Bears

The story of the Chicago Blitz and the craziest trade in sports history

The story of the Chicago Blitz and the craziest trade in sports history

"The Chicago Blitz were a hard working group of guys. I enjoyed it. The only problem was, the man who bought the team never paid anybody, including the coaches. We had to chip in to buy toilet paper for the restrooms." 

--- Marv Levy, former Chicago Blitz head coach

"Maybe the best way to remember the Blitz: it was our attempt at recreating the Wild West. It was fun for a while, but like most things that are fun, they end." 

---Dan Jiggetts, former Chicago Blitz offensive lineman

It was a spring football experiment that started off with a bang, but closed with a comical whimper.  In 1983, the Chicago Blitz were one of 12 teams that opened the USFL's inaugural season. The league's founders believed that after the NFL season ended there was a thirst for football. Their plan was to quench it.

Build it and they will come--that was the league mantra. Sign the best talent available no matter the cost--that turned out to be another, tragically.

Donald Trump’s New Jersey Generals signed Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker to a three-year, $5 million contract, at the time the richest contract ever given to a pro football player. One year later, it was football peanuts when the Los Angeles Express signed quarterback Steve Young to a four-year, $40 million contract--payable over 43 years.

The players took the money and ran. Where to?

Everybody would soon find out.

"On Tuesday morning, I got to the facility and we do a press deal where I announce that I signed with the Chicago Blitz," said Tom Thayer, an offensive lineman who had just graduated from Notre Dame. "And I can remember seeing the faces of the press guys who were there who covered the Bears at the time.  They all left the Blitz facility and went up to Halas Hall to cover the NFL draft that day."

A Joliet native, Thayer's dream was to play football for the Bears, but the Blitz made him an offer he couldn't refuse: a personal services contract where everything was guaranteed. Even if he got injured or the USFL folded, Thayer would be paid the full amount of his contract.

"It was something you had to listen to, because I wasn't guaranteed anything from the NFL."

After the Blitz press conference, Thayer drove back to his home in Joliet. As he pulled into the driveway, his sister came running out of the house with some stunning news.

"She said, '(Bears general manager) Jim Finks is on the phone. The Bears just drafted you!' And then Finks went to the podium and said the Bears in the 4th round draft Tom Thayer out of the University of Notre Dame and the press started giggling and told him, 'Hey, we were just at the Blitz facility. He signed with the Blitz of the USFL.' Because (the Bears) locked themselves in the draft room they weren't aware of anything."

Thayer turned down the Bears and joined a Blitz team that was coached by future Hall of Famer George Allen and was stacked with some of the best talent in the USFL: quarterback Greg Landry, running back Tim Spencer, wide receiver Trumaine Johnson, and defensive back Frank Minnifield, among others.

"We already felt that we wanted to be a good enough team to have the confidence to be competing with NFL teams,” Thayer said. “That was the message that George Allen instilled in us. We want to be a professional football team.”

On the field, they played like one. The Blitz went 12-6 that first season, finishing tied for first place in their division with the Michigan Panthers, who were led by quarterback Bobby Hebert and wide receiver Anthony Carter.

"I think we gained momentum. I think everybody was uncertain about what a competitive football league opposite the NFL could really do," Thayer said. "And then you got supported, and then the crowds started to average 30,000 people a game."

Unfortunately, those big crowds never arrived in Chicago---which is where this story truly begins.

The Blitz played their home games at Soldier Field, but they averaged only 18,133 fans, third lowest in the USFL. By comparison, the Denver Gold were tops in the league, drawing 41,736 a game at Mile High Stadium.

The Blitz’s owner, a heart surgeon named Ted Diethrich lost millions in 1983. So did Jim Joseph the owner of the Arizona Wranglers who went 4-14 that first season. Joseph wanted out. Diethrich, who lived in Phoenix, wanted to stay in the league but believed the Blitz would draw better in Arizona.

What came next was the craziest transaction in the history of professional sports.

Diethrich bought the Arizona Wranglers from Joseph and then sold the Chicago Blitz franchise to a fellow heart surgeon in Milwaukee named James Hoffman. Diethrich and Hoffman then agreed to swap assets. George Allen, his coaching staff and the Blitz players were traded to Arizona, in return the Blitz received the last place Wranglers.

In other words, the Blitz became the Wranglers and the Wranglers became the Blitz.

Imagine this happening today.  The Chicago Blackhawks, for instance, trading their entire team and coaching staff to Arizona for the last place Coyotes.

You can’t.

But it happened here.

Why Hoffman was willing to acquire a last place team for a first place team was puzzling to say the least. He tried describing his reasoning at the press conference announcing his new Chicago Blitz.

