One overarching NFL reality is that with extremely rare exception, the quarterback position is always a matter for discussion and planning.
Even in Green Bay when Brett Favre was setting the standard for durability, the Packers were about succession planning, cycling through quality backups (Mark Brunell, Aaron Brooks, Matt Hasselbeck) until one – Aaron Rodgers – was needed.
Even in New England, where Tom Brady wasn’t missing a game for 14 of the last 15 seasons, yet the Patriots were drafting quarterbacks in the second or third rounds of three of the last six drafts.
What the Bears are confronting last weekend and this Sunday is a template for what could be their tactics for the position in the year or years ahead. The Philadelphia Eagles with Carson Wentz and Dallas Cowboys with Dak Prescott are starting (and winning with) rookies who were selected into a depth chart presumably already set with a starter in place. And the Bears have faced a situation in their recent past eerily similar to one just three years ago that, had it been handled differently, might have positioned the Bears somewhere similar to where Dallas and Philadelphia now find themselves.
With Jay Cutler in the final year of his contract calling for guaranteed money, 2016 was clearly a prove-it year for him irrespective of the Bears’ failure to invest a meaningful draft pick in a possible successor. Now Cutler is injured and Brian Hoyer is the presumptive starter, setting up a potential scenario not altogether unlike what they faced in 2013 when Josh McCown stepped in twice when Cutler was hurt.
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McCown played the best football of his career, giving the Bears the option of re-signing him as a placeholder and pursuing a young apprentice, which the Marc Trestman coaching staff favored, or signing Cutler to a massive contract and committing to him as a franchise quarterback, which GM Phil Emery did.
Hoyer may or may not play remotely as well as McCown did. But this is not entirely a position competition between Cutler and Hoyer, any more than Cutler-McCown was. Should Hoyer perform creditably, however, as he did last year to get the Houston Texans into the playoffs, he gives the Bears another “McCown Option” – an affordable, competent-if-unspectacular veteran who starts until such time as the young quarterback is ready. That could be as early as the draft pick’s rookie season – as Wentz was correctly judged to be in Philadelphia, as Russell Wilson once was in Seattle, and Prescott is demonstrating in Dallas.
Wentz was not going to start for Philadelphia before the Eagles were offered a can’t-refuse offer by the Minnesota Vikings for Sam Bradford. Prescott was not drafted to be a starter, but Tony Romo’s preseason back injury and Kellen Moore’s broken ankle changed whatever QB plan the Cowboys had.
If there’s a twist to the situation it lies in the fact that it is far from necessary to believe that winning quarterbacks lie only in the first round. Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall pick, is still riding the Los Angeles Rams bench. Paxton Lynch, grabbed by Denver at the end of round one, wasn’t able to take the Broncos’ starting job away from Trevor Siemian, the 250th pick of the 2015 draft whose only action last season was one kneel-down.
But Jacoby Brissett, New England’s third-round pick this year, and Cody Kessler, Cleveland’s 2016 No. 3 pick, are starting, jokes about Cleveland notwithstanding.
The Bears looked closely at Marcus Mariota going into the 2015 draft. But they were faced with a franchise decision of expending massive draft capital in a trade, something they did once upon a time in 2009 for Cutler and didn’t want to do again with other needs to fill.
Ryan Pace has had 15 draft choices in his two drafts as Bears general manager. None were invested in a quarterback. He will not go a third draft weekend without discussing the quarterback the Bears selected in (insert round here).