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Josh McCown’s success makes Jay Cutler expendable

Updated: November 13, 2013 6:01PM

If Josh McCown can thrive in Marc Trestman’s offense, who else can?

If Bears general manager Phil Emery isn’t asking himself that question, he should be. McCown’s success in three different relief appearances — one half against the Washington Redskins, a complete game against the Green Bay Packers and an emergency final drive against the Detroit Lions — doesn’t mean he’s the Bears’ best quarterback. But it does open up possibilities Emery would be remiss to ignore.

The Bears can win the Super Bowl with Cutler. But it’s becoming more and more apparent that circumstances have to be so perfect for him that it is less likely it will ever happen. He has the offensive line. He has the big receivers. He has the coaches he trusts and respects. Now he can’t stay healthy. Trestman can improve Cutler’s mechanics and provide him with a winning game plan, but he can’t change his luck.

Under Trestman, Cutler was off to the best start of his career, including back-to-back games against the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants with passer ratings of 128.1 and 106.5 and a career-best streak of 102 passes without an interception.

But he’s gradually regressing to the mean. With a bad start against the Redskins and a poor finish against the Lions, his 88.4 season passer rating is closing in on his career rating of 84.0. In fact, his passer rating this season when the game is within two touchdowns is 82.3 (10 touchdowns, eight interceptions). That’s 22nd among NFL starters and below Cutler’s 85.0 career average in that scenario coming into this season.

Unlike 2011, when Caleb Hanie’s disastrous performance made Cutler more valuable than ever, McCown’s performance in a backup role is shedding a new light on Cutler’s value to the Bears.

Based on McCown’s small (but not insignificant) sample, it seems as if a lower-risk quarterback like McCown still has the opportunity for high reward in Trestman’s offense. McCown’s career passer rating before this season was 71.2. His average yards per attempt was 6.3. Under Trestman, he has a 103.2 rating and 7.7 yards per attempt.

The quarterback who excelled best in Trestman’s offense, Rich Gannon with the Oakland Raiders, was closer to McCown’s skill set than Cutler’s. Gannon was a fourth-round draft pick with neither a strong arm nor a quick release and was projected more as a running back or defensive back coming out of Delaware in 1987. In the NFL, Gannon was a low-risk but efficient quarterback. Trestman turned him into a prolific passer — Gannon led the NFL in passing yards in 2003; his 7.6 yards per attempt was nearly a yard better than his career average of 6.8. He was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. And he led the Raiders to the Super Bowl.

McCown is not Rich Gannon. But neither is Cutler, whose ‘‘cannon for an arm’’ still is a detriment to his performance at times. Cutler’s last two interceptions — the pick-six against the Redskins and the deflection in the end zone against the Lions — both came on throws that McCown never would have attempted because he knows he can’t make them. That’s one reason McCown has a 103.2 passer rating and Cutler an 88.4.

Trestman disputed the notion that McCown has been more successful than Cutler in his offense. But frankly, he’s in max-protect mode with his quarterback, noting that Alshon Jeffery dropped a catchable touchdown pass in the third quarter Sunday and absolving Cutler of blame for the interception in the end zone, claiming he also saw a window to Martellus Bennett that upon review still doesn’t appear to have been there.

Trestman was a lot more open to acknowledging Cutler’s errant throws and poor mechanics earlier in the season. But he’s right to protect his quarterback. Cutler is good enough to lead the Bears out of this mess — if the stars align. But the way McCown has taken to Trestman’s offense, the Bears would be wise to consider that there might be better options in the future.


Twitter: @MarkPotash

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