Josh McCown is playing out of his mind. He and the Eagles’ Nick Foles have turned into Pro Bowl caliber quarterbacks essentially out of nowhere, just because the starter got hurt. The difference is Nick Foles is clearly the starter in Philly, and is probably going to the Pro Bowl this year. McCown has been almost as effective, but chances are he is not the guy in Chicago.
The Bears have a decision to make on their starter Jay Cutler this off-season. He has been good, but not great in his time in Chicago. True, he brought the team to the NFC Championship Game in 2010, and had he not gotten hurt the Bears may have gone to the Super Bowl. But he has driven fans crazy with his gunslinger mentality and his propensity to get hurt at the exact time he is playing his best football. But he is only thirty years old, and could be a good quarterback on a Super Bowl caliber offense for the next three to five years. And do not fool yourself; the Bears do have a Super Bowl caliber offense.
The problem is that Jay could go somewhere like Tennessee or Houston and make Joe Flacco-type money. He probably won’t make that in Chicago, especially now that the Bears may have another option.
Let’s evaluate that other option. Josh McCown is thirty-four, a career backup who just happens to be playing the best football of his life. Is he the answer for the next five years? It is really hard for someone to say he is because of his history. But one needs only to look at a former MVP to see that it is possible that McCown is the answer.
In 2002, Raiders offensive coordinator Marc Trestman turned a career backup by the name of Rich Gannon into the best quarterback in the NFL. Gannon not only won the MVP but also brought the Raiders to the Super Bowl. Aside from his own development under Trestman’s toutelage, Gannon was aided by a stellar receiving corps in Jerry Rice and Tim Brown and a dynamic running back who was also an effective receiver in Charlie Garner.
Eleven years later, Trestman has taken a career backup in Josh McCown and made him play at a star level, aided by the league’s top receiving duo in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and one of the NFL’s top dual threat backs in Matt Forte. The similarities between the situations are a little eerie.
The receivers in Chicago are both younger and better than the receivers were in Oakland in 2002, and Forte has more career in front of him than Garner did at the time. The Bears offense could be one of the league’s elite going forward, as Marshall likely has at least three more years as one of the top five or ten receivers in the NFL, and Jeffery has joined that group in only his second season. Trestman, game-management issues aside, has proved that he is one of the league’s top play-callers when he keeps the foot on the gas pedal. The weapons and the coach has given the Bears an offense that can go to a Super Bowl. The thing that has held them back is the fact that the defense cannot stop anyone, but if the defense is brought from god-awful to average, the Bears are winning the NFC North easily. After that, the question is only the quarterback.
If the Bears choose to pay Cutler, they will be a little handcuffed in terms of adding talented youth to the aged defense. They will need a ton of fast development from rookie linebackers Jon Bostic and Kaseem Greene, and need Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin to be effective pass rushers. They will also need to add a lot in the draft to improve a mediocre secondary, front-lined by two safeties who have a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If they sign Cutler to big money, they will have to sit on their unproven youth and aged veterans and hope that they do enough to make the defense average.
If they choose not to sign Cutler and decide to either move forward with McCown or draft a quarterback–Johnny Manziel could theoretically fall to the Bears at around the twentieth pick if they feel desperate for a QB–they could add more defensively and possibly catch enough lightning in a bottle to take advantage of the best offense the Bears have had since Payton. Or they could waste the remaining years of Marshall and Forte’s prime and waste a few years of Jeffery’s youth.
Either way, you have a ton of ifs. A lot of “the Bears hope that…”
The most likely result is going to be a franchise tag for Jay and then signing McCown to about twice of what he makes now, which would bring him up to around $2 million. They will then give Cutler one more year to prove he is the guy in Chicago and move forward from there. ESPN Chicago’s Carmen DeFalco has stated he believes the Bears have already decided that Jay is the guy moving forward, and I tend to agree with that. There is precedence for McCown bringing a team to a Super Bowl, but Cutler can do a lot of things with these weapons and this coach, things McCown cannot do. He may not make Matt Ryan level money in Chicago, but he will see a big paycheck a little over a year from now. Mark it down.