4th-string QB Matt Blanchard is looking to buck the odds
BY MARK POTASH firstname.lastname@example.org August 11, 2012 8:50PM
Matt Blanchard tosses a pass during preseason drills. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times
Updated: September 13, 2012 6:29AM
BOURBONNAIS — The sight of Matt Blanchard warming up with Jay Cutler, Jason Campbell and Josh McCown at Bears training camp elicits two obvious questions: Who is Matt Blanchard? And where did he come from?
Quarterbacks in NFL training camps don’t come from much more humble football backgrounds than Blanchard. At Lake Zurich High School, Blanchard was a triple-option quarterback who threw five touchdown passes and completed less than 50 percent of his passes as a senior in 2006.
He struggled to get on the field at Division II Northern Michigan, where he was the Most Outstanding Scout Player on offense in 2008. He transferred to Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he started for two seasons but produced numbers that were hardly prolific.
As a senior last season, he threw for 2,852 yards and 23 touchdowns — tied for 13th among Division III quarterbacks in passing yards and 24th in touchdown passes.
So what is he doing here? What did the Bears see in Blanchard to invite him to minicamp in June?
‘‘The guy has done nothing but win,’’ Bears general manager Phil Emery said. ‘‘That says a lot.’’
Indeed, the 6-3, 225-pound Blanchard was 25-0 as a starter at Wisconsin-Whitewater, including 15-0 last season, leading Whitewater to the Division III national title. The last team to beat him was St. Rita — in the Class 7A state championship game in 2006.
‘‘Matt has that knack,’’ said Mike DiMatteo, his coach at Lake Zurich from 2003-05, ‘‘it’s something you can’t put your finger on. But he’s one of those guys with that knack [for winning]. He’s absolutely fearless. He’s not afraid of a challenge. And he’s a tough kid. It’s pretty impressive.’’
Emery saw that Thursday night in the Bears’ first preseason game, when Blanchard completed 6 of 7
passes for 53 yards, including a 28-yard pass to rookie Chris Summers.
‘‘To walk into a stadium that was holding more people than he’s probably ever been in front of in his life,’’ Emery said, ‘‘to throw that long ball and be accurate in the short area and to carry himself with poise under duress in a very charged environment says everything about him.’’
Blanchard is 37-2 in his last 39 starts.
‘‘I feel like I’ve been a winner in a lot of ways and I’ve been very fortunate to be around a lot of great players,’’ Blanchard said. ‘‘It’s just how I carry myself — that ‘do not fail’ mentality. It’s something I relish and really enjoy the leadership aspect of playing the position and the attention that comes with it.’’
Regardless of whether Blanchard beats the odds and has an extended NFL career, his presence in training camp is good sign for the Bears — evidence that under Emery, the Bears have a heightened radar for quarterbacks who know how to win even more than how to play quarterback. Jason Campbell, the other quarterback Emery signed, was 26-6 with three bowl victories in his final three years at Auburn. As a senior, he was 13-0 and the MVP of Auburn’s Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech despite throwing for just 189 yards.
Innate talent and the supporting cast are part of the equation, but having a guy with a knack for winning increases the margin for error. Last season, the Bears used three quartebacks who never had a winning season at a Division I college — Jay Cutler (11-34 at Vanderbilt), Caleb Hanie (9-24 at Colorado State) and Josh McCown (9-15 at SMU).
Ultimately it made a difference, as Hanie seemed completely overwhelmed by a golden opportunity to lead the 7-3 Bears into the playoffs and went 0-4 in place of Cutler, who had suffered an untimely injury for the second consecutive season.
It helps to have a guy who seems to always be in the middle of success, regardless of the circumstances. When Blanchard was a sophomore at Lake Zurich, he threw an interception for a touchdown with 3:54 left in a scoreless game against Crystal Lake South. ‘‘He didn’t even flinch, and engineered us right down the field,’’ DiMatteo said. ‘‘We scored [with nine seconds left in regulation] and won the game in overtime.’’
That’s what Emery is looking for. A guy who, as Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf described Brett Favre, ‘‘when he steps on the field, the field tilted in your favor.’’
Blanchard might not be that guy. But with Emery looking in the right areas, the Bears have a better chance to eventually find him.