Former Chicago Bears QB Bob Avellini, who helped the team make the playoffs in 1977, dies at 70

Bob Avellini, who quarterbacked the Chicago Bears through some of the greatest seasons of Walter Payton’s career and helped the team make the playoffs in 1977, has died. He was 70.

A team official confirmed Avellini’s death and said he had been battling cancer.

The Bears selected Avellini, a native of Queens in New York City, in the sixth round out of Maryland in the 1975 NFL draft, the same class that produced Payton. Avellini started the final four games of his rookie season, passing for 268 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints to close the year.

Avellini’s experience at the end of that season helped him earn the starting job in 1976, when the team went 7-7 with Avellini passing for 1,580 yards with eight touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

He enjoyed his finest season in 1977, when the Bears tied the Minnesota Vikings atop the NFC Central with a 9-5 record. Avellini threw for a career-high 2,004 yards with 11 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, and Payton also had the best season of his career with 1,852 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns and a 5.5 per-carry average, all personal highs.

But the Bears were blown out of the playoffs 37-7 by the Dallas Cowboys, and after a 4-8 start to begin the 1978 season, Avellini was replaced by Mike Phipps, whom the Bears had traded a first-round pick to acquire.

Avellini remained with the Bears into the 1984 season, appearing in 24 more games but making only three more starts. He relieved the injured Jim McMahon in the second quarter of a Sept. 16, 1984, game at Lambeau Field, and the Bears hung on for a 9-7 win over the Green Bay Packers. Avellini started the next week and the Bears lost 38-9 in Seattle, leading the team to release him.

There wasn’t a lot of love lost between the veteran quarterback and coach Mike Ditka.

“It gets a little tiring hearing that he’s such a great competitor,” Avellini told reporters after he was released. “(Cowboys coach) Tom Landry is a great competitor, (Washington Redskins coach) Joe Gibbs is a great competitor and so are a lot of other coaches, but you don’t see any of them acting like Ditka does.

“I wasn’t surprised I was cut. (Ditka) threatened me with that once a week. He thinks that’s going to make you play better. After the first pass I threw this year against Green Bay, he said he was going to cut me then, and I was the only quarterback who could play. He wanted to yank me out of there and put in someone that didn’t even know our snap count.”

Ditka fired back.

“In the long-range picture for the Bears, the quarterbacks we have here now are better than Bob,” he said. “He wanted to do too much. He tried to go outside of our offense and that’s something you just can’t do. You don’t go out and audible to throw a 5-yard pass (against the Seahawks) when we have a runner (Payton) who averages 5.7 yards per carry.

“He did everything we asked of him, and there were a lot of things I liked about him. But on my radio shows, the No. 1 question was, ‘Why do you keep Avellini?’ I can’t play him here. The fans would boo him unmercifully. I don’t want to use that as an out, but it’s true. People have a tendency to blame the quarterback and to give him too much credit.”

That predicament for the Bears — the quarterback getting too much credit or blame — continued long after Avellini’s playing days concluded. He had a brief stint with the New York Jets after the Bears released him and he spent time with the Cowboys in the 1986 preseason before retiring.

In 2014, a DuPage County judge sentenced Avellini to 18 months in prison for aggravated drunken driving. It was his sixth arrest for DUI since 2002.