The Chicago Bears backup quarterback has been a position of much debate over last few seasons. Jay Cutler has not played an entire season since 2009, so the need for a good backup quarterback has been important. Last offseason, the Bears put a strong emphasis on the position, signing Jason Campbell to a one-year, $3.5 million contract, making him one of the highest paid backups in the league.
Fast forward to 2013, and the Bears’ backup quarterback strategy is very different. They re-signed third-string quarterback Josh McCown to be the full-time backup and retained practice squad quarterback Matt Blanchard, who was an undrafted free-agent out of Wisconsin-Whitewater, to be the new third man. The Bears don’t typically keep three quarterbacks, and their decision on how many to keep will show their confidence in both McCown and Cutler’s ability to stay healthy.
Most Bears fans don’t see McCown as a competent backup quarterback and have expressed their desire for a better backup. The Bears did bring in three quarterbacks for a work out in early June that consisted of Trent Edwards, Jordan Palmer and the infamous JaMarcus Russell, but none of them impressed enough to be signed. The story of Russell is a complex one, but if he continues to improve, we may see him around training camp, especially if the Bears have an injury at the position.
Hopefully the team stays healthy, but if Cutler is injured, McCown would be a very capable short-term replacement. If Cutler were to miss an extended period of time, the Bears may look to bring in a different quarterback, but for now, I’m here to tell you that McCown can be a fine backup.
A Closer Look at the Numbers
If you were going to judge how capable a quarterback McCown is, you would likely look at his stats. When you look at McCown’s stats, you see seasons of very few starts, with sub 60-percent completion rate and a mostly negative touchdown-to-interception ratio. You see that and think “Wow, this McCown guy is awful. The Bears can’t rely on him to fill in for Cutler if the unthinkable happened!”
Well, when you look at the career stats, you’re right. His season stats are just awful. He’s a career 58-percent passer, with a 13-20 record. He had one season with more touchdowns than interceptions and has more career interceptions than starts. You also look up and are reminded he’s about to turn 34, so his best days are likely behind him. Yet, you’re still missing the big picture.
If you stop there and deem McCown a terrible quarterback, then you’re wrong. I know it’s hard to believe that you could actually be wrong, but I’m sorry to say it’s true. You need to dig deeper than just his general career and season stats.
If McCown had really good stats, he wouldn’t be a backup quarterback; he would start, or at least he’d be paid a lot more than the veteran minimum. You have to accept that McCown is not a franchise quarterback and has never really been thought of as a starter. Only once has a team gone into the season with the direct intent of having McCown be their starting quarterback for every game, and that was the 2004 Arizona Cardinals, a team with Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith and two young, stud wide receivers you may have heard of – Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
Still, the ’04 Cardinals were a team coming off a terrible year, having had both the league’s worst offense and defense in 2003. A new coaching staff helped a bit, but it was still a bad team. Throw a young McCown into the fire and you have yourself quite a mess. But I digress.
So he never worked out as a starting quarterback. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a good backup. Some guys have had excellent careers as backups. That doesn’t mean he’s a horrible quarterback, I mean, if teams keep signing him, that means he has to be decent, right? Right. See, you’re starting to get it.
The key with McCown is that you can’t ask him to do too much. He’s not that kind of quarterback. If you put him in and you’re down 28, he’s not going to be able to score four touchdowns to send it into overtime. Very few backups, if any, could succeed in that situation. However, if you have a strong defense and a good running game, he can make the throws you need to keep you in the game. Even as a starter, McCown can get you a win if you play good defense and let the game come to him.
Unfortunately for Josh, he was put into the first situation a lot more often than the second. Let’s take a closer look at that 2004 season, and you’ll see what I mean.
Game one against the Rams, the McCown and Co. get a field goal in the first half, but the Rams got two. In the second half, the Rams get another quick field goal, and the Cardinals are down 9-3. The next drive, McCown mostly hands it off, but converts a key third down, and Emmitt Smith is then able to score a touchdown, giving the Cardinals the lead 10-9. But at the end of the third quarter and into the fourth, the Cardinals defense gives up three straight big plays, including a 36 yard run that leads to a Rams touchdown.
McCown is not a fourth quarter, comeback-touchdown quarterback. If you expect him to be, you’re going to be disappointed.
He couldn’t forge a comeback following that Rams touchdown, and the Cardinals lost. The situation forced McCown to pass more heavily, and it led to a lot of incompletions. Josh is a fine quarterback when you do not put him in those situations. He finished 18 of 29 with 181 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions. He did not lose the game for the Cardinals, but he did not win it for them either, and that is alright.
Jump ahead to week five, another divisional game – Cardinals at 49ers. Late in the first quarter, still no score, McCown hits on string of passes, moves the ball down the field, and throws a 16-yard touchdown. The 49ers respond with a field goal, and after exchanging a few stalled drives, McCown gets off a few more passes and with some good runs from Emmitt Smith, he is able to throw a two-yard touchdown, and his team is up 14-6 at half.
