After Strong Work From the Understudy, Chicago’s Leading Man Returns to the Stage

| December 13th, 2013


If you’ve never been to a Broadway show, you’ve never experienced the dread, the utter dread, which accompanies a small square white piece of paper dropping from your Playbill after you’ve taken your seat. The square usually reads something like:

At tonight’s performance
the role of King Lear, usually played by Brian Dennehy
will be played by Bryan Adams


In the old days audience members would take the fall of the white paper as an opportunity to rush the box office and demand their lavish ticket price back. (Those rules have now been changed and understudies are posted on a board in the lobby before you enter the actual theatre. You miss the notice, it’s your fault.

But just as the name on the marquee has come to define the history of theatre (Lee Cobb in Death of a Salesman, Cherry Jones in Doubt, Carol Channing in Hello Dolly!) so have the names on the white paper defined and reinvigorated life for the avid theatregoer. On not-so-rare occasions audiences were rewarded for their patience with the gift of discovery. Some of the great names in theatre history stepped onto the stage for an ailing lead and seemed to never step off: Merman, Robards, Stritch…etc. Hell, Huffington Post did a top ten list on the subject a few years back.

But there are others elements to the understudy’s performance that should not be overlooked: the lowering of expectations coupled with the raising of compassion. Suddenly a dropped line or two from the understudy is tolerated because, you know, he or she is just out there doing their best. And the audience now celebrates a well-performed soliloquy or musical number with greater affection because that audience is now behind the performer. They are rooting for the little guy. This is his/her big moment!

Fans were outraged the Bears ONLY CONTINGENCY PLAN for Jay Cutler was Josh McCown at the start of the season and he has been nothing short of a wonderful understudy. He has produced to levels not even the most optimistic Bears fan could have expected. And fans have embraced him with the same lowered expectations/raised compassion fitting a player of his status.

At Soldier Field Monday night against the Dallas Cowboys, there was open laughter when McCown floated a pass to Jeffery at the sideline that seemed to take three weeks to arrive at its destination.When he spun in the air after reaching the end zone, folks turned with arms raised as if to suggest “How is this guy doing it?”

Each of McCown’s should-have-been intercepted passes were greeted with a chorus of, “C’mon, Josh, you can’t throw that pass there.” C’mon, JOSH. Not “asshole” or “prick”. Josh. Fans were speaking of McCown like he was their son in the backyard, encouraging him to just do better, kid.

McCown can deliver the lines. He can sing the songs. But he lacks the spectacular. He lacks the ability to turn the final notes of The Impossible Dream into a spine-chilling moment of beauty. He lacks the ability to make the words of Shakespeare feel they were written specifically for you, specifically for the moment in your life you’re hearing them. (If you don’t believe this is possible, email me.)

If Jay Cutler were to have thrown the same passes McCown threw Monday night and thrown them in the same moments, a chorus of boos would have rung out around the ballpark. The wiggle room afforded the understudy is not afforded the star. Its what comes from being listed above the title. (As I am writing this, Ron Jaworski is on SportsCenter stating clearly that McCown’s finest asset is his taking care of the football. This after three INTs were simply dropped Monday night.)

Now Sunday, in Cleveland, the star returns. Cutler retakes the field, adding yet another layer of drama to one of the most dramatic and interesting season in modern Bears history. The pressure on Cutler Sunday is palpable.

  • Stupid though it may have been the fake Cutler/McCown debate was living alongside the Robert Griffin disaster in Washington as the top national football story midweek. With a strong performance Sunday, the story is gone.
  • Cutler’s future in Chicago is going to be the only sports discussion worth having in the month of January. How he performs over these next three weeks of December will have a tremendous impact on that discussion.
  • Most importantly, the Bears are in a playoff race! If they win Sunday in Cleveland they will load more pressure on the shoulders of the Detroit Lions than they are used absorbing. Cutler needs to play well, sure, but he also has to recognize his personal numbers are far less important than a victory.

What if Cutler struggles on early drives? Can Marc Trestman actually pull him from a ballgame for football reasons? If Trest did so would that not mean the official end of the Cutler Era in Chicago? How can a head coach tell a player that “Josh McCown gives us a better chance to win than you” and then roll him back out in Philadelphia seven days later? Nobody in the Bears world wants Cutler to struggle but his struggling would present one of the most interesting decisions an NFL coach has faced in many-a-year.

The stage is set. The star returns. And with his return comes pressure, drama and opportunity. A man can seize the reigns of the Bears quarterbacking position. If he doesn’t, another is waiting in the wings.

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