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How Bears Coach Jack Pardee Changed Football in Chicago

The football strategist, who passed away Monday, leaves a Chicago legacy most people don’t fully appreciate.

Jack Pardee, who died of gall bladder cancer at the age of 76 on Monday, was a pretty notable name in football—the guy helped pioneer the run and shoot offense—but his years in Chicago are often overlooked.

When he took over the Bears franchise in 1975, at the age of 38, he was the National Football League’s youngest coach—and the first head coach who wasn’t promoted from within the organization. In January of the year he was hired, general manager Jim Finks told the Tribune he valued Pardee’s “ability to cope." 

It was a skill the former linebacker had demonstrated time and again: at the infamous 10-day training camps of Texas A&M’s Bear Bryant, on the NFL gridiron for 16 bone-crushing seasons, in the hospital after undergoing an 11-hour experimental operation to remove malignant melanoma from his left arm, and as the successful head coach of the penniless Florida Blazers in the (short-lived) World Football League.

But in his three years in Chicago, where he helped revive a scuffling franchise, it was Pardee’s level-headedness and flexibility that proved most beneficial.

Like so many recent iterations, the Bears’ offense was miserable in the early 1970s. In each season between 1969 and 1974, Chicago ranked near the very bottom of the league in total points and total yards. (They naturally posted losing seasons in each of those six years.) The problem was simple: despite trotting out quarterbacks with weak and inaccurate arms, the offense relied heavily on the passing game.

In 1974, the combination of Gary Huff and Bobby Douglass finished fifth in the NFL in passing attempts (396), but tossed a downright Rexian 22 interceptions against just eight touchdowns. The Bears finished 22nd out of 26 teams in rushing attempts, and went 4-10 on the season. During one stretch, they played 22 quarters without scoring a touchdown. In the offseason, the front office didn’t have the nerve to cut a highlight reel. “There just weren’t any highlights,” an official told Sports Illustrated.

So Pardee was hired the following January. At the end of the same month, the Bears drafted Jackson State star Walter Payton—then the leading scorer in NCAA history—with the fourth overall pick. Pardee was no dummy. As Walter Payton’s biographer Jeff Pearlman puts it, Pardee decided the organization’s playbook needed to be updated accordingly:

Those who do recall Pardee think of him as the coach of the Bears during Walter Payton’s rookie season in 1975. At the time, Chicago’s offense was painfully dull and predictable, and fans slammed the coach for refusing to open things up. What they didn’t know (or understand) was that Pardee, well, was really, really smart. First, he possessed one of the most lethal weapons in NFL history—and damn well wanted to use him in a stadium that was overwhelmed by wind gusts. Second, GM Jim Finks always refused to use high draft picks to select quarterbacks, and Pardee recognized his signal callers (Vince Evans, Mike Phipps, Gary Huff, Bob Avellini) couldn’t get it done. Hence, Chicago ran and ran and ran and ran and ran.

Huff stuck around as quarterback in 1975. He was replaced by Bob Avellini in 1976, who was equally poor. With Payton in the backfield, though, his inadequacies weren’t as devastating. By 1976, the Bears ran the ball 578 times, good for fifth in the league, and only attempted 278 passes, the NFL’s second-lowest total. In 1977, Payton careened through defenses at will, posting 1,852 yards and 14 touchdowns.

A conservative man by nature, Pardee enjoyed this smash-mouth approach, especially when it produced results. In each of Pardee’s three seasons, the Bears’ record improved. His final campaign, in 1977, saw the Monsters of the Midway rip off six straight victories at the end of the season to make the playoffs for the first time since 1963, including a dramatic overtime win at dark and icy Giants Stadium in New York, a game Tribune columnist Robert Markus called, on December 19, “the most electric moment in Bear history." 

The Bears lost the ensuing playoff game by 30 points to Dallas. It turned out to be the last game of Pardee’s tenure. His subsequent departure was quick and confusing. From the Tribune’s obit:

Pardee had complained publicly about conditions at Soldier Field and the Bears’ practice facilities, but he was expected to return. Then the Redskins job opened when George Allen was fired. Finks told the Washington Post he called a meeting in an effort to re-sign Pardee before he exited. “It’s done. It’s history,” Finks told the Post afterward. “I’ve got no quarrel with anybody trying to improve himself. We all have different likes and dislikes. I wish he had handled things differently. I wish I’d have known a little sooner.”

That winter, Pardee fled to Washington, where he’d coach for three marginally-successful seasons. (Instead of hiring offensive mastermind Bill Walsh, one rumored replacement, the Bears brought in Vikings defensive coordinator Neill Armstrong, who was “a likable man but not a dynamic coach.”)

Then, in the mid-1980s, long after his Chicago days, Pardee truly made his mark on the game; as coach of the Houston Gamblers of the USFL, the University of Houston, and eventually the Houston Oilers, the Iowa native helped pioneer the run-and-shoot offense. This scheme gave the quarterback four receivers to target and latitude to improvise in the pocket.

The pass-happy strategy was antithetical to his approach in Chicago, but it suited the personnel he had. As Walter Payton would later tell WBBM, in a moment of frustration, “I kind of liked Jack Pardee’s philosophy when he was here…He did everything and used every resource he had to win that particular game.”

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