"If I had the opportunity to buy the Blitz the way they were, I would not have even considered it," Hoffman told the media. "Number one, the front office was terrible. Two, the players’ personal contracts were headed for absolute disaster."

Little did Hoffman know, things were about to get worse. Much worse. And unfathomable.

Before this wacky trade occurred, the Wranglers had fired their head coach, Doug Shively. The new Blitz needed to replace him.

The good news was, they hired future Hall of Famer Marv Levy. The bad news?

"I didn't know they traded franchises until after they switched the whole doggone team!" Levy recalled.  "I got a call from the man who was going to be the general manager, Ron Potocnik of Chicago offering me the job. I said, 'Wow that's great. They look like they've got a pretty good roster there,' so I came running and I took the job. Then I found out that the entire roster as well as the ownership had been traded away and the Blitz roster was now probably the weakest total talent in the league."

Most of the players acquired from the Wranglers were so inept the Blitz maniacally starting signing other players to replace them, including some former Chicago Bears. Vince Evans was brought on to play quarterback, Doug Plank was in the secondary and Dan Jiggetts came out of retirement to help anchor the offensive line.

The Blitz personnel director that season was an unproven football wunderkind named Bill Polian, who would later build behemoths in the NFL with the Bills, Panthers and Colts.

But major trouble was brewing with the new Blitz, the exact magnitude of their problems stopped Jiggetts dead in his tracks following a preseason game.

“I'm walking across the field after the game with [new Blitz owner] Hoffman. He looks at me and he goes, ‘You know what, I'm out of here.’ I go, ‘You mean you're leaving town?’ He says, ‘No, I'm done with this.’ I go, ‘What do you mean?’ He says ‘I'm finished,’” Jiggetts explained.  “I said something to coach. I said, ‘I just spoke with Hoffman. I think he’s out of here.’ Marv’s eyes started going around in circles.”

Hoffman left and never came back.

He and his minority owners returned the Blitz to the USFL for the league to run. Playing without an owner, the Blitz would lose their first five games of the 1984 season. They also lost most of their fanbase.

“We used to play at Soldier Field,” Levy recalled. “I said any fan who comes to a game can have a 50 yard line seat. A crowd of 3 or 4 thousand might have been good.”

The Blitz averaged 7,455 fans a game in 1984, last in the USFL. Their crowds often filled 10% of Soldier Field or less.

Struggling on the field and at the gate, the Blitz most exciting competition seemed to occur after practice each Friday when players would race to the closest bank to try and get their checks cashed.

“We're practicing at Maine North High School. There's a little tiny bank there,” Jiggetts explained. “Guys would have their cars ready after practice because you didn't want to be the last guy because there might not be money left in the account. This little old lady kept throwing the checks back. They were bouncing all over the place.”

Levy said he got paid for the first month or two, “and then it stopped.”

As the season went on, there were more and more signs that the Blitz days were numbered. One day, players arrived at Maine North to see that their practice facility had been transformed into a movie set to make the John Hughes film, “The Breakfast Club.”

“They overtook the facility and a lot of the people involved in the movie were going in and out of our locker room,” Jiggetts said. “So you'd come in there and maybe a Judd Nelson would be sitting there.”

Paul Gleason who played the teacher in the film ended up traveling with the Blitz and stood on the sidelines for some of their games.

“He was a big fan of the Blitz,” Jiggetts said. “There were some fascinating things going on.”

Unfortunately, the Blitz weren’t exactly fascinating on the field. They went 5-13 in 1984. Meanwhile, Tom Thayer and the old Chicago Blitz/new Arizona Wranglers went all the way to the USFL championship game where they lost to Chuck Fusina and the Philadelphia Stars.

“I felt bad because I always want Chicago to succeed no matter what sport it is,” said Thayer, who would eventually return to Chicago and play for the Bears in 1985, the season they won the Super Bowl.

As for the Blitz, they reportedly lost $6 million in 1984 and despite an attempt by former Chicago White Sox owner Eddie Einhorn to buy them, they eventually disbanded in 1985. The USFL as a league shut down in 1986.

“It kind of put a sad feeling in the thought process because it was a league that showed really positive signs of growth,” Thayer said. “It gave some great players an opportunity to play professional football: Reggie White, Keith Millard, Jim Kelly, Doug Flutie. I could go on and on.”

The Chicago Blitz and Arizona Wranglers wanted to make history on the field. Instead, they did it together on the transaction page. An achievement that puts them in a special category. A legacy that cannot and will not be touched.

Players get traded in the sports world just about everyday. But a team traded for another team?

