Whether they like it or not, the Bears have a decision to make at quarterback. A couple in fact, one in the next few days and another within the next few months.
The plan and the statements have been clear, that Jay Cutler returns as starting quarterback when he returns to full health. Cutler practiced on a limited basis last week and has been expected to be ready for the Cleveland game. Coach Marc Trestman, McCown and others have been clear that when Cutler is ready, he is the starting quarterback again.
“There’s no change in the plan,” Trestman said. “We’ll see where Jay is this week. He’ll have to be released by the doctors. When Jay’s ready to play, he’ll be playing.”
No argument from McCown: “I’m the backup, Jay’s our starter. When Jay’s healthy, Jay should be the starting quarterback.”
But injecting a spot of history: One evening in Detroit prior to Super Bowl XL, I was out with a former Bears Pro Bowl defensive player. That was after the Bears went 11-5, won the NFC North but lost, at home, in the first round of the playoffs. Kyle Orton had gotten the Bears to the brink of the postseason, and then Lovie Smith declared, “Rex is our quarterback,” and went back to Rex Grossman with three games remaining.
“If we’d stayed with Kyle,” the disgruntled Bear said, “we’d be playing here this weekend.”
Cutler is not Rex Grossman. But then neither is McCown Kyle Orton.
Against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday, Josh McCown directed the Bears to scores on every one of eight possessions, with no drive shorter than 49 yards. For the seventh consecutive time he performed with a passer rating of 90-plus, this time completing 27 of 36 passes for 348 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions and a rating of 141.9.
As important, in five McCown starts the Bears have produced more than 400 yards four times, including 490 against the Cowboys.
If Cutler returns as the starter and the Bears do not keep playing deep into January, will some unhappy current Bear say some night in New York, “If we’d stayed with Josh ...”
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“He’s amazing,” said wide receiver and Cutler friend Brandon Marshall. “We really appreciate his leadership, what he’s been doing for us. This guy is a special person on and off the field.”
Longer term, the organization now has the luxury of considering whether to cast their lot with Cutler for the next four to five years at a very large price or go with McCown as their short-term and invest a quality draft pick in a quarterback for Marc Trestman, Aaron Kromer and Matt Cavanaugh to develop in their system.
McCown will be 35 next July 4, but those 35 are relatively low-mileage years. He has played in only 57 games, no more than nine in any season since 2004.
Cutler, 30, is the more athletic and faster. But there was McCown picking up a first down with a crucial 10-yard scramble for a first down in the second quarter, then capped off that drive by going the final seven yards himself, finishing with a leap over two tacklers and holding onto the ball as he was helicoptered. It was his first rushing touchdown since 2004.
“A run like that by your quarterback?” said tackle Jermon Bushrod. “Him jumping into the end zone and getting flipped around a little bit? Him getting up with a smile on his face? It just gets us going, man. If he can go lay it out there like that, then we have to lay it out there like that.”
His heave to Alshon Jeffery goes as a 25-yard touchdown pass (owing to another spectacular grab by Jeffery) but covered fully 35 to the farthest back corner of the end zone — a small statement that McCown can be accurate at some distance.
General manager Phil Emery spoke last week of his dislike for using the franchise tag on a quarterback because of the massive share of the salary cap at more than $16 million. That could be construed as a first small indicator that the Bears were not necessarily prepared to do whatever it took to keep Cutler.
McCown, playing on a one-year deal for $865,000 this season, has played his way into a contract for 2014 whether in Chicago or not. Jason Campbell signed with the Cleveland Browns for $1.5 million plus incentives that will take him close to $2 million. That contract has escalators potentially to $4 million in 2015 based on his playing time this year.
Not that McCown and Campbell are in any lockstep. But what McCown also might be doing is playing his way to a level at which the Bears can’t afford to keep both in addition to drafting a young quarterback for the developmental pipeline.
All things considered, a nice problem for the organization to have.