Jeff Haynes/Sports Illustrated
Jeff Haynes/Sports Illustrated

Quietly Making Noise

Josh McCown was out of the NFL and coaching high school football in North Carolina a year ago. Now he's gone from Jay Cutler’s backup to the man keeping the Bears in the playoff picture—and at 34 his career might finally take off

By
Robert Klemko
· More from Robert·

CHICAGO — We talk of a light switch going on for certain NFL players as if there’s a quick fix for mediocrity, when, in reality, maturity in pro football is a slow, deliberate crank. Bears quarterback Josh McCown has been churning forward the past three seasons, shuffling in and out of Chicago, but there was an invaluable lesson he only came to learn over the past three weeks:

Sometimes you just have to shut up.

A career backup who hasn’t spent more than four seasons in one city since being drafted by Arizona in 2002, the 34-year-old McCown helped thrust the Bears (6-4) back into the playoff picture with a 23-20 overtime victory against the Ravens on Sunday. Filling in for Jay Cutler, who is still recovering from an injured groin and ankle, McCown threw for 216 yards and came to appreciate the difference between being a backup and the starter.

On the sideline, it’s his job to play the role of devil’s advocate to help coaches consider all possibilities. Under center, he needs to ease his restless mind and stop making so many suggestions.

“That’s what the coaches say, that’s the joke, that I suggest too much,” McCown said outside an empty locker room five and half hours after the noon kickoff. “I think every quarterback does that, but I probably do more so because I’m used to being on the sideline and helping that way. But I’m definitely learning to just shut up and let Marc call it.”

Words TK (Jeff Haynes/Sports Illustrated)
McCown threw for 216 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions in awful weather conditions on Sunday. (Jeff Haynes/Sports Illustrated)

And call it Marc Trestman did. The first-year coach navigated McCown to a turnover-free day in conditions that punter Adam Podlesh described as a “pigpen.” Gale-force winds tore through Soldier Field as more than 70 tornadoes touched down in Illinois and Indiana. Lightning delayed the game for almost two hours, and when players came back to the field, they finished in a rain-soaked muck.

 “I’ve never played in mud like that. We were covered,” Bears tackle Jermon Bushrod said. “I thought it was neat how grimy and gritty everyone was looking. It looked like we were out there in a battle and that was cool to see.”

The grit and the grime were neat for everyone but the quarterbacks. Reigning Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco (17 of 31 for 162 yards, one TD and two picks) threw a silly interception to Bears defensive end David Bass that was returned for a touchdown in the second quarter, and McCown labored through the second half as the wind dictated the play-calling. In the third quarter, he didn’t attempt a pass. Said McCown, who completed 19 of 31 throws: “You look across the field and see Joe Flacco and look on the sideline and Jay is over there and I’m like, ‘Can I borrow somebody’s arm?’ ”

McCown didn’t need world-class throwing power to do what was required of him in overtime. On the Bears’ first drive, he found Alshon Jeffery on a quick slant out of a bunch formation that had cornerback Corey Graham screaming at his teammates, and he hit Martellus Bennett on a seam route that was designed for the quarterback to hit the tight end in stride. Instead, McCown looked off the safety and aimed above the shoulders of Bennett, who came back to the football, rose above cornerback Lardarius Webb and hauled it in to put the Bears in field goal range.

Would McCown have made these plays two years ago, when he first got to Chicago because of another injury to Cutler? Perhaps. But they probably would have been preceded by the kind of head-scratching interceptions that can be avoided with meticulous film preparation—something McCown has finally made a habit of doing after he most of the 2012 season out of pro football coaching a high school team in North Carolina.

Trestman believes McCown compares favorably to Rich Gannon, who didn’t become a bona fide starter until late in his career and won MVP honors at age 38.

“I didn’t study when I got into the league like I study now,” McCown says. “I don’t think I knew necessarily how to work or how to study. Being around different guys through the course of my career, I’ve learned. The coaching helped put things in perspective … I would do it differently if I had another chance.”

Now in his 11th season, this could be McCown’s last chance at nailing down a starting job, in Chicago or elsewhere. In four appearances, including two starts, he has 754 yards passing, five touchdowns and a 60.4% completion rate. Trestman wouldn’t say if he thought McCown outperformed Flacco, but the coach has told personnel men around the league that he believes McCown compares favorably to Rich Gannon, another journeyman quarterback who didn’t become a bona fide starter until late in his career and received MVP honors in 2002, with Trestman as his offensive coordinator in Oakland.

For now, McCown remains the Bears’ starter. The players are grateful for that, though they’re careful not to heap praise on the backup without mentioning the ailing Cutler, who tried unsuccessfully to gut it out a week ago against Detroit. The Lions (6-4) hold the tiebreaker over the Bears in the NFC North, and both teams have rather weak schedules in front of them.

Yet it won’t be easy for Chicago, whose problems are many: The run defense has suffered as a result of injuries to Lance Briggs and Henry Melton, and their replacements didn’t fare well against the Ravens, allowing the struggling Ray Rice to go for a season-high 131 yards on 25 carries. And Chicago’s greatest weapon against the pass, cornerback Peanut Tillman, is out for the remainder of the regular season with a torn triceps. Offensively, the pass protection has gotten better, but it remains less than ideal while rookie right tackle Jordan Mills continues to get comfortable. Despite their issues, the Bears have something invaluable that can help them win a playoff race: a backup quarterback who is letting his play do all the talking.