Thayer probably said it best, “It will never happen again in the history of sports.”

Tarik Cohen: 'Ya'll act like I don't know I'm short'

Tarik Cohen: 'Ya'll act like I don't know I'm short'

One of the few memorable moments from the Chicago Bears offense in Sunday's 36-25 loss to the New Orleans Saints was actually something running back Tarik Cohen, and vertically-challenged Bears fans across the country, would like to forget.

With less than five minutes remaining in the game, Cohen caught a pass out of the backfield that resulted in a short gain (no pun intended). To his credit, Cohen trucked Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson before being thrown to the ground and, as Cohen's known to do from time to time, began barking at New Orleans coach Sean Payton and those Saints defenders.

Gardner-Johnson responded by mocking Cohen's 5-6 frame.

Cohen, who's used the doubt about his size as a motivator throughout his career, seemed unfazed by it all.

It seems to me like Gardner-Johnson, who Cohen ran over and was the principle trash-talker, may have done so to salvage some of the pride that Cohen knocked from his bigger frame.

Kudos to Cohen for taking it all in stride and for continuing to be one of the Bears' most important players on and off the field. 

Bears grades: Inside the complete failure against the Saints

Bears grades: Inside the complete failure against the Saints

QUARTERBACKS: F

Even the most team-centric view of the Bears’ failures on offense has to acknowledge the quarterback play on Sunday was not close to good enough. Mitch Trubisky’s miss of a wide open Taylor Gabriel on a third-and-five pass in the first half was an early gut punch to anyone hoping the 2017 No. 2 overall pick’s issues were going to be fixed after a three-week absence. 

Trubisky’s decision-making looked scrambled when he couldn’t get the ball to Allen Robinson. There were scant few throws Trubisky seemed to make with conviction, and he played like a guy whose confidence is severely rattled. Before putting up some garbage time numbers, Trubisky averaged a horrendous 3.4 yards per attempt. 

The Bears have no choice but to ride things out with Trubisky. But outside of one good quarter against an atrocious Washington defense and two stat-padding possessions late in a blowout loss, Trubisky hasn’t shown any signs of consistency that’d offer hope going forward.

Because the only thing consistent about Trubisky’s play on Sunday, and for most of 2019, has been how suboptimal it’s been.

RUNNING BACKS: F

This group does not get a pass despite only being given the ball five times on handoffs. David Montgomery fumbled on the Bears’ first offensive play of the third quarter — this after the Saints marched downfield to take a nine-point lead — and then, on the Bears’ next possession, the rookie lost a one-on-one pass protection assignment to blitzing linebacker Demario Davis, who sacked Trubisky on second and four.

Montgomery, too, whiffed on a block on a sweep to Anthony Miller that resulted in a fumble being forced by the guy the rookie running back appeared to be assigned to block. He only had two carries, but the Bears needed more out of a guy they traded up to draft six months ago.

Cohen was stopped for one yard on the Bears’ first play of the game, a run that coach Matt Nagy admitted was a “gut punch” of sorts after the game. While he caught nine passes, he only gained 19 yards, becoming only the second player since World War II to average 2.1 yards per reception or fewer with at least nine catches.

Mike Davis, the free agent who the Bears thought was a good fit for Nagy’s scheme, did not play a single snap on offense Sunday.

WIDE RECEIVERS: D+

Robinson continued to be the Bears’ only viable offensive weapon, catching 10 of 16 targets for 87 yards with a touchdown (though that score, and some of that production, came in garbage time). Still, no one else on this offense is consistently making plays besides Robinson, which props this group’s grade up.

Miller fumbled on that aforementioned sweep and was sort of called out by both Nagy and Trubisky after the game for running the wrong release on a third down incompletion on which it looked like he might’ve been open. Taylor Gabriel was a non-factor in his return, catching one pass for six yards. An 11-yard first quarter catch by Cordarrelle Patterson was the best play a receiver not named Allen Robinson made until garbage time.

TIGHT ENDS: F

Trey Burton dropped what would’ve been a first down on second and two just after the two-minute warning of the first half — if he catches that ball, the Bears have possession around their own 45-yard line down by two with a fresh set of downs. Not that catching it would’ve definitely sparked the offense, but it wouldn’t have hurt.

Burton had two catches for 11 yards, bringing his season total to 13 and 68 yards in five games.

Adam Shaheen did not appear to be a factor in the Bears’ off week attempt at problem solving. He played 32 percent of the offensive snaps and was invisible until the Saints backed off late in the fourth quarter.

OFFENSIVE LINE: D-

It looked like this group still experienced some communication issues, like when nobody picked up Cam Jordan coming from the edge up the middle to sack Trubisky on a third and four in the third quarter. Nagy does not appear to trust this group’s run blocking ability given how quickly he abandoned the run.