In the third quarter, the 49ers get a pair of field goals, but McCown’s Cardinals are still up 14-12 going into the fourth. Right away in the quarter, the Cardinals move the ball down the field and thanks to a McCown 35-yard pass, they get into the red zone where Smith scores. Next drive, with the help of great field position, the Cardinals score again on a 24-yard touchdown pass from McCown, putting the Cardinals up 28-12 in the fourth quarter.
Yet, the Cardinals would still lose this game in overtime. That’s not on McCown. He had an excellent game, with 231 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. The defense blew it. He was not asked to do too much, and with a good running game, he was able to take and maintain a lead for three and a half quarters. You can’t ask a guy to do much more than that, especially McCown (no offense; pun not intended).
Now let’s jump ahead to 2007. For those of you playing along at home, McCown would now be 28 years old, in his sixth NFL season. He is now a member of the Oakland Raiders, who have just selected JaMarcus Russell with the first pick of the draft. However, between him, McCown, and Dante Culpepper, the Raiders decide to go with McCown as the starter, for now, while Russell continues to develop.
Week nine, it’s the Houston Texans at the Oakland Raiders. McCown is starting in his first game back from foot and hand injures that kept him out of four games. The Texans score on their first drive and the Raiders are quickly down 7-0. Getting little help from his running game, McCown throws an interception, and a few drives later, the Raiders find themselves down 14-0. Add on a field goal later and McCown and Co. are down 17-0 at half.
In the third quarter, the Raiders are able to pick up a field goal after a 23-yard McCown pass sparks the drive, but they still enter the fourth down 17-3. As you are becoming aware of, this is not a situation that is conducive to McCown’s success. However, with some good runs and a 32-yard completion by McCown, the Raiders are able to set up a Justin Fargas rushing touchdown.
Back in the game, down only seven, things are looking up for the Raiders, until, on the Texans very next drive, the Raiders’ defense gives up a touchdown. Now, down 24-10 with eight minutes left, McCown is forced to throw his team back into the game. This however leads to his third interception on another stalled drive. After the two-minute warning, McCown is able to score on a deep touchdown, bringing them within seven once again, but a failed onside kick ended the comeback attempt.
Here again, the defense put Josh in a huge hole early. This time, he was able to climb mostly out of it, until the defense let him down again. A second time he brought the team back, but alas, he fell short. McCown is not a quarterback that can do it all, but he put together multiple comeback drives in this game. He finished 13 for 27, with 158 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. It’s a poor stat-line, but he was able to produce for his team when they needed it.
That is the key to Josh McCown. As I’ve been saying, the stats don’t tell the whole story. This, along with Cutler’s strong preference, is why the Bears have confidence in him as their backup quarterback. He’s a game-manager, not a game-winner; it’s all about putting McCown in a position to succeed, and the Bears have a team that can do that very well.
To review, the things you need for McCown to be successful are things every quarterback needs, just to a greater extent — a great running game, good receivers that can go up and the ball, an offensive line that can keep him upright and a strong defense that keep the opponent from scoring.
The 2013 Bears fit that to a T.
Running Game – Matt Forte and Michael Bush form a two-headed monster at running back that is more than capable of carrying the load for McCown. Forte has ran for at least 900 yards every year of his career, and Michael Bush is considered one of the best backup running backs in the league with his excellent goal line ability. Bush also has the ability to be a full-starter if called upon, which essentially gives the Bears two starting running backs. They would have no problem carrying the offense with McCown.
Receivers – Brandon Marshall is a top-flight, Pro Bowl wide receiver who is Cutler’s favorite target. He and the other starting wide receiver Alshon Jeffery are both 6’4″, and they have great ability to go after the ball, winning many jump balls and making plays on tough passes. They are good enough that McCown doesn’t need to be extremely accurate and they can still make the catch. They, along with new tight end Martellus Bennett, are up to the task of helping a lesser quarterback like McCown move the ball.
Protection – The Bears put a premium on fixing the offensive line this offseason, with four positions getting new starters. They are trusting this line to keep Cutler off of the ground, and along with new offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, they should be able to do their job. If they can keep Cutler upright, there is no reason they can’t do the same for McCown.
Defense – The Bears’ defense has been their strong point for the last 30-plus years. Although face of the franchise, Hall of Fame middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is gone, the current Bears defense should still be strong, following their historic 2012 season. They allowed the third fewest points in 2012, just over 17 points per game, so they can easily hold opposing offenses back for a McCown lead Bears.
The final, underrated factor that promotes success for McCown, if the situation arises, is the offensive system.
System – Marc Trestman brings a west-coast style offense to the Bears. His system is focused on short, quick passes that come out of the quarterback’s hands as soon as possible. This prevents defensive pressure from getting to the quarterbacks, and it doesn’t require a deep, cannon arm to run it. A powerful arm certainly does not hurt in Cutler’s case, but the short throws are very manageable for a McCown type of quarterback. So not only will the system protect him, but it won’t require him to make tough throws.
Let’s all hope that Cutler stays healthy and does not miss a single game in 2013. But, if he does get injured, McCown is a capable enough backup to keep the team afloat until Cutler returns. Let me reiterate that McCown is not the best long-term option if Cutler faces a severe injury, but for a game or two, McCown is a fine backup. It is easy to see why the Bears trust him, and you should too.