The Chicago Bears allowed the Minnesota Vikings to thoroughly dominate them for the final fifteen minutes of Sunday’s pivotal NFC North match-up. Because of that dominance the Bears now find themselves needing to make up two games on Detroit in the standings over the final month of the season if they wish to play a postseason game, at home, against either the San Francisco 49ers or Carolina Panthers. The playoffs are now unlikely. More than unlikely. But with or without playoff implications, the final four games of this 2013 season are not without significant merit. But an overwhelming amount of that merit depends upon Jay Cutler playing quarterback.
Sunday’s numbers for Josh McCown probably looked thrilling to the fantasy-obsessed, casual NFL fan. 63.5% completion percentage. 355 yards. 2 touchdowns. Quarterback rating through the roof. But it doesn’t require Ron Jaworski holed up at NFL Films headquarters in New Jersey with five pots of coffee and a bag of the devil’s dandruff to see McCown’s limitations at quarterback cost the Bears the ability to sustain drives and in the fourth quarter cost them the ability to put the Vikings away. McCown’s success had less to do with McCown and more to do with a superhuman performance from Alshon Jeffery.
McCown is a wonderful backup quarterback and I expect him to be a tremendous presence in the Bears quarterback room for the next few years. But every game he plays, every snap he takes, every throw he attempts hinders the development of the Trestman offense in Chicago.
Three things happen in December in the NFL. (1) Good teams make their surge into the postseason. (2) Bad teams jockey for their position at the top of the draft. (3) Mediocre teams attempt to lay the groundwork for their off-season and season to come. The Bears, at 6-6, are the definition of a mediocre team but how much groundwork can they actually lay for 2014? Half of the defenders on the field won’t be around come the spring and a few of those MIA (Tillman, Melton, Collins…etc.) have uncertain economic futures in Chicago.
The offense is healthy! The offense should be growing into a juggernaut; becoming more dynamic and far more comfortable both as this season winds down and the off-season program approaches. But that growth is being stunted currently because the offense’s most important player – the quarterback – is watching from the sideline. Sure he seems engaged over there, debating with officials and whispering to the head coach, but he needs to be on the field throwing back shoulders to his high-powered wide receiving weapons in the end zone.
The Bears are about to engage a four-game stretch in the cold and conditions of Soldier Field, Cleveland and Philadelphia. Cutler returning would not only give the organization some long-term confidence but his arm strength and accuracy would give them above-and-beyond the best chance to win each Sunday. Winning seasons still matter, especially for first year head coaches. Giving Dallas and Philly hell, two teams competing for a division title, still matters for a team and organization with history and pride. Finishing the season on a high note, against your oldest rivals, in front of your dedicated fans, still matters. Each of these four games presents a distinct test for the Chicago Bears but the test results carry far less weight if the quarterback/pupil is someone other than Jay Cutler.
If Cutler does not return to the lineup and the Bears are eliminated from postseason contention, the Bears would be merely playing out the string.