Outside of a few of those communication issues, this group was generally fine in pass protection and did a good job to limit Marcus Davenport’s impact. Charles Leno Jr., in particular, played better (and cleaner, without any penalties) than he did before the off week. Rashaad Coward looked like he held his own at right guard in his first career start.

But offensive lines tend to operate as collectives, and this collective was not good enough, nor was given the opportunity to prove itself good enough in the run game.

DEFENSIVE LINE: D

Akiem Hicks’ absence was felt for the second consecutive game, as this group was handled by a good offensive line that consistently opened up holes for running back Latavius Murray. Bilal Nichols, Nick Williams, Roy Robertson-Harris and Adbullah Anderson (who had his first career sack) all made plays at times, but this group did not generate the consistent run-stuffing push we’ve been accustomed to seeing from it over the last few years.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS: D

The Saints made sure Khalil Mack would not beat them, with Sean Payton frequently committing two and sometimes three players to stop the Bears’ All-Pro edge rusher. Without Hicks on the interior to win matchups, and with Leonard Floyd only impacting a smattering of plays, the strategy proved sound. Mack, in turn, did not come up with a momentum-shifting fumble when provided chances on two Teddy Bridgewater scrambles. That may seem like a high bar, but Mack has set the bar high for his play while in Chicago.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS: F

It’s difficult to expect big games from inside linebackers when offensive linemen are climbing to the second level and blocking Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith, but those two players share culpability for allowing Murray to carve up 119 yards with two touchdowns (it’s the second consecutive game in which the Bears have allowed a 100-yard rusher in regulation, something this defense did not do in 2018). Smith continued to fall well short of the All-Pro expectations placed on 2018’s eighth overall pick, while there appeared to be some communication errors that may fall in the lap of Trevathan.

CORNERBACKS: D+

Both Buster Skrine and Prince Amukamara did well to break up passes intended for Ted Ginn Jr. in the end zone, but Amukamara lost Ginn on a 45-yard deep ball that wound up sparking New Orleans to a second-half blowout (he probably needed safety help on the play, though — more on that in a bit). While Michael Thomas is one of the best receivers in the NFL, this is a unit led by a 2018 All-Pro in Kyle Fuller that should expect to limit Thomas better than it did Sunday (nine catches, 131 yards), especially with Alvin Kamara and Jared Cook out.

SAFETIES: D

It looked like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix bit too hard on play-action on that 45-yard heave to Ginn on the Saints’ first drive of the second half, leaving Amukamara exposed to try to keep up with the speedy veteran. Eddie Jackson has now gone six games without an interception, which may still be because teams are shying away from throwing his direction but has to be frustrating for the 2018 All-Pro (who’s due for a contract extension after this season).

SPECIAL TEAMS: C

Talk about a day of extremes here. The bad: The Saints blocked Pat O’Donnell’s first punt of the game, with O’Donnell smartly knocking the ball out of the end zone for a safety. And later, the Saints tipped one of O’Donnell’s punts, with Zach Line blowing up DeAndre Houston-Carson and getting a piece of the ball.

But the good was Patterson’s mesmerizing 102-yard kick return score, the Bears’ first since 2014 and the first at Soldier Field since…Patterson housed a kick with the New England Patriots in Week 7 of the 2018 season. 

Eddy Pineiro also connected on a 46-yard field goal, his longest at Soldier Field, and the Bears recovered an onside kick late in the game. How odd is it that seven games into the season, the literal least of the Bears’ concerns involve their kicker? 

COACHING: F

That the Bears were so flat, and so bad, after coaches touted all the self-scouting and answers found during the off week, was alarming. Whatever the Bears’ plan for running the ball was, it was abandoned after the 13:44 mark of the second quarter — which was when Cohen picked up nine yards on a first down in Saints territory.

Nagy had Trubisky drop back 13 consecutive times after that run — some of which, to be fair, were in two-minute situations — before Montgomery fumbled on the Bears’ first play of the second half. The seven rushing plays the Bears attempted were a franchise low, besting the eight called by Marc Trestman on Thanksgiving in 2014. And it’s generally not a good thing to be compared to Marc Trestman around these parts. 

Nagy, through six games, has lacked the kind of answers he was able to find for his offense in 2018. The growing theory is the NFL has adjusted to Nagy’s scheme — and Trubisky — and coach and quarterback have not found a counter-adjustment. If that doesn’t happen soon, this’ll be a lost season, one in which one of the worst offenses in the NFL cannot prop up a good, not elite, defense. 

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