Reason to believe in Bears' backup plan
August, 5, 2013
By Michael C. Wright | ESPNChicago.com
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJosh McCown's value as the backup to Jay Cutler goes beyond physical ability on the field.BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- It's crossed your mind. You've pondered the possibility in 2013 for another 2011-esque debacle where Jay Cutler goes down with an injury that forces in a backup quarterback incapable of getting the job done.
Given what transpired that season (how the Bears dropped five of six down the stretch with Cutler on the sideline), it's valid to question whether Josh McCown can carry the team in a pinch. But just know that general manager Phil Emery, the coaches, and the players aren't merely paying lip service when expressing confidence in McCown's ability to successfully fill in for Cutler if the need arises.
People within the organization readily admit the cap situation limited what the Bears could do in free agency at the backup quarterback position, which is why they let Jason Campbell bolt for Cleveland. So in a sense, Chicago settled for McCown. But it appears the club is glad it did for multiple reasons extending beyond what McCown provides on the field as a player.
Not long after taking the job as Bears head coach, Marc Trestman witnessed firsthand the depth of McCown's intangibles. Driving in the vicinity of the hotel where the team houses its rookies during the offseason, Trestman decided to stop in and take a look, just to see who he might run into.
When Trestman stepped into the lobby, he saw McCown sitting with the rookies poring over film, and helping them digest loads of new information so they could perform their best once the team hit the practice fields at Halas Hall. McCown had even borrowed a grease board from the hotel so he could draw up plays.
Nobody asked him to do it. He did it on his own. Cutler also became a part of the hotel tutorials, and spent much of his time in that lobby helping the club's rookies learn the system.
That's the type of influence McCown -- described as "fatherly" within the organization -- has on teammates, and why Emery once called him a "glue guy" and that he's "more than confident that he can get on the field and help us win."
But can he?
"I have to," McCown told ESPNChicago.com. "The teammates, everybody expects you to get it done. You've got to get it done. I've played, man. I've played in this league. So it's not like I'm some inexperienced guy who has never done any of this. I feel like I can go in and do the things we need to do to win ballgames, to keep the ship moving. I think just the way we're building our offense -- just having the command, the understanding of what we're doing, and the guys we've got out there -- it is set up for a lot of quarterbacks to be able to come in and function. I'm just thankful they've given me the opportunity."
Obviously, it's somewhat of a concern McCown has played in just six games over the last four years. When McCown filled in for an ineffective Caleb Hanie over the last two games of 2011, he notched a 1-1 record, while completing 64.1 percent of his passes in road games at Green Bay and Minnesota. Had the Bears gone with McCown sooner, perhaps the club could have actually salvaged that season.
Let's not forget McCown came in virtually cold, having signed with the team approximately one month before making his first start.
Weeks before joining the Bears, McCown was working as a high school football coach in North Carolina.
"Back then, it was coach (Mike) Martz's offense, which I was familiar with having played with him in 2006 in Detroit. So I had the familiarity with it. But still, that offense gets tweaked over the years, so it was a little different," McCown said. "Now if I had to play, it would be different. When you start from the ground up, when you start in April, and build a system that you're learning, it's just different because you understand why, the base, the ground floor of it. By the time you've gotten through training camp and into the season, you've put so many layers on it that if you miss the bottom piece, sometimes it becomes hard to understand those layers.
"So I greatly benefit right now from just being here from April until now. The fun thing is it's a new system for both Jay and I. We've gotten to go through it and learn it together. To be able to test each other, and help each other study, it's been good because you feel like you're getting a good base understanding of what you're trying to do. For me personally, it gives me more confidence going into games."
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesJosh McCown stepped in for Caleb Hanie in 2011, completing 64.1 percent of his passes and posting a 1-1 record as the starter.
While it's definitely important for teams to carry backups capable of winning, it's probably equally -- perhaps even more vital -- to find a reserve signal caller who helps in the meeting room, the locker room and on the sideline as another set of eyes to go with those of the quarterbacks coach, head coach, offensive coordinator and the starter.
McCown serves as an extension of Trestman, quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh, offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, and as a liaison between Cutler and the players because, believe it or not, part of the job is reading the demeanor and body language of teammates, and then relaying that information back to the starting quarterback. From his vantage point on the sideline, McCown also needs to see and diagnose what the opponent is doing schematically, and pass those observations to Cutler.
"Just observing the demeanor of the guys, I might say (to Cutler), 'Hey man, go pick this guy up. Go talk to him,' " McCown said. "He takes more reps than me. He has a lot on his plate as the starting quarterback. Ultimately, you know as well as I do, if the quarterback position is functioning and playing well in an organization, the organization's probably looking good. I understand my role with Jay, and helping him is vital to our team and our organization. I want him to play the best ball he can. I'm thankful to walk alongside coach Trestman and coach Cavanaugh, and just try to be there to help and back up the things they're saying, to reinforce those things, and encourage Jay to just keep trusting what they're doing, because they’ve put a great system in place."
McCown missed the entire 2010 season after flaming out with the Carolina Panthers in 2009, but the perspective gained from that year away is beneficial to the task at hand. At the very least, McCown is so appreciative of the new opportunity, he won't take it for granted by inadequately preparing for an opportunity he's hoping never comes at the expense of Cutler.
"(Being out of football), it stunk. I'm not gonna sit here and act like it was all roses," McCown said. "So many guys get to that point where they're like, 'Man, if I could just go back as a player knowing things I know now, it would be awesome.' Most guys experience that when they're retired and done. I'm just thankful I've gotten to see things through that lens, then get back in as a player where I'm gonna apply some of those things I thought about (when I was coaching high school in North Carolina). I'm gonna apply that to myself as a player, and in my preparation. I hope nothing happens to Jay and everything stays the way it's supposed to be. But if I have to play, I look forward to the opportunity, would relish and embrace it."