Where have the Jets and Bears' prolific passers been?

ByRich Cimini and Courtney Cronin ESPN logo
Saturday, November 26, 2022

Joe Namath was on fire that day, just like he was for the entire 1967 season. The New York Jets legend passed for 343 yards and four touchdowns to beat the San Diego Chargers in the final game, 42-31 -- and he didn't throw a single pass in the fourth quarter. After his fourth touchdown toss, Namath's counterpart effectively surrendered.

"We're on the sideline and I look across the field and John Hadl was over there waving a white towel," Namath recalled for ESPN, laughing at the memory.

Namath finished the season with 4,007 passing yards -- a record for the AFL and NFL, although he didn't learn of the milestone until he was informed well after the game by the public relations staff. Nowadays, it would've been announced during the game, and he would've seen the alert on his phone upon returning to the locker room.

Known for his quick release and deep balls, Namath was responsible for the only 4,000-yard season in the era of the 14-game schedule. The record lasted until 1979, when the Chargers' Dan Fouts threw for 4,082 yards in 16 games.

What was once a rare gem is now fairly ordinary in the NFL's wide-open passing era. The 4,000-yard mark has been reached 208 times, with all but two teams having produced at least one such passer since Namath's 4,007.

The Jets and the Chicago Bears.

They face each other Sunday at MetLife Stadium (1 p.m. ET, Fox) and, fittingly, quarterback upheaval is the top storyline. It was supposed to be Zach Wilson against Justin Fields-- a pair of 2021 first-round picks -- but Wilson was benched Wednesday in favor of Mike White. The struggling Wilson needed a "reset," according to coach Robert Saleh, who said he intends to play him again this season and insisted he's still their future. Round and round they go, two franchises attempting to reverse decades of quarterback futility.

"I've talked about the Bears franchise as a place where quarterbacks go to die," said former Jets quarterback-turned-CBS analyst Boomer Esiason, who threw a career-high 3,959 yards as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1986. "I guess you could probably say the same thing about the Jets in some respects."

What's behind these two franchises' historic ineffectiveness in the passing game -- particularly in the modern era with rules favoring wide-open passing attacks -- and what might the future hold?

Why their passing games haven't broken out

It's been 27 years since Erik Kramer set the Bears' single-season record for passing yards (3,838) and touchdowns (29) in 1995. No one is more surprised than Kramer, a former undrafted free agent, that the franchise tied for the oldest in NFL history has never had a 4,000-yard passer.

"You think about all the first-round draft pick quarterbacks they've had since then," said Kramer, who spent five seasons (1994-98) with Chicago. "It's not such a lofty mark that it shouldn't have been broken many, many times, especially with the passing game today and the way they've legislated defense out of the game. It really doesn't make sense to me."

The quarterback position has been a revolving door in Chicago since the Bears traded Jim McMahon, the only QB to win a Super Bowl in franchise history, in 1989 after years of injuries. Since then, the Bears have used 36 different starting quarterbacks, which is the third-most in the NFL in that span. Ahead of the 2022 season, Chicago went 12 straight seasons without the same starting quarterback every game, the league's longest active streak, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

For much of its history, Chicago's identity has been synonymous with the "black-and-blue division" moniker earned by the NFC North (formerly the NFC's Central division) for its physical style of play. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Bears have finished top-10 in scoring defense 23 times.

"That's what it was known for -- running, playing tough defense -- and now with the proliferation of these RPO offenses, that identity is kind of getting taken away," ex-Bears quarterback Jim Miller said.

Miller, who helped lead the Bears to a 13-3 record in 2001, ranks 23rd on the franchise's single-season passing list (2,299). A shoulder injury that required six surgeries after the Bears believed Miller was their long-term answer, derailed his career and spun the revolving door that has not slowed down.

"They had settled on me as the quarterback and I just couldn't stay healthy for them," Miller said. "Then the run of quarterbacks started coming. One guy after the other from Kordell [Stewart] to [Craig] Krenzel - you name it - was through that building. They tried like hell to draft guys like Rex Grossman and Cade McNown. There's just a slew of guys that went through there and they never seemed to put it together, but always tried to rely on their defense and running the football.

"It's hard to find a franchise quarterback, and the Bears have been searching for a long time. But when you have coaching hires in and out and you're changing offenses, it's just not a recipe for success."

The Bears have invested a total of 10 first-round picks in quarterbacks since the start of the Common Draft Era in 1967, the most by any franchise in that time. In addition to drafting six QBs in the first round -- most recently Fields (2021) and Mitchell Trubisky (2017) -- the Bears traded four first-round picks to land veteran quarterbacks Mike Phipps (1978), Rick Mirer (1997) and Jay Cutler (2010).

