Against all logic and reason, the Chicago Bears are still alive for a postseason berth. Although the Bears would lose the tiebreaker with the Detroit Lions, they are tied with the Lions atop the NFC North Division with a record of 7-6 and have a legitimate chance to sneak ahead of Detroit and claim the division, which is likely their only means of getting to the playoffs. But whom will the Bears turn to at quarterback to take them to the playoffs? When Jay Cutler is pronounced healthy, which could happen any day now, Chicago will have to make a choice between going back to him or staying with Josh McCown, who has been a more than adequate fill in for Cutler. Head coach Marc Trestman and the team’s leaders insist that it will be Cutler’s job when he’s ready, but is the decision really that easy?
McCown has given the Bears so much more than they could have expected from a backup, especially one that didn’t throw a single pass all last season. He has thrown 13 touchdowns and just one interception this season, while totaling over 1,800 yards in five starts and two relief appearances. In games that McCown has started, the Bears are 3-2, which has kept Chicago in contention by taking care of the football and getting the ball in the hands of Chicago’s talented cast of playmakers. Despite an unreliable defense, the Bears have a good thing going on the offensive side of the ball, so why make a change if they don’t have to?
Although McCown has been a great backup, he’s just that: a backup. There’s something to be said about going with the hot hand at quarterback, and McCown could fit that description right now, but he’s nowhere near as talented as Cutler. How long do the Bears want to push things with an aging backup? Moreover, McCown does not have the arm strength that Cutler has, and with weather becoming a factor in most NFL games, especially in the windy city, McCown would be more limited than Cutler in less than ideal weather conditions.
Not only is Cutler a more talented quarterback and better suited for imperfect weather conditions, but he could be a part of their future plans, while the 34-year old McCown shouldn’t be considered as a possible starter beyond this season. The new coaching staff hasn’t had a full season to evaluate Cutler because of his injuries, so even if the team doesn’t make the playoffs, playing Cutler down the stretch would be the smart move for the organization in the long run, as they need to decide whether or not they’d like to re-sign him after the season.
Of course, an argument can be made that the short term is more important, and that Cutler has a long enough track record to make a decision on without playing him in the final weeks of the season. Cutler is bound have plenty of rust to shake off after not playing a full game in more than two months, and that could hinder Chicago’s chances of making the playoffs, especially since they have little margin for error. Putting a rusty Cutler back on the field for the most pivotal games of the season could be asking for trouble, especially considering the issues he’s had in the past with turnovers, which is something that hasn’t been an issue with McCown as the starter.
With strong arguments that can be made for both quarterbacks, what’s the best choice for the Bears? It’s Cutler; if he’s healthy, he should play. McCown has done well to hold down the fort, and by doing so he’s played his role on the team perfectly, but Cutler should be the one playing with the season on the line. It’s a high risk-high reward scenario for the Bears, and taking a chance on a rusty Cutler that hasn’t been on the field much over the past two months is a risk Chicago needs to take to give themselves a shot at the playoffs. McCown has taken the Bears as far as he can and given them a shot, but if Cutler is healthy and available, it’s his job to taken them to the playoffs, and he needs to be given the chance to do that.