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Picking Cutler over McCown is right call, but doesn’t mean it isn’t risky

Updated: December 11, 2013 10:55AM

Josh McCown vs. Jay Cutler is a tougher call today than it was last week, but not because McCown is the better quarterback. Only because he’s the hotter quarterback.

McCown’s performance Monday against the Cowboys is a credit to his perseverance, coach Marc Trestman’s offense and general manager Phil Emery’s stocking of offensive talent around his quarterbacks. It doesn’t mean he’s better than Cutler.

It’s tough to dispute the notion that McCown has been more productive in Trestman’s offense than Cutler after he raised his season passer rating to 109.8, the third-best in the NFL behind the Eagles’ Nick Foles (120.0) and the Broncos’ Peyton Manning (114.5).

But Cutler’s the choice when he’s healthy because he’s still the better quarterback. Comparing Cutler’s numbers with McCown’s ignores circumstances that have made a difference. For example:

† Cutler’s first six starts came when the Bears’ offense was in a formative stage under Trestman and coordinator Aaron Kromer. It was expected that the offense would grow as the season progressed and that Cutler would grow with it. Sure enough, Cutler’s two best starts statistically were in Games 5 and 6 against the Saints (128.1 passer rating) and Giants (106.5).

McCown, on the other hand, took over the offense when it was in a higher gear. His first start was in Game 8 against the Packers. His other starts came in Games 10-13. Compared to Cutler, he has been playing with the wind at his back.

† Cutler faced defenses in the first six weeks of the season that were fresher and closer to full strength; McCown has had the advantage of attrition.

McCown has faced the Packers without Clay Matthews and Brad Jones; the Ravens without Haloti Ngata, Elvis Dumervil and Josh Bynes; the Rams without Cortland Finnegan; the Vikings without Harrison Smith, Erin Henderson and Josh Robinson; and the Cowboys without Morris Claiborne and Anthony Spencer.

† McCown has done most of his work against weaker defenses, including the Redskins (22nd in total defense), Packers (21st), Rams (19th), Vikings (31st) and Cowboys (32nd). He has faced only one team that ranks among the top 10 in total defense (the Ravens, ninth).

Cutler faced three defenses that rank among the top 10: the Bengals (eighth), Saints (sixth) and Giants (10th). He also faced the Steelers, who aren’t the defense they’ve been but still rank 12th.

It’s possible McCown just happens to be a perfect fit for Trestman’s offense, a Rich Gannon type of quarterback who avoids the high-risk plays that get Cutler into trouble but still produces high-reward plays that make Cutler a rich man.

But it’s also possible — and more likely — that Cutler would be even more productive than McCown in Trestman’s offense in its current state and under similar circumstances because he’s a better quarterback with a bigger arm. Except for the curious backslide in the first half against the Redskins before he suffered the groin injury that started all this, Cutler was on the upswing.

We’re bound to find out because Trestman is resolute that Cutler is his quarterback.

‘‘There’s no change in plan,’’ he said after McCown’s impressive performance against the Cowboys. ‘‘We’ll see where Jay is this week. He’ll have to be released by the doctors. When Jay’s ready to play, he’ll [play].’’

If only it were that simple. Replacing a red-hot backup with a quarterback who hasn’t taken a snap since Nov. 10 and hasn’t completed a game since Oct. 10 is fraught with risk for Trestman, especially when the franchise is the Bears and the quarterback is Cutler, both of whom seem to lack luck when it comes these situations. The Bears have virtually no margin for error. A poor start by a rusty Cutler might be critical — and open up Trestman to inevitable second-guessing.

Trestman’s decision could leave a scar that will last for years, not unlike Mike Ditka’s ill-fated decision to start unproven Doug Flute instead of struggling Mike Tomczak in place of injured Jim McMahon in the 1986 postseason. (Richard Dent still was ripping that move just last year.)

But it could be worse. In Lovie Smith’s first season as the Bears’ coach in 2004, his big quarterback decisions were Jonathan Quinn or Craig Krenzel and Krenzel or Chad Hutchinson. Jim Dooley had to decide between Jack Concannon and Bobby Douglass. Neill Armstrong’s big decision was Bob Avellini or Mike Phipps. Ditka once had to choose between Rusty Lisch and Greg Landry. Trestman is going to replace the third-leading passer in the NFL with the best Bears quarterback of the modern era, one who’s having a career-best season.

It’s a new era in Chicago. Krenzel/Hutchinson is a problem. Cutler/McCown is a luxury. The Bears have bigger issues with three games to go.


Twitter: @MarkPotash

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