Cutler's Bears career (2009-16) featured five passing performances that rank in the top-11, including the second through fifth largest single-season outputs. Cutler had six different offensive coordinators during that time.

In eight seasons with the Bears, Cutler topped out at 3,812 passing yards (2014). His desire to be part of a high-octane offense, like the one he came from in Denver after throwing for 4,526 yards in 2008, didn't vanish when he came to Chicago. In fact, over 13% of his pass attempts were thrown 20 or more yards downfield, the fourth-highest rate by any NFL QB with at least 1,000 passes from 2009-16.

Receivers play a critical role for every quarterback who reaches the 4,000-yard passing mark. Former Bears wideout Muhsin Muhammad's claim that Chicago is where "receivers go to die" resonates with those who played here.

"Over the years, in addition to not having great quarterbacks, the Bears have lacked talent," Kramer said. "Our overall talent level, skill position-wise, was somewhat limited."

The Jets have employed 21 full-time starting quarterbacks since the Namath era ended in 1976. Three eclipsed 3,500 yards -- Ryan Fitzpatrick (3,905), Ken O'Brien (3,888) and Vinny Testaverde (3,732) -- but no one made first-team All-Pro, and no one led his team to a Super Bowl, as Namath did in 1968.

"Testaverde, Boomer Esiason, they've had some good quarterbacks," former Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "You would think, God, that one of those guys would've thrown for 4,000 yards."

After all, everyone is doing it -- a total of 76 individual 4,000-yard seasons since 2015. A number of factors have contributed to the Jets' 55-year drought.

For one, they've fielded only five top-10 offenses since Namath, based on yards per game. That breaks down to about once per decade. They went through a stretch of 22 consecutive seasons of defensive-minded head coaches, from Bill Parcells (1997) to Todd Bowles (2018) -- which, for the most part, made for run-oriented attacks.

They've also suffered from a lack of offensive stability -- i.e. a merry-go-round of offensive coordinators. The current one, Mike LaFleur, is the eighth different coordinator in the last 12 years. The constant turnover means new systems and new playbooks to learn, which makes it difficult to develop players, especially quarterbacks.

Mostly, though, it's about talent. The Jets haven't had "That Guy" even though they have invested heavily at the position through the draft -- 10 first- and second-round picks since Namath.

Mark Sanchez, Chad Pennington and O'Brien each had multiple playoff seasons, but none of them were able to sustain success due to various factors. Sam Darnold fizzled. Geno Smith also fizzled -- and now he's enjoying new life with the Seattle Seahawks after bouncing around the league. Second-rounder Christian Hackenberg, incredibly, never played a down.

The Jets tried the free-agent route, spending big on Neil O'Donnell in 1996 -- which proved disastrous. They tried the splashy-trade route, dealing for Brett Favre -- an epic fail after a tantalizingly good start.

"Football is a team game. Who's picking the players?" asked Namath, trying to explain the slump since he was quarterback. "It's a team game and you have to have the right players around the quarterback and the right coaching."

Every great quarterback needs a great receiver, and the Jets haven't had one in a long time. They've had one Pro Bowl wide receiver in the last 22 years -- Brandon Marshall in 2015.

O'Brien believes some of it has to do with the personality of the coaches over the years, and how they've tried to maintain balance on offense. He also noted the experience level of the quarterbacks -- or lack thereof.

"When you have younger guys," O'Brien said, "you try to protect them until they get going."

The Jets have tried that approach, most recently with Wilson, Darnold, Smith and Sanchez -- with minimal results. Sanchez made the playoffs in his first two seasons, 2009 and 2010, and they haven't been back since. In between first-rounds picks, they hired "bridge" quarterbacks, most notably Fitzpatrick, who enjoyed a career year (3,905 passing yards) and took the Jets to the brink of the playoffs in 2015. As usual, they came up short.

When it comes to the Jets and their quarterback history, it starts and ends with Namath. His 4,007-yard season, projected over 17 games, would be 4,866 yards. Not only did he have fewer games, but he said he never took a single snap out of shotgun. Asked how he'd perform today, with liberalized rules to help passing attacks, Namath said half-jokingly that he wouldn't have been allowed on the field because of his famously ravaged knees.

"I look at what kind of things they do with the ball, the way they get it out, the kind of stuff they throw ... I would've loved to have played the way the guys play today, sure," he said. "The game has changed drastically and I think for the better."

