There’s a certain due process to football thought as it relates to quarterbacks, and the changing of them. This is especially true when, as is the case with the Chicago Bears, an injury is at play and the incumbent starter hasn’t necessarily played himself out of a job. The problem, though, is that before breaking Jay Cutler didn’t quite do enough to solidify his position either.
The backup is at first just a placeholder, with all involved impressed and satisfied if he merely avoids a Matt Flynn-level face plant. But if the circumstances align just so, thoughts of the backup becoming more than a backup arise, as he forces that idea into existence. Then eventually the idea is more than a passing joke; it’s a legitimate discussion.
This is where we’re at with Josh McCown.
Was McCown masterful last night, or was the Cowboys defense just that awful, especially after Sean Lee left with another injury? Let’s go with both, but McCown’s brilliance would be much easier to only kindly applaud if this wasn’t a repeat performance from a guy who was(?) seen as just a journeyman backup a few weeks ago.
McCown has sustained this over a month now, and over a quarter of a season’s worth of starts. Last night’s 45-28 win over Dallas ended in 348 passing yards at a pace of 9.7 per attempt, with four passing touchdowns and one rushing score, along with 16 yards on the ground just because. In a town where horrible quarterback play is as commonplace as deep pizza pies (and the resulting violent New York pizza wars), McCown became the first quarterback since 1970 to throw for four touchdowns in a game, and run for another.
In fake football, those numbers added up to 38 fantasy points, which made McCown the highest scorer of anyone at any position this week, and that’s a fine and noble title during the opening round of the fantasy playoffs. But in the much grander scheme of real football — where the Bears now sit even with Detroit atop the NFC North at 7-6, with the Lions’ two head-to-head wins the dividing line — playoffs remain a very real thought even after the regular starting quarterback has missed five games. Which means that despite what Marc Trestman says publicly (he maintained the status quo during his post-game presser, saying Cutler will start when healthy), sticking with McCown has to be a real thought that’s now percolating.
That also applies with McCown saying things he’s wholly expected to say.
Josh McCown: “I’m the backup. Jay’s our starter. When Jay is healthy, Jay should be the starting quarterback.”
— Zach Zaidman (@ZachZaidman) December 10, 2013
Or at the very least, Cutler won’t even be wearing a leash upon his return. No, instead it’ll be more like a choke collar, because that’s what happens when over his eight starts so far this year and 276 drop backs, Cutler turned the ball over 11 times, eight through interceptions. Meanwhile, in his seven total game appearances (five starts) and 231 drop backs, McCown has committed only two turnovers, with just one coming through an interception.
That number looks pretty nice alongside his 13 touchdowns (14 including the rushing TD), and of course there are more shiny digits associated with McCown. I’ll just leave this here…
McCown has seven consecutive games with a passer rating over 90.0. Cutler has never had more than three consecutive in any season.
— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) December 10, 2013
That passer rating comparison gets even a little bit better. Highlighted by his 141.9 last night, McCown’s rating has been over 100.0 in three of his five starts, and that’s excluding his 119.6 when he entered a Week 7 game early in the second quarter. Over the past three weeks McCown has passed for 1,055 yards with eight touchdowns and only that one interception.
Those aren’t the numbers of a quarterback who deserves to be summarily pushed aside once Cutler is healthy, which could happen as soon as next week, though a Week 16 game against Philadelphia seems like a far safer landing spot. As Wesseling also reminds us, McCown has a quarterback whisperer of a head coach who once took Rich Gannon — an even older crusty journeyman at age 36 — and molded him into a Super Bowl arm.
This isn’t Colin Kaepernick vs. Alex Smith, because last year Kaepernick was the young second-round pick and presumed eventual starter. But there’s one similarity: though at the time he had vastly improved, Smith’s broader history offered little consistency. That’s Cutler defined, with his frequent flashes of deep, pinpoint throws, followed by poor reads and worse mistakes.
Long term, actions — or in this case, inaction — speak far louder about the Bears’ lack of confidence in Cutler than any words Trestman says. This is a quarterback who’s set to be a free agent in March, who doesn’t warrant the full weight of the $16.2 million franchise tag if it can at all be avoided, and who hasn’t been signed to a long-term extension. Translation: even if it’s through the uncomfortable circumstances presented by an injury, Cutler is a quarterback ripe to be replaced.
The most likely outcome is Trestman waiting for at least one more week while hiding behind Cutler’s injury, and letting the sizzling McCown shoulder the visit to Cleveland, taking on a much tougher defense than most of his opposition thus far. With Baltimore being the exception, McCown has faced a pass defense ranked 20th or lower in four of his five starts.
That game may determine the short-term fate of both men, because given the lack of commitment to Cutler, turning back to the overall more talented yet much less consistent option with a playoff berth at stake would border on stubborn.
Winning ain’t easy, Mark Trestman. In more ways than one.
More notes, reading, stray thoughts, and other such randomness
The Cowboys defense isn’t doing much defending
It’s remarkable how much the complexion of the a Cowboys defense that’s been decimated by injuries changes without Sean Lee. Not that they were world beaters with him either, but at least there was some resistance to the chugging of Matt Forte, who finished with 175 total yards on 27 touches (6.5 yards per touch). That included a season high 34-yard reception, and at the end of the evening Forte’s fantasy owners were rather pleased with his 23 points.
Here’s the ground pounding the Cowboys have endured from the opposition’s top running back over their last six games: 641 yards, including +140 yards from Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram.
Alshon Jeffery shouldn’t be able to do this
That running leak iced the game, but the air carving by McCown while chucking to his wide wing-spanned targets in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery drove the Bears to their 27 straight points — with points on all of their eight drives, excluding the game-ending kneel down — and 490 offensive yards, which was far above their season average (389.8).
But man, Alshon Jeffery. This shouldn’t be possible.
But the Bears defense sucked too
And in the same way. Stopping DeMarco Murray wasn’t happening either, as he ran for 146 yards at a pace of 8.1 per carry. We can play the same game with the Bears as we did with the Cowboys run defense above, only it gets far more comedic this time.
The Bears have allowed a +100 rusher in each of their last six games, an NFL record. The sorry total against those top rushers over that stretch looks like this: 763 yards, an average of 127.2 per game. Lance Briggs missed his sixth game last night, but thankfully he’s maybe, probably returning for Week 15 to re-install some shred of respect.
This is a thing Jon Gruden actually said
Gruden: “This Kyle Orton’s an amazing quarterback.”
— Matt Mosley (@mattmosley) December 10, 2013
And this is a thing a human actually did
Numb nuts. Literally. pic.twitter.com/FkCuQXR1kn
— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) December 10, 2013