The play of Matt Barkley in the past two games catapulted the previously dismissed young quarterback deep into the Great Bears Quarterback Debate (GBQD), which may not be a particularly exclusive confab, but it does mean that Barkley has gone from castoff to contender for a job somewhere beyond this season. And one particular aspect of his game is the key to what has transpired, as well as what happens going forward.
The law of averages suggests that Barkley will put up a clunker at some point, maybe even more than one. Then again, maybe not. Of the four remaining defenses (Detroit, Green Bay, Washington, Minnesota), only the Vikings rank in the top 10 defensively in either points or yardage allowed through the first 13 weeks of the 2016 season. So Barkley won’t exactly be looking at a Murderer’s Row of the ’85 Bears, ’76 Steelers, ’00 Ravens and ’15 Broncos.
But there’s a bigger Barkley picture that serves as the real framework for evaluating whether or not he’s truly got the right stuff, regardless of whom he faces.
It is not what he’s done – getting his team in position to win in consecutive fourth quarters. It’s what he hasn’t done – turn the football over.
The measure of Barkley, as it was with Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer, will be ball security. In a FoxWorld, that is axiomatic.
The second question to Fox after Sunday’s game was on Barkley’s performance. Fox’s mindset was evident in his answer: “He improved,” Fox began, followed immediately by, “He eliminated any interceptions.”
Barkley’s huge leap forward has indeed come, not with his TD passes (including the should-have-been ones), but with his control of the football.
Barkley may have been undone with drops against Tennessee. But he undercut his team with two appalling red-zone interceptions, one in the end zone.
After the interception on the Bears’ opening second-half possession, which turned into Titans points, Barkley proceeded to throw his next 33 passes without a pick. Then against San Francisco, Barkley stayed INT-free on 19 dropbacks (18 passes, one sack). The result was a season-high for Bears points and a win.
Barkley threw two interceptions in his emergency step-in for Hoyer at Green Bay. Given his situation there, no real surprise, and rightfully not a referendum on his quarterbacking.
Before his broken arm against the Packers, Hoyer played his way into the GBQD less with his weekly 300-yard passing production than with his 200 pass attempts without an interception. Cutler, in his truncated season, revealed a regression from his step-forward ’15 and its ball security, sliding back up to an interception percentage in the unacceptable mid-3’s where it’s been for his career. This was the prove-it year for Cutler and he rendered ’15 as the exception, not a career turning point.
Barkley’s accuracy in the Soldier Field conditions last Sunday was exceptional. Not only did he not throw interceptions (which is how to earn a 97.5 passer rating), but also repeatedly put footballs where either his guy or nobody was catching them. Too often certain of his guys didn’t catch them, but that’s not on Barkley, who stayed with Josh Bellamy in a team-building statement.
Only the Vikings (No. 5) among the final four Bears opponents have interception percentages ranked better than 14th. Washington (95.0), Detroit (101.9) and Green Bay (102.1) are allowing egregious opponent-quarterback passer ratings (the Bears are at 94.3). Meaning: Barkley will have opportunities to stay his ball-security course against beatable defenses.
The inability of the Bears defense to generate takeaways is a significant 2016 storyline. But the ability of the Bears offense – specifically their quarterbacks – to hold onto the football is a potential tipping point in the most significant position-decision for the franchise.
Whether it will prove to be a wakeup shot for an underachieving rookie or not, the announcement that rookie defensive end Jonathan Bullard was inactive for Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers is noteworthy for multiple reasons.
The deactivation was surprising if only because so many of Ryan Pace’s draft choices have been getting on the field and doing reasonably well. Telling Bullard to take a seat was a statement by coach John Fox, coordinator Vic Fangio and line coach Jay Rodgers, all of whom were involved in evaluations leading to the Bears using a third-round pick on the defensive lineman, that this staff is not going to simply and stubbornly stick with a player because they picked him.
Bullard was the only one of the Bears’ top seven picks in the 2016 draft, other than injured cornerback Deiondre Hall, who did not start against the 49ers.
Bullard, expected to challenge for a starting at one D-line position because of his pass-rush potential, did get one start (against Tampa Bay) but played just 14 snaps against Tennessee and was credited with just one (assisted) tackle. Bullard has one sack and two quarterback pressures in 212 snaps played. The sack came at Indianapolis. In the six games since then ... crickets.
Playing time is the ultimate cudgel coaches have this side of the transaction wire. Not saying that Bullard comes under this umbrella, but he would not be the first NFL player who treated their high draft selection as having achieved something when it actually was the beginning, not the finish.
But while coach John Fox cited “ability” first as the reason for Bullard being deactivated, a lack of motivation appeared to be involved based on Fox’s subsequent explanation.
“I think there's a variety of ways to motivate young people,” Fox said. “He's a player that we do like, that we're trying to bring the best out of like we do all our players. He gets to practice all week just like the other players, then how they perform in practice sometimes is reflective on what kind of opportunities they get in the game, so they have to earn it.”
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This approach has worked. Many drafts ago, the Bears used the No. 5 pick of the 1998 draft on running back Curtis Enis, who held out for most of training camp before signing following one of the more bizarre negotiating processes ever. Enis arrived in camp but had decided that he was a runner and didn’t see himself as a blocker, even though no one less than center Olin Kreutz, who knows something about blocking, would later say that Enis was far and away the greatest blocker at running back that Kreutz had ever seen.
Joe Brodsky, the crusty old running backs coach under Dave Wannstedt, had zero tolerance for Enis’ attitude, which included insulting at least one assistant coach. Brodsky privately got squarely in the face of the rookie and informed him that until he made protecting his quarterback as important as running the football, Enis would not start for the Bears.
Enis watched Edgar Bennett start until Brodsky’s message sank in, which was midseason. Enis finally started — one game, against the Rams — and was having the best game of his season when he unfortunately tore his left ACL and his career was all but finished.
But it took tough love from a coaching staff that needed him for its survival (which subsequently did not happen, losing six of the next seven games and costing Wannstedt and staff their jobs) to get through to Enis.
Bullard is not Enis, but the organization invested a Day 2 draft pick in him to be more than fill for the depth chart. Now the burden falls to Bullard to demonstrate that he got the message.
“It's like anybody, from adversity they respond, and that was one of the things I was impressed with our team (Sunday),” Fox said. “Things didn't go well early in the game, defense got put in a couple tough spots because of some special-teams errors and then how we responded as a team, so I would expect the same from any individual player, whether it's due to injury or maybe coaches' decision.
“We want guys to prove us wrong.”