Joe Namath was on a roll that day, as was the entire 1967 season. The New York Jets legend passed for 343 yards and four touchdowns to beat the San Diego Chargers 42-31 in the final game — and he didn’t throw a single pass in the fourth quarter. After his fourth touchdown roll, Namath’s opponent effectively gave up.
“We’re on the touchline and I’m looking down the field and there’s John Hadl waving a white towel,” Namath recalls to Sportzshala, laughing at the memory.
Namath finished the season with 4,007 passing yards, an AFL and NFL record, although he did not learn of the milestone until briefed by public relations officials long after the game. Currently, it would be announced during the game and he would see an alert on his phone when he returned to the dressing room.
Known for his quick release and deep passes, Namath had a single 4,000-yard season in the 14-game scheduling era. The record stood until 1979, when the Chargers’ Dan Footes threw for 4,082 yards in 16 games.
What was once a rarity is now fairly commonplace in the NFL’s wide-open era. The 4,000 yard mark was reached 208 times, and all but two teams produced at least one such passer after Namath’s 4,007 yards.
Jets and Chicago Bears.
They face each other on Sunday at MetLife Stadium (1:00 pm ET, Fox) and, accordingly, the quarterback flip is a major storyline. It was supposed to be Zach Wilson vs. Justin Fields – a pair of 2021 first-round picks – but Wilson was benched on Wednesday in favor of Mike White. The struggling Wilson needed a “reset” according to coach Robert Saleh, who said he intended to play him again this season and insisted he was still their future. They go in circles, two franchises trying to reverse decades of quarterback futility.
“I’ve been talking 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 with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1986. I think you could probably say the same about the Jets in some ways.”
What is behind the historical inefficiency of these two franchises in the passing game – especially in the modern era when the rules favor wide-open passing attacks – and what could be in the future?
Why didn’t their passing games flare up
It’s been 27 years since Eric Kramer set the Bears single-season record for passing yards (3,838) and touchdowns (29) in 1995. there has never been a 4,000-yard passer in NFL history.
“You think about all the first-round quarterbacks they’ve had since then,” said Kramer, who spent five seasons (1994-98) with Chicago. “It’s not such a high mark that it should not be broken many, many times, especially with today’s passing and the way they legitimized the offside defense. 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 Super Bowl winning QB in franchise history, in 1989 after years of injury. Since then, the Bears have used 36 different starting quarterbacks, the third most in the NFL during that period. Ahead of the 2022 season, Chicago went 12 straight seasons without the same starting quarterback in every game, the longest active streak in the league, according to research by Sportzshala Stats & Information.
For much of its history, Chicago’s identity has been synonymous with the “black and blue division” moniker earned by NFC North (the former NFC Central Division) for its physical style of play. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Bears have placed in the top 10 in defensive scoring 23 times.
“That’s what he was known for – running, tough defense – and now, with the proliferation of these RPO violations, that identity is sort of disappearing,” said former Bears defenseman Jim Miller.
Miller, who helped lead the Bears to a 13-3 record in 2001, is 23rd on the franchise’s single-season passing list (2,299). A shoulder injury that required six surgeries after the Bears decided Miller was their long-term answer derailed his career and turned on a revolving door that never slowed down.
“They picked me as quarterback and I just couldn’t stay healthy for them,” Miller said. “Then the quarterbacks ran. One guy after another from Cordell. [Stewart] to [Craig] Krenzel – you name it – passed through this building. They went out of their way to recruit guys like Rex Grossman and Cade McNone. There were a lot of guys who went through it and they never seemed to get together but always tried to rely on their defense and run the football.
“It’s hard to find a franchise quarterback and the Bears have been looking for him for a long time. But when you have coaches and change offense, that’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 overall draft era in 1967, more than any franchise at that time. In addition to six first-round QBs — most recently Fields (2021) and Mitchell Trubisky (2017) — the Bears traded four first-round picks for veteran quarterbacks Mike Phipps (1978), Rick Meerer (1997) and Jay Cutler (2010). .
