When Jay Cutler broke his finger in 2011, the Chicago Bears crumbled. The club was 7-3 at the time but, under the direction of Caleb Hanie, lost its next five in a row and tumbled out of the playoffs.
The lesson learned with Hanie, who had zero NFL starts heading into 2011, was that you must have an experienced backup QB on your roster. It's the reason the club wasted $3.5 million on Jason Campbell last season, to secure a veteran who won't be wide-eyed and clueless if thrust into action.
With that in mind, Chicago secured the services of 11-year veteran Josh McCown in Week 11 last season. Marc Trestman liked what he saw out of McCown during the offseason this year and named him the club's 2013 backup quarterback.
In a perfect world, McCown would have never played this season. Yet the groin tear Cutler suffered last week has once again placed McCown in the driver's seat. For at least the next month, he'll have the keys to the car.
"It's an uphill battle," McCown admitted this week. "You lose a leader like Jay, a leader like Lance [Briggs], it's a blow to your team. As is with every team in the NFL, it's next man up. It's how we do it. You've just got to get ready to go, get ready to play. There are going to be people stepping up on the defensive side of the ball. I'll have to step up on the offensive side of the ball and we'll have to find a way to get it done."
But can McCown, a 34-year-old who has thrown just three NFL touchdowns since 2007, keep the offense afloat until Cutler returns?
Looking back at his career, there are plenty of reasons for trepidation. Since being selected in the third round of the 2002 draft by the Arizona Cardinals, McCown has played for five different NFL teams, was traded twice and even spent 2010 in the UFL. For his career, he has 38 touchdown passes compared to 44 interceptions, good for a passer rating of 72.0.
Those aren't promising numbers. And when you factor is his 13-20 record as a starter, it's hard to see the silver lining.
Yet in the NFL, there are very few starter-level quarterbacks sitting on the bench. If you can win games as a passer in this league, you're going to be a starter. Backups are backups for a reason. And when you consider the landscape of No. 2 quarterbacks currently in the NFL, you'll see that McCown is one of the best there is. Having Tom Brady waiting in the wings isn't a luxury any team has, and one that comes along once a lifetime.
Unfortunately for Bears fans, just because McCown is one of the better backups doesn't guarantee he'll have success this year. Consider this: the backups most consider better than or equal to McCown – Campbell, Matt Cassel, Matt Hasselbeck, Kyle Orton and Shaun Hill – went 3-11 as starters last year.
Let's face it, backups barely ever win in the NFL. Yet with McCown, there are a few reasons for positivity. First, the Bears face a much easier schedule in the second half of the season. Of the remaining nine games, only four are against teams with winning records, and three of those are at home.
Second, McCown has been working in Trestman's system since the offseason and knows the offense as well as anyone. He doesn't have to come in and try to cram an entire playbook into his head in a matter of days. He knows the plays the team runs like the back of his hand, so there won't be any confusion on his part once the whistle blows.
"Two years ago I got here and I had been coaching high school ball, which served me well to do that, but I don't think you can trade anything for real reps, going through OTAs and training camp," said McCown. "With that said, I'm in a better spot right now. To have come in here with this system, being here from Day 1 with Marc, learning this from the ground up, I think it's been beneficial. Hopefully it continues to pay dividends on the field."
Third, despite his age, McCown can still run. After replacing Cutler in the second half last week, McCown showed good wheels scrambling out of the pocket, picking up 33 yards on four carries. He's not just a pure pocket passer who's going to give up once protection breaks down, a la Campbell last year against the San Francisco 49ers. McCown can still keep plays alive with his feet, which is a big plus.
And finally, we've already seen McCown win. After Hanie failed in 2011, the team turned to McCown in the final two regular season contests. He wasn't able to keep pace on the road against Green Bay but in the finale against Minnesota, McCown completed 15 of 25 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown, guiding the team to a victory despite being sacked seven times. That shows stones.
Is McCown going to guide the Bears to a championship? It's very doubtful.
Does he have the capacity to be serviceable in place of Cutler for the next four-to-six weeks? Absolutely.
Trestman's specialty is quarterbacks and designing offenses around the strengths of his signal callers. We saw McCown flourish against the Redskins last week, so there's no reason he can't do the same against the Packers (17th ranked passing defense), Lions (29th), Ravens (21st), Rams (22nd), Vikings (23rd) and Cowboys (30th), the teams he's slated to face the next six weeks. And at that point, Cutler should be able to return. So if McCown can hold his own against six straight passing defenses that rank in the bottom half of the league, the Bears will still be in the playoff hunt when their starting quarterback returns.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.