QB controversy? Forget about it

Maybe give Cutler another week to heal, but when he's ready he should get nod over security-blanket backup

Before leaving Soldier Field shortly after midnight Monday, a Bears employee with a wry sense of humor — and the moment — cracked wise in a way that summed up the Josh McCown mania sweeping the city.

"Since we said No. 89 is the last jersey number the Bears are retiring … what are we going to do about No. 12?'' the grinning staffer asked.

That's what the Cowboys said.

Besides Mike Ditka, whose jersey was retired at halftime, no Bears player past or present will remember the 45-28 rout on "Monday Night Football" more fondly than McCown. He made history and millions of new believers by becoming the first Bears quarterback to throw for 300 yards in three straight games. Only Peyton Manning and Nick Foles have higher passer ratings than McCown's 109.8 in seven games. Chicagoans responded by crediting McCown practically with everything from keeping the Bears in the playoff hunt to clearing snow off the streets.

Chicago's understandable enthusiasm over the Bears' most valuable player so far — enough incompetent backup quarterbacks have ruined seasons to draw that conclusion — has created the perception that now McCown cannot be replaced when Jay Cutler returns intact. Even Brian Urlacher, not exactly fishing buddies with Cutler as teammates, supplied more ammunition Tuesday endorsing McCown on "Fox Football Daily." I'm sure Urlacher the player would have loved an former teammate chiming in on an issue affecting team chemistry, by the way.

The reality is that the Bears do not have a quarterback controversy as much as a luxury. No downside exists in a team trusting two quarterbacks. Most NFL teams can't find one. From Cade McNown to Kordell Stewart, the Bears know how hard that can be.

Even if Cutler receives medical clearance from team doctors before Thursday's practice, the Bears should proceed cautiously to make sure his ankle feels 100 percent so he returns at his best. To remove doubt, I would wait one more week to reintroduce Cutler to game action. McCown playing so well affords the Bears time to let Cutler fully heal so that he comes back without limitations. But whenever he does, the starting job still belongs to Cutler until he plays his way out of it.

Yes, that threatens to disturb an offense clicking under McCown. But, like it or not, the No. 1 rule in all sports remains unchanged: Talent trumps everything. Even McCown acknowledged that Cutler possesses superior ability, experience and arm strength that makes any risk in changing quarterbacks worth the potential reward for a Bears team suddenly relevant in December. A healthy Cutler still gives the Bears their best shot at beating a playoff-caliber defense.

In fairness, before Cutler tore his groin muscle against the Redskins he had shown progress in coach Marc Trestman's system and offers more explosiveness than McCown. People who have fallen hard for McCown, one of the NFL's best stories this year, often forget Cutler's arrow was pointing up when he went down. Players remember. No way would so many Bears publicly support Cutler as the starter if a silent majority in the locker room favored McCown.

If Cutler struggles back at the helm during the playoff push, pull him. That's not as complicated as many make it sound. A team fighting for an NFC North title cannot place Cutler's ego or free-agent implications above winning.

Above all, trust Trestman on all things offense. Trestman has done little to be considered a shrewd game manager 13 games into his first season as an NFL head coach but he knows play-calling. He knows quarterbacks. If Trestman insists Cutler deserves the nod despite McCown's record-setting hot streak, perhaps he senses McCown nearing the expiration date every backup quarterback faces.

As for what all this means for Cutler's future, consider Trestman already tipped his hand. A coach willing to declare Cutler his starter even after the way McCown has played hardly sounds like someone sitting on the fence. Perhaps Trestman saw enough to think he can maximize Cutler's potential — which would give him a quarterback capable of winning a Super Bowl, baggage and all.

General manager Phil Emery wondering aloud last week about using the franchise tag, followed days later by an oddly timed NFL Network report about the Titans targeting Cutler unofficially marked the start of negotiations. And the dance begins.

More than anything, Cutler faces a choice that could define the 30-year-old. If the Bears like Cutler as much as indications suggest, they offer him major-market opportunities, stability for his young family and a chance to win surrounded by playmakers. But if Cutler simply seeks the highest contract, the Jets or Raiders or another bad team desperate for a quarterback surely can make him richer. Soon, we will find out what motivates Cutler.

At the moment, I bet it's McCown.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

 

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