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McCown’s performance could tell us a lot about Cutler’s value

Chicago Bears v WashingtRedskins

Chicago Bears v Washington Redskins

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Updated: October 23, 2013 11:10AM



When Jay Cutler was injured in 2011, I made a tremendous blunder in predicting that Caleb Hanie would thrive in his place. While Cutler had led the Bears to five consecutive victories, his performances were hardly off-the-charts. He was replaceable.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Hanie was more awful than the harshest critic could have predicted. He completed 50 percent of his passes and threw nine interceptions in four games, two of which were returned for touchdowns and another of which set up a game-changing touchdown against the Raiders. The Bears lost all four games and any real hope they had of making the playoffs.

As so many Sun-Times readers were thoughtful enough to inform me, my prediction of success for Hanie was laughable. Cutler not only was the star of the offense, but he clearly was the most valuable player on the team.

Two years later, we have another chance to measure Cutler’s value to the Bears. Short of a 158.3 passer rating, 40-plus points per game and five or more consecutive victories, there’s nothing Josh McCown can do to create a quarterback controversy when (if?) Cutler returns. But Cutler’s absence — and McCown’s impressive performance Sunday in relief against the Redskins — gives the Bears a chance to see just how badly they need their franchise quarterback.

General manager Phil Emery steered clear of discussing Cutler’s future with the Bears at a news conference Monday. But with Cutler eligible for free agency after this season, Emery knows he has a big decision to make.

Cutler’s fast start this season made it pretty clear it wasn’t a matter of whether signing him would be Emery’s best option; it was a matter of how much it would cost. Does Emery negotiate a long-term deal that could run into the $75 million to $100 million range? Does he use the franchise tag that likely would pay Cutler $15 million in 2014 and buy himself another year to see if
Cutler is worth breaking
the bank for?

Cutler’s performance didn’t answer those questions, but McCown’s performance might. McCown won’t have a 119.6 rating every week, but his performance against the Redskins indicates coach Marc Trestman’s offense truly is quarterback-friendly. And if McCown can come in cold and produce winning numbers in Trestman’s offense this quickly, how many other quarterbacks can?

McCown’s performance in this offense absolutely reflects on Cutler. If he’s good — still a big if — Emery might have more options than he originally thought, both in free agency and the draft.

It’s true that Cutler is having a fine season in his first year in Trestman’s offense. His completion percentage is up from 58.8 last season to 64.9. He has thrown a winning touchdown pass in the fourth quarter twice. The Bears are tied for second in the NFL with 20 offensive touchdowns.

But he’s not there yet. Cutler’s 91.5 passer rating is a career-best. But if you take away gratuitous yards and touchdowns after the Bears fell way behind against the Saints (26-10) and Lions (40-16), Cutler’s passer rating is 84.0 — his career average.

And while it was overshadowed by his injury, Cutler’s performance against the Redskins was a disappointment. With nine days between games, Cutler either was rusty or ineffective. Against a defense ranked 24th in the NFL against the pass, Cutler was 3-for-8 for 28 yards and an interception returned for a touchdown for an 8.3 passer rating. The rest of the league has a composite 104.5 passer rating against the Redskins in the first half this season. Why him? Why then?

Those are questions any general manager has to ask himself when it comes to evaluating Cutler. He has made strides under Trestman and is arguably better than he ever has been in the NFL.
The Bears can win with him.

The bigger question — one we soon will be able to answer — is whether they can win without him.

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkPotash



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