Words TK (Jeff Haynes/Sports Illustrated)
The Bears are tied with the Lions for first in the NFC North at 6-4, but Detroit swept the season series and holds the tiebreaker. McCown, filling in for an injured Cutler, pulled off an overtime victory against the Ravens on Sunday and has drawn comparisons to former journeyman QB Rich Gannon, a league MVP. (Jeff Haynes/Sports Illustrated)
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19 comments
foremanmills
foremanmills

The Bears have three games left. Trestman has to get Cutler in to gauge his performance, he has to , it is required, if Cutler is good to go (contract year). Cutler can not struggle in this offense, fans have seen McCown perform and like his performance. Unfortunately for Cutler he has to equal or exceed what McCown has done. McCown has the offense hitting on all cylinders.  If  Cutler should struggle, he may get booed, which I would hate to see, but that's the nature of the game. Will Trestman keep him in, if their playoff opportunity is in jeopardy? Will it be an early hook or 2nd half hook?, we'll have to wait and see. But, if Cutler should be successful in the three remaining games and do it in an impressive manner, the Bears have a huge decision to make.The Bears also must consider the cap, and make a decision with that in mind. They need a : DT,DE,CB, FS,SS, OT, OG, QB.. They can go FA and draft to shore up. Cutler's performance will let us know which direction they'll take. Myself, I would release Wright, Steltz, Conte, Paea and comb through the roster for others. I would also move Tillman to FS and FA or draft a SS, and move McClellan to WSLB and maybe some other adjustments.The Bears have to fortify the defense. 

gary41
gary41

The Bears are an average team with a lot of holes, like other average teams, playing an average schedule, but the front office and coaching staff are much better.  The Chicago offense was previously one dimensional.  Trestman has made a big difference with both Cutler and McCown.  He is clearly the right coach moving forward.  Bears fans have every reason for optimism, but there are limits. 

BathazarXavier
BathazarXavier

the one superbowl winning qb us bears have in our memories is one who didn't have the physical skills that many before and since have had at the position...but he was smart enough to make the most of what he had to work with. one could argue he has about as much talent around him as mcmahon had, and he understands, unlike cutler at times, if he lets them, they will win the game for him. i don't hate cutler, i was excited when we got him but he seems to refuse to reach his ceiling and maximize his natural ability. give me an overachiever who's hungry over the underachiever who "could've been"

jeffchadwick
jeffchadwick

Another solid effort from the MMQB Bears beat writer department.  

Jim21
Jim21

I think MCCown has done a tremendous job filling in but it remains to be seen if he could keep up that kind of consistency when game-planned against as Cutler is over the course of an entire season. I highly doubt it... 

amolad
amolad

All the Cutler-hating morons are coming out now. To be expected. Some people don't know what a backup QB is.

WHY would the McCaskeys keep Cutler? Because when he has a QB rating over 100, the Bears are 16-2. 

That's why.

George
George

cutler's DONE in chitown - why would the cheapskate McCaskeys pay $18-$20 Million dollars a season to a guy who doesn't get any better end results 

when they get wins and CONSISTENT performance from Josh McCown for 1/10th as much?   It's simple math and good business sense to cut cutler loose.


George
George

@amolad The NFL is a BUSINESS, not just football entertainment.  Cutler is not worth an "elite" level salary of 18-20 million per year.  

PS - Jay Cutler's lifetime qb rating is currently 84.4 and in his 8 seasons it has NEVER been higher than 88.  Figures can lie, and liars can figure.

http://www.nfl.com/player/jaycutler/2495824/careerstats


BathazarXavier
BathazarXavier

@George i'm tired of the out of date idea that the mccaskeys are cheap. they may not spend their money wisely but they pay top dollar when they want to. they happen to have one of the highest payrolls in the nfl and have paid some high-profile free agents (including their own) some big money to come to/stay in chicago. brian cox ring a bell? mushin muhammad? julius peppers?? they certainly didn't low ball urlacher except for that one final time...get your facts straight and we'll talk.

Jim21
Jim21

@George I agree with the math (Cutler vs McCown) but the McCaskeys aren't cheap. 10 years ago, I would have agreed with you but their payroll is right up there with all the other NFL teams. 

TL1961
TL1961

@George 5 passes from inside the 5, and settled for a FG. Why? Because Jay wasn't there to throw the back shoulder pass that makes TD's so easy when he is in.

I am happy with McCown's performance. But there is little comparison between him and Cutler. 

sgyorfi
sgyorfi

@George @amolad I'm not even a Bears fan but couldn't let this buffoonery go un-commented upon. 

Since 2009 as a Bear, Cutler has had 18 games with a QBR of 100+. 

As a Bronco he had a QBR of 100+ 10 times. 

Though his season average has never been above 100, he can absolutely play.  Flacco makes 20 mil. and his career rating is 84.9. 

Stranger things have happened. 

George
George

@Jim21 @George They're not going to pay cutler $18-20Million$ the way he's playing.  They'd be nuts to do so when they could use all that dough and the new rookie salary cap numbers to build a team that could win a title.

Just watch next year when Bus Cook trys to get cutler "Flacco money."   Won't happen.

George
George

@TL1961 @George My post was about money.  You did not address that, just quoted a few lame stats.  You didn't mention Cutlers picks either.

st oop id

George
George

@sgyorfi @George @amolad You can mentally masturbate the numbers all you want - the bottom line is:

Jay Cutler's lifetime qb rating is currently 84.4 and in his 8 seasons it has NEVER been higher than 88

Are you incapable of research and comprehending documented stats in your eternal quest to sniff cutler's jockstrap?

hutch138
hutch138

@sgyorfi @George @amolad Flacco also has a SB ring. I think Cutler would look a lot better if he didn't whine his way out of Denver, just my opinion.

George
George

@Seany @George @TL1961 Well done.  Such a well-written and informative post!   How long did you spend thinking that one up?

Careful with that ice cream cone - we don't want you smearing ALL of it on your forehead!

:D

You ad-hom jocksniffers who can't post anything but junior-high school responses don't even have a clue how stupid you are, do you?  (redundant question)

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