The next season, after a pair of five-interception games, Namath -- called out by the coaches -- dialed back the passing and leaned on his running game and defense. Remember, the quarterbacks called their own plays in those days. The result was a Super Bowl championship.

What's next?

There's tangible excitement centered around Fields, who ranks fourth in Total QBR (73.6) since Week 7. Though he appears to be the quarterback the Bears can orchestrate their rebuild around, it's unrealistic to think Fields will be close to a 4,000-yard passing season any time soon.

Through 11 weeks, Fields is averaging 149.3 passing yards per game, which ranks 35th out of 36 qualified quarterbacks. His highest passing output this season was 208 yards in a loss to Minnesota, which is the only time he's topped 200 yards passing in a game in 2022.

The Bears' identity as the league's most dominant rushing team (197.9 yards per game) has carried this offense. While it's not sustainable that Fields can run the ball as much as he has (a league-most 122 attempts) as evidenced by the shoulder injury he sustained in Atlanta, seeking balance is key for Chicago in developing an approach offensively that can better feature Fields' skill set as a passer.

"The most important thing is (offensive coordinator Luke) Getsy is staying in their lane offensively," Miller said. "They know who they are. They've got an identity. We run the football well, now let's build this play-action package, and at some point, they'll be able to build a three-wide dropback package for Justin. In my mind, he's capable of doing it all. He's got a nice arm."

Upgrading Chicago's crop of receivers will be a focal point of the offseason. No player has more than wide out Darnell Mooney's 493 receiving yards and tight end Cole Kmet's five touchdowns. For a quarterback to reach 4,000 yards, he needs teammates who can catch the ball. Limitations with their personnel plays a role in what's preventing this passing attack from taking off, but expressing self-awareness about those limitations and finding workarounds for the offense is Getsy's priority for the rest of the season.

"We run the rock and we do a good job with the play-pass game and so it's not like we're just spreading 'em out," Getsy said. "We're not the Cincinnati Bengals just spreading out 2 by 2 and spitting it out, one-on-one routes. That's not been who we are."

Wilson won't reach 4,000 yards this season. Heck, he might not make it to 2,000 the way things are going. His struggles in two of the last three games, coupled with questions about his leadership, have put him in the crosshairs. He plays for a defensive-minded coach in Saleh who likes to feature the running game, so it's possible he might not have the opportunity to put up prolific passing numbers for as long as they're together.

The talent is there, according to Ryan and Esiason, who said Wilson has "a little Fran Tarkenton and a little Brett Favre in him. He's got a little bit of both those guys in him, and he's got to refine that." Namath said Wilson "moves around beautifully." He expressed some concern about his accuracy and lack of size (6-foot-2), but expressed optimism that he will improve with experience.

The big issue, one that has come to the forefront in recent days, is how Wilson handles scrutiny. He appeared thin-skinned last week ("Nobody outside of this building knows what they're talking about") and showed no accountability after last week's 10-3 loss to the New England Patriots, dismissing a question about whether he let down the defense with a 77-yard passing performance.

"He was drafted second overall based on his skill -- the guy is so freaking talented -- but it's the other thing that concerns me," said Ryan, an ESPN analyst. "Part of playing this position is being a damn alpha male and be a guy who can stand in front of his teammates and lead. He's got no idea what a damn leader is or what it's like to play quarterback in New York."

Esiason echoed that sentiment, saying, "There's a level of immaturity there that you have to break through. They have seven games to decide what they think they have there."

Wilson grew up in Utah and played college ball at BYU, a long way from Gotham. The big city isn't for everyone. This is the first time in his life that he's dealing with adversity of this magnitude. O'Brien can relate. He played at UC Davis before being drafted by the Jets in the celebrated quarterback class of '83. He believes team success will be important for Wilson's development.

"You certainly grow a lot faster when you're winning, there's no doubt," O'Brien said. "It's a different burden. When you're losing, there's a funk that happens that hangs on. You have to break out of it, and the only way to break out of it is by winning." Wilson has cut down on his interceptions from last season, but his completion percentage is the same as his rookie number -- an alarmingly low 55.6. The Jets are averaging 1.68 points per drive with Wilson at quarterback, which ranks 24th. They have a playoff-caliber defense, but he could be holding them back.

"I see a kid who can really throw, I see a kid who's an athlete, but I see a kid who looks really nervous to me," Esiason said. "It was bad (Sunday), on and off the field, but I still think there's something there. I'm not ready to throw in the towel right now."

Another white-towel reference. From '67 to '22, Namath to Wilson.