The Bears Cutler’s (2009-16) career had five walk-through performances that rank in the top 11, including second to fifth in single-season scoring. During this time, Cutler had six different offensive coordinators.
In eight seasons with the Bears, Cutler peaked at 3,812 passing yards (2014). His desire to engage in high-octane offense like the one he came out of in Denver after throwing for 4,526 yards in 2008 didn’t fade when he arrived in Chicago. In fact, over 13% of his pass attempts were thrown 20 or more yards downfield, the fourth-highest rate among NFL QBs with at least 1,000 passes between 2009 and 2016.
Receivers are critical to every quarterback who reaches 4,000 passing yards. Muhsin Muhammad’s claim that Chicago is a place where “recipients go to die” resonates with those who have played here.
“Over the years, in addition to the lack of great quarterbacks, the Bears lacked talent,” Cramer said. “Our overall talent level, in terms of skills, was somewhat limited.”
Since the Namath era ended in 1976, the Jets have had 21 full-time starting quarterbacks. Three of them cleared the 3500 yard mark – Ryan Fitzpatrick (3905), Ken O’Brien (3888) and Vinnie Testaverde (3732), but no one could be the first. is an All-Pro team, and no one has led his team to the Super Bowl like Namath did in 1968.
“Testaverde, Boomer Esiason, they had some good quarterbacks,” former Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “You would think, God, one of those guys would throw for 4,000 yards.”
Everyone does it, after all — a total of 76 individual 4,000-yard seasons since 2015. A number of factors contributed to the Jets’ 55-year drought.
First, since Namath, they’ve only had five top-10 hits, based on yards per game. This amounts to about once a decade. They went through 22 straight seasons of head coaches playing defensively, from Bill Parcells (1997) to Todd Bowles (2018), which was, for the most part, run-oriented offense.
They also suffered from a lack of offensive stability, i.e. from the carousel of offensive coordinators. The current one, Mike LaFleur, is the eighth other coordinator in the past 12 years. The constant turnover requires the study of new systems and new textbooks, which makes it difficult to develop players, especially quarterbacks.
However, it’s mostly about talent. The Jets didn’t have “that guy” despite investing heavily in the position during the draft – 10 first and second round picks behind Namath.
Mark Sanchez, Chad Pennington and O’Brien each had multiple playoff seasons, but none of them were able to make it big due to various factors. Sam Darnold is exhausted. Jeno Smith failed too – and now he’s enjoying a new life with the Seattle Seahawks after racing through the league. The player of the second round, Christian Hackenberg, oddly enough, never played a dawusa.
In 1996, the Jets attempted to become a free agent by spending big money on Neil O’Donnell, which proved disastrous. They tried a brilliant trade with Brett Favre, an epic setback after a seductively good start.
“Football is a team game. Who chooses the players? Namath asked, trying to explain the decline since he was a quarterback. “It’s a team game and you have to have the right players around the quarterback and the right coach.”
Every great quarterback needs a great receiver, and the Jets haven’t had one in a long time. They have had one Pro Bowl wide receiver in the last 22 years, Brandon Marshall in 2015.
O’Brien believes that part of it has to do with the personality of the coaches over the years and how they tried to keep the balance on offense. He also noted the quarterbacks’ level of experience, or lack of it.
“When you have younger guys,” O’Brien said, “you try to protect them until they’re up and running.”
The Jets have tried this approach, most recently with Wilson, Darnold, Smith and Sanchez, with minimal results. Sanchez made the playoffs in their first two seasons, 2009 and 2010, and they haven’t returned since. Between first-round picks, they hired bridge quarterbacks, most notably Fitzpatrick, who had a strong career year (3,905 passing yards) and took the Jets to the brink of the playoffs in 2015. As usual, they failed.
When it comes to the Jets and their history as a quarterback, it starts and ends with Namath. His 17-game 4,007-yard season will total 4,866 yards. Not only did he play fewer games, but he also said he never fired a shotgun. When asked how he would behave today with liberalized rules to help circumvent attacks, Namat half-jokingly replied…