The signing of Brian Hoyer was just another margin note to another NFL Draft weekend. But of all the moves made by the Bears this weekend, none might have made any clearer mission statement than the addition of this 30-year-old (31 in October) backup quarterback who is on his fifth team in the last six years and had winning records as a starter with his last two but might be remembered as the only quarterback to lose his job to Johnny Manziel.
For one thing, the last time the Bears signed a backup quarterback from Michigan State was in the late 1990s when they became the fifth team for Jim Miller, who sat behind Shane Matthews and Cade McNown before rescuing the 2001 season and taking the Bears to the playoffs.
And that in fact appears to be the plan with Hoyer, that if something befalls Jay Cutler, the Bears will not spiral down the way they did in 2011, when Caleb Hanie let a 7-3 start turn into an 8-8 playoff miss after a Cutler injury.
Because, whether skeptics agree or not, the Bears do in fact see the 2016 playoffs as very much within reach.
Privately the internal expectations for 2015 were exponentially higher than the way the season played out, vindicated in some measure by five losses by four or fewer points and one on an overtime touchdown with a roster that lost two of its three wide receivers (Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal) for seven games each, their projected No. 1 draft pick (Kevin White) for all 16, virtually all of their projected top defensive linemen and being physically without their No. 1 tight end (Martellus Bennett) for five games.
A team resigned to any sort of rebuilding mode typically does not take developmental time away from a quarterback prospect and put a veteran No. 2 in place ahead of him, not unless there are lofty expectations in the short term. And Hoyer was signed for one year while the Bears ignored the quarterback position in the draft.
This is in the vein of the Bears’ securing Brian Griese in 2006 to back up Rex Grossman despite the distinguished rookie season turned in by Kyle Orton that ended in the playoffs. It was there in acquiring Todd Collins as a veteran behind Cutler in 2010 despite some seeming promise in Hanie; in Josh McCown for the 2013 season; even in Fox and the organization choosing to re-sign Jimmy Clausen last offseason, a quarterback familiar to Fox and a former No. 2 draft choice. Those teams didn’t accomplish their goals, but the plan was there.
The 2012 Denver Broncos under Fox did bring in Hanie to back up Peyton Manning (who hadn’t missed a game in 13 years before his 2011 neck issues). But they also invested a No. 2 pick in Brock Osweiler, who was Manning’s backup through this season. The Bears don’t draft quarterbacks high, none higher than the fourth round since 2003, which does explain some things, but that’s a topic for another time.
Veteran journeymen don’t necessarily come even close to working out. But the intention is clear: Development is always good, but not at the expense of what is considered a promising present, particularly with a starting quarterback at his best at age 33, and not at the risk of precipitous backsliding if that backup is needed.
Hoyer does not pose a job challenge to Cutler; he wasn’t signed to push Cutler. And no member of the 2016 draft class was going to, either. Early last offseason, Fox and Ryan Pace pointedly withheld any “he’s our quarterback” sentiments. This offseason, both have been so clearly pleased with Cutler’s performance and personal makeup, it was amply apparent that Connor Cook, Kevin Hogan, Paxton Lynch or any other member of this draft class was a challenger. If the Bears weren’t pleased with their starting quarterback, they could have traded well back in Round 1 and taken Lynch long before the Broncos did.
Fox and Pace subscribe to under-predicting and over-producing. But their actions have the feel of a very strong expectation.