As Detroit Lions-Chicago Bears part deux quickly approaches with the division lead on the line, the most important position on the field remains in limbo for the Bears. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who suffered a torn groin muscle in the Week 7 loss to the Washington Redskins, is questionable to play. That means that backup quarterback Josh McCown might receive another start after his win against the Green Bay Packers in Week 9.
McCown's 11-year NFL career has not exactly been traditional. After being selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the third round of the 2002 NFL Draft, McCown spent four years in Arizona as the occasional starter until the arrival of Kurt Warner. His next stop was none other than our very own Lions, which used McCown primarily as a receiver rather than a quarterback during the 2006 season. In Detroit, McCown did not attempt a pass, but did catch 2 balls for 15 yards.
After the Lions traded McCown to the Oakland Raiders in 2006, he spent the next six years receiving spotty playing time around the league and left the NFL on two different occasions. In 2011, the Bears brought McCown in as a veteran backup after Cutler was lost for the season, and McCown ended up starting two games in place of the ineffective Caleb Hanie. He has served as a backup in Chicago ever since.
So why are we talking about a journeyman backup quarterback? First, he has a very good chance of starting against the Lions this week. Second, he's actually performing quite well. In fact, he is playing well enough for some impatient Bears fans to put Cutler on the hot seat. I think that is really stupid since McCown is 34 years old and has a very limited upside, but I do see the point. McCown is getting it done.
In two games this year, McCown led the Bears on a shootout comeback that came up just shy against the Redskins and led the Bears to victory in Green Bay (ask Matthew Stafford how easy that is). Statistically, McCown is playing the best football of his career. He currently has a QB rating over 100 for the first time in his career and has thrown 3 touchdowns to 0 interceptions. Cutler, on the other hand, has a QB rating of 91.7 this year (also a career best) and has thrown 12 touchdowns to 7 interceptions.
In my uneducated opinion, Cutler will not play on Sunday. Playing quarterback in the NFL is hard, and doing so with a torn groin muscle sounds much worse. The team did not practice on Wednesday, but Cutler would have practiced on a limited basis if they did. The team's practice on Thursday should shed some light on the situation.
Regardless, the Lions will need to prepare for both quarterbacks. Each present opportunities and challenges for the Lions. Historically, McCown has turned the ball over a lot (81 total turnovers in 53 career games) without the benefit of putting up a lot of points (43 career touchdowns). He is less of a pocket passer than Cutler and has scrambled for 53 yards in the last two games. McCown's game will come down to managing the game, limiting mistakes and helping the talented Matt Forte use clock to keep the Lions offense off the field. I think the Redskins shootout game was an exception and not the rule, so I would be very comfortable with a high-scoring game on Sunday.
Cutler, on the other hand, is more of a gunslinger. The Bears offense calls for lots of screens and short passes to set up runs after the catch, but Cutler has a cannon and isn't afraid to use it. In every game this season, with the exception of the Redskins game, Cutler has had at least one pass of 30 yards or greater. He has tremendous trust in receiver Brandon Marshall and will force-feed him the ball regardless of coverage. However, if he plays he will also be hobbled and a sitting duck for the Lions' pass rush. If Cutler starts, I expect Gunther Cunningham to dial up more blitzes than the Lions normally use.
No matter which quarterback starts, the Lions will have to increase their pressure while keeping a wary eye on Chicago's multitude of misdirection plays and little drop-downs. The Bears have a few capable receivers in Marshall, Martellus Bennett and Alshon Jeffery, so the Lions can't allow the Bears' quarterback to have the time to find them.