How good was Jim McMahon during the 1980 football season?
He was so good that an opposing defense once gave him a standing ovation as he left the field.
He was so good that he set 70 NCAA passing records and NCAA statisticians dubbed him the Babe Ruth of college football.
He was so good that ESPN, on the occasion of its 25th anniversary celebration, recently included McMahon among its list for the top 100 seasons produced by any athlete, in any sport, college or pro, male or female, in the last 25 years.
McMahon's 1980 season ranks 76th on the list.
He's the only college quarterback to make the list (Steve Young's Super Bowl 1994 season with the 49ers was called the greattest by any quarterback ever). His 1980 season ranks up there with seasons produced by Steve Young (as a pro), Martina Navratilova, Barry Bonds, Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Mark McGwire, Wayne Gretzky and Jerry Rice.
"Collegiate QBs put up gaudy numbers these days," the magazine wrote, "but McMahon was the trend-setter (the first to throw for 4,000 yards and those 47 TDs still rank second all time). Amazingly, he finished just fifth in the Heisman balloting."
In the 24 years since McMahon's golden season, passing attacks have become the rage, and yet no one has quite matched his feat. McMahon threw for 4,571 yards and 47 touchdowns in 12 regular-season games that season, which still rank sixth and second, respectively.
Only Houston's David Klingler threw more TD passes in a season, but he had 643 pass attempts to McMahon's 445. Only Andre Ware, Tim Rattay, Cliff Kingsbury, Klingler and BYU's Ty Detmer have thrown for more yards.
Again, all of them had significantly more pass attempts than McMahon. Of that group, Rattay had the fewest attempts 559, which is still 114 more than McMahon.
"The remarkable thing is that the guy didn't play a full game," says former BYU coach LaVell Edwards. "He got yanked. Most of the time he didn't play in the fourth quarter. It was a sore point. Our quarterback coach would hide from me in the second half because he didn't want me to take (McMahon) out. And contrary to perception, we weren't throwing the ball 60 times a game like some of these teams nowadays."
McMahon led the Cougars to a 12-1 record that season, capped by the famous Miracle Bowl win in which he rallied the Cougars from a 20-point deficit in the last four minutes, throwing the game-winning 41-yard TD pass on the final play.
McMahon was smallish (maybe 6 feet, 175 pounds), but built like a bodybuilder. With 4.5 speed, he could scramble and run. "He had a strong arm," says Edwards. "He could put a lot of RPMs on the ball. He could roll to his left and throw as well as anyone I've ever seen. He just flipped his wrist. He had a quick delivery. But the biggest thing he had was an innate feel for the defense. As soon as he saw one thing he knew where everyone was on defense. And it wasn't because he spent hours watching film."
It wasn't that McMahon was disinterested it's because he was a quick study. Eddie Hughes, McMahon's quarterback coach during his days with the Chicago Bears, once told Edwards that head coach Mike Ditka criticized McMahon for not watching more film of opposing defenses.
"McMahon would watch film and know everything that was going on," Hughes told Edwards. "He didn't need to do that all the time."
Former BYU quarterback coach Norm Chow once said, "McMahon would come into the (film) room, and in five minutes he'd tell you what was going on.
He knew it before the coaches did."
McMahon was able to audible more than any BYU quarterback.
He knew what plays would work and what ones wouldn't at the line of scrimmage.
Sometimes he did it just to tick off the coaches," Chow said.
He did it in Chicago, and it drove Ditka crazy."
Edwards once told Ditka that McMahon would take the Bears to the Super Bowl if they drafted him. McMahon did just that in 1985, but the rest of his career he was frequently sidelined by injuries.
"If he had stayed healthy, he would have set a lot of NFL records," says Edwards. "Ditka told one time that Jim played in only about half their games from the time he won the Super Bowl until he was finished with the Bears."2 comments on this story
McMahon's injuries actually began to take their toll during his senior season at BYU when he missed a couple of games with a damaged knee.
He played the rest of the year with a 30-pound brace on the knee.
McMahon lost only two starts in two years as a fulltime starter once in a Wyoming blizzard and another a four-point decision in the 1980 season opener at New Mexico. BYU was 0-4 in bowls before McMahon led them to two bowl victories.Quarterbacks and prolific pass schemes have come and gone since then, but nobody has ever really topped McMahon at the top of his game.