, 610 yards, 6 touchdowns
- 71 rush attempts, 504 yards, 4 touchdowns
He’d already had a 100-yard game against Cleveland (the game with the 57-yard run). At 6’4, 225 pounds, he was an inch taller and a few pounds lighter than Justin Fields. He was also a lefty, which always adds an element of struggle for defenders.
As a passer, he was wild, explosive and inaccurate. In the Browns game, while rushing for 117 yards, he passed for only 62, completing just two of his nine attempts, but one of those attempts was a 41-yard touchdown.
Fans never quite knew what they would see next when Bobby Douglass had the ball. But they knew going into the Detroit game that Douglass would soon have a new NFL record.
“The question isn’t whether he’ll break the record, but whether he’ll make 1,000 yards,” Landry said before the Bears came to Detroit. “The record was 20 years old and everyone had forgotten about it until I started running last year. It took me 14 games. He’ll break it in the eighth game.”
This Lions game strikes me as just pitch-perfect Bearsdom. First, the good: Douglass did indeed break the record, carrying the ball seven times for 52 yards, giving him 556 yards on the season, breaking Landry’s mark by 26 yards with half the season to go.
The irony — the Bearsdom — was that Landry outplayed him. He rushed eight times for 71 yards, including a touchdown, and the Lions blanked their NFC Central rivals 14-0.
“I don’t care about the rushing record,” Douglass said after the game. “I’ve got to gain some yards because it’s part of our offense.”
The loss ended a three-game winning streak and instead kicked off a five-game losing streak. Douglass started every game of that lackluster 1972 season. The team finished 4-9-1. And Bobby Douglass’s team-leading 968 yards rushing stood as the NFL record until 2006, when Michael Vick became the first QB to rush for 1,000 yards.
And unless you were with an elder, that was the last many of us heard about Bobby Douglass.
Until this season.
Justin Fields passes the runner
You’ll be hearing Bobby Douglass’s name a lot more this season as Justin Fields continues to let ‘er rip.
And he will, if anyone’s listening to Douglass.
“There’s so much room on the field,” the 75-year-old Douglass told the Sun-Times’s Rick Telander the day after Fields diced up the Dolphins. “Give Fields the green light.”
Fields has had it lately, and with a mix of designed runs and mind-blowing scrambles, he destroyed the Dolphins in historic fashion, setting the following records:
- Longest run by a Bears QB, 61 yards (passing Vince Evans’s 58-yard run in 1980)
- Longest touchdown run by a Bears QB, 61 yards (passing Douglass’s 57-yard run in 1972)
- Most rushing yards in a game by a Bears QB, 178 (passing Douglass’s 127 against the Raiders in 1972)
- Most rushing yards in a regular season game by any NFL quarterback, 178 (passing Mike Vick’s 173 against the Vikings in 2002)
Chicago Bears quarterbacks record runs— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) November 10, 2022
@justnfields, 61 yards, touchdown, 2022
Vince Evans, 58 yards, 1980
Bobby Douglass, 57 yards, touchdown, 1972@WCGridiron @ChicagoBears @JeffJoniak @wiltfongjr #BearTFDown https://t.co/LSdu0fPX8v pic.twitter.com/0i6qTIkCmY
There is another record that Fields set that hasn’t been talked about, one that helped create his rushing opportunities: his threat to pass. Whether the Matrix-esque bullet-time pump fake on his 61-yard touchdown run or his three TD passes, Fields created running space because of his passing, and created passing space because of his running.
The record in question? Of the now seven times in which a QB has rushed for 150 yards or more in a game, Justin Fields is the only one who posted a passer rating over 100.
“Dude’s a baller,” said Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa after the game, “and he was making some plays in the passing game as well.”
Douglass was never on Fields’s level as a passer. He threw for 1,246 yards in 1972, just under 300 more yards passing than rushing. That was his career high with the Bears (he threw for 42 more yards with the Saints in 1976). He did have a few games with a passer rating over 100, but his pass attempts were always low. He threw 30 passes four times in his career and his best rating in those games was 67.
He only had one season where the threw more touchdowns than interceptions: 1970, when he played three games, threw four TDs and was picked off three times.
“When I drop back, I’m thinking 100% to pass,” Douglass said just before the Lions game. “But if there’s a breakdown, I’ll scramble.”
“Oh, I loved running,” Douglass says now, who Telander described as “still looking fit at 75 ...wearing a blue pullover and black shorts on a 50-degree day.” What Douglass wishes he’d had is what Luke Getsy and the Bears are just now starting to give Justin: a playbook defined by his skills.
“Back then, quarterbacks weren’t supposed to run,” Douglass told Telander. “I would have loved to play for a coach who used my ability.”
Justin has that. With 602 yards rushing, he’s on pace for the franchise’s first 1,000-yard rush season for a quarterback, which would break Douglass’s record and bring him just shy of Lamar Jackson’s NFL record of 1,206. But Fields has the passing down, too. In his last three games, he’s completed 65% of his passes with a 104.7 passer rating and tossed six TDs against just one interception, all while averaging over 100 yards per game on the ground.
Fields is such a gifted runner that he’ll always have that in his arsenal, but I imagine that as Ryan Poles continues to add weapons and protection around Fields, we’ll see more of the passer we saw at Ohio State.
Which means that very soon, when Fields does something great, we won’t be hearing about Bobby Douglass. Perhaps the name will be Johnny Lujack, who led the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns in 1949 and the next year became the first full-time quarterback to rush for 10 touchdowns, scoring 11, still the Bears franchise record for a QB.
But that’s still rather niche, and Justin Fields is not niche. He is going to be our first true MVP candidate at quarterback since the man himself, Sid Luckman. He might well be the first Bears quarterback to win a championship — and give that team an edge — since Jim McMahon.
Yes, it’s Lions week, and I’ve got Justin Fields on the mind. I want to see him out there again. As soon as possible. Making professionals look like high schoolers. Turning opponents into evangelists and hard-bitten fans into wide-eyed wonders.
When Justin Fields has the ball, I can see the future.
For now, at least, older Bears fans see the past.
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.