The Chicago Bears last season learned the hard way the value of a strong backup quarterback in today's NFL. After a 7-3 start, and having won five straight games, the team lost starting quarterback Jay Cutler with a thumb injury.
In came Caleb Hanie, who had never started a regular season contest in his entire career up that point. He subsequently stunk up the field and derailed the offense. His failures under center were the main reason the Bears lost their next four contests, subsequently knocking the team out of the playoffs.
Hanie threw nine interceptions during his four starts, compared to just three touchdowns. Opposing defenses did not have to respect the pass and repeatedly stacked the box to stop Chicago's rushing attack.
It was dismal end to a season that was filled with so much promise.
QB Jay Cutler
As a result, new GM Phil Emery made it a priority this offseason to upgrade the team's backup signal callers. Let's break down the four quarterbacks the Bears will be bringing to Bourbonnais.
Cutler is arguably one of the most-talented quarterbacks in the NFL. In just four seasons with the Bears, he has climbed into the franchise's top 10 in every major passing category. His passer rating of 82.1 is the best in Bears history, while his 63 TD passes are fourth overall.
Those numbers say a lot about how historically bad Chicago's passers have been. But they also demonstrate Cutler's productivity, despite having gone through two different coordinators in his four years in the Windy City.
Cutler now enters the era of Mike Tice, his third OC. Yet, despite a lack of continuity from the coaching staff – and an offensive line that has allowed more combined sacks the past two years than any other NFL team – Cutler continues to improve as a QB. Before his injury last season, there were many analysts mentioning him as a possible MVP candidate.
And now Cutler actually has some competent receivers in his offense, including his old friend Brandon Marshall. Cutler's only Pro Bowl season came in 2008 with the Denver Broncos, when he threw for 4,526 yards and 25 touchdowns. It's safe to assume that – with Marshall on the squad, as well as his old college teammate Earl Bennett and a big rookie in Alshon Jeffery – Cutler can easily repeat those numbers from 2008. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if he surpassed them, which could again lead to him being discussed as a potential MVP.
Yet Emery isn't taking any chances at the most important position in the team. If Cutler succumbs to injury for a second straight season, the Bears will fall back on Jason Campbell, who was signed to a one-year deal this offseason worth $3.5 million. That's a lot of cash to spend on a backup, which just shows the importance Emery has placed on the position.
Campbell has started 70 games during his seven-year NFL career, throwing 74 TDs and 50 INTs. There are few backups in the league with that type of experience. And Campbell is only 30 years old, so he's not an over-the-hill veteran. He's a player that has the pedigree to come in and win games if called upon to do so. At the very least, he will not crumble under the pressure, as Hanie did last year.
QB Jason Campbell
David Banks/US Presswire
The third and final quarterback spot will come down to a comp competition between veteran Josh McCown and rookie Matt Blanchard. McCown was signed last year after Cutler's injury. He started the final two contests, leading the club to a victory over the Vikings in the season finale.
McCown is a journeyman quarterback with nine years of experience in the NFL. He showed last season that he's still capable of running an offense.
Yet McCown will face a strong push from Blanchard, who was very impressive during OTAs and minicamps this offseason. Blanchard has a strong arm and good accuracy. He handles himself well on the field and does not look like a rookie. He has enough talent to beat out McCown and be Chicago's developmental signal caller. At minimum, he's a lock for the practice squad.
Cutler is on the verge of something special. With the weapons he has around him, and an OC that will allow him control over the offense, the pieces are in place for Cutler to take a huge step this year. If he's not in the conversation as an MVP candidate in 2012, it will be a disappointing campaign.
Campbell will likely only play in Chicago for one season, and hopefully he'll never see the field. But if he is called into duty, Bears fans should feel confident the offense won't implode with him under center.
I was very impressed with Blanchard during the team's offseason activities. I think he's more talented than McCown and has a great chance at making the final 53-man roster.
Backups: Campbell, Blanchard
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.