CHICAGO — Should the Chicago Bears ditch Jay Cutler this offseason and just start Josh McCown?
It’s not an entirely stunning concept at this point if you look purely at how the Bears have played on offense with McCown starting and Cutler in the lineup.
But, oh, lo, it’s not that easy.
Still, having now seen McCown for seven games this season — five strong starts and two good relief appearances — including Monday’s 45-28 thumping of the Dallas Cowboys, it’s tempting to think about the possibility.
McCown completed 27-of-36 passes for 348 yards (his third straight over 300) with four passing touchdowns and one rushing, the first Bear to achieve that since Jack Concannon in 1970. For the season, McCown now has completed 66.8 percent of his passes for 1,809 yards, with 13 touchdowns and only one interception. Compare that to Cutler's 63 percent completions, 1,908 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight INTs — on 40 more pass attempts.
That said, McCown was not perfect Monday. He misfired on few passes (a few badly) and seemed to be less effective the closer the Bears got to the end zone.
But the confidence and the rhythm and the poise is there for a quarterback who, even at age 35, might be the Bears’ best option. Did you watch the downfield pitch and catch with Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall against the helpless Cowboys secondary? It was sinful.
Why pay Cutler, a free agent in 2014 who would make $16 million next year if he’s franchised and likely not too much less per season if the Bears want to do a long-term deal.
But again, it’s not that simple.
Bears head coach Marc Trestman loves Cutler. Or so he says he does. Trestman has been consistent with that. He might campaign to GM Phil Emery to do whatever it takes to bring Cutler back, despite Emery’s talk that the Bears might not franchise his quarterback.
Before this season, McCown started two games in the previous five years. Could this be a mirage? Could his leaping receivers be the real reason McCown is having so much success?
Even McCown can’t fully embrace the idea of him being the starter yet.
“Like I have said, I am the backup. Jay’s the starter, and if Jay is healthy, he’ll be the starter,” McCown said, playing the role of humble well. “My job is, whenever he takes back over, we’ll be in a position to win.”
Cutler could come back next week. Trestman seemed to suggest that Monday after the game. It's likely McCown goes back to the bench.
But that all could change after three more games, or more if the Bears win out and make the postseason. The future of the Bears’ franchise seems to be hanging out in the wind, and what if Cutler can't get the job done with the postseason now on the horizon again? It's another fascinating layer to this debate, which rages on.
It must be stated that the Bears have faced exactly one good defense — that of the Baltimore Ravens — with McCown under center. He performed well in that game, handled the elements well and led his team to a double-digit comeback after a nearly two-hour weather delay. That counts for something.
Not that we should ignore what McCown has done against the Green Bay Packers, St. Louis Rams, Washington Redskins or Monday’s Cowboys defense, which allowed the Bears to score eight times in their first eight possessions. The Bears had the ball 14 times against the Vikings and only scored four times. And exactly one defense he has faced has ranked in the top 21 in pass coverage when McCown faced them.
And if you played the what-if game Monday, you could bring up McCown’s three poor passes in the end zone, which included a dropped interception, and another dropped pick in his own end of the field. He was not flawless by any stretch.
But the plays he made required skill and patience and precision, and McCown is making the best of his second (third? fourth?) chance at an NFL career. The journeyman-turned-substitute-teacher-turned-hero is doing everything the team ever could ask of him, and more.
McCown’s helicopter touchdown run — his first rushing touchdown since 2004 —was the perfect call in that spot when his receivers were covered outside and the middle of the Cowboys’ defense opened up. And why not throw it outside the numbers against cover-2 with those receivers and the Cowboys’ safeties clearly unable to help their corners out?
That’s what you want out of your backup: Play within the confines of the offense and avoid mistakes, letting your playmakers do the heavy lifting. But McCown has provided more, and it’s to the point where we’re at least discussing the idea of a soon-to-be-36-year old with 42 starts in 11 seasons replacing a potential franchise quarterback in the middle of his prime.
That alone shows you how well the guy is playing. And if he keeps it up, that talk might not be so crazy.
But what if you let Cutler walk and he goes to Tennessee, or wherever, and dominates? Furthermore, what if McCown turns back into the guy with the 37-44 TD-INT ratio entering this season?
If that happens, Emery and Trestman might have to find Al Capone's secret underground tunnels in order to get out of town alive.
Before Cutler, many Bears fans asked — legitimately if it was the team's first "franchise" quarterback in their lifetimes. Now there's real talk about maybe letting him go. The litmus test: People aren't (yet) completely freaked out by the idea.
Better let it soak in a little longer. It's not out of the realm of possibilities — not with this general manger, his quarterback whisperer/head coach and not with McCown. They're all making the chances go up by the day.
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