The completion of three quarters of the 2013 season has provided more than enough evidence that the Chicago Bears offense under Marc Trestman is built for long-term viability, regardless of who is under center.
The Bears may be 6-6 and in danger of missing the postseason during Trestman's first season as head coach. But that somewhat disappointing record is hardly the result of an evolving offense that has looked capable of producing whether Jay Cutler, Josh McCown or even a 2014 draft pick is operating at quarterback.
The debate under center remains a fascinating one, given Cutler's elite arm talent and shaky contract status and the effectiveness McCown has shown in an extended showing as the starter.
Soon enough, Cutler will return from his groin and ankle injuries and reclaim his spot in the starting lineup. He'll then have a limited window to prove he's worth big money on a long-term deal. By this spring, the Bears will have an opportunity to franchise tag Cutler, giving themselves one more season to properly evaluate the position in Trestman's offense.
Ultimately, the tag might be the most likely ending to this building saga.
The emergence of McCown has certainly complicated the equation. A 34-year-old journeyman, McCown has outplayed Cutler over his four starts, one half of relief against Washington and a two-minute drive against Detroit. He has an overall passer rating of over 100, with nine touchdowns and just one interception.
Given the fact that McCown has a better passer rating, completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdown-to-interception ratio than Cutler, an argument could be made the backup has earned a longer stay as the starter. But the Bears have too much invested in Cutler, a more talented and younger player, and starting the 34-year-old over a healthy Cutler would be essentially giving up on the quarterback Trestman decided was his starter to begin this season.
When healthy, Cutler will start. McCown will go back to the bench. But the Bears can feel confident that this offense will continue marching along, both to end 2013 and looking ahead to 2014.
Trestman's offense ensures it.
Comparing the last two seasons, the Bears' current pace in 2013 is better in almost every significant offensive statistic.
Source: Pro Football Reference
In 2012, the last under Lovie Smith, Chicago scored 375 points (16th in the NFL) and tallied 4,969 yards (28th). This season, the Bears are on pace for 430 points and 6,102 yards—which both rank in the top 10 of the league.
Throwing the football, Chicago has been night-and-day. The Bears are currently sixth in passing yards (3,259), seventh in passing touchdowns (22) and eighth in yards per attempt (6.9). While Cutler started 15 games last season, Chicago finished 29th in passing yards (2,999), 22nd in touchdowns (21) and 27th in yards per attempt (5.7).
These are huge jumps in production and efficiency that are owed directly to Trestman and the way he calls offense.
As the numbers show, the Bears through 12 games this season have more passing production than in 16 in 2012.
But Trestman's offense hasn't just produced passing spikes. Chicago's rushing average is up (4.2 in 2012; 4.4 in 2013) and turnovers (on pace for 21, finished with 24 in '12) and sack percentage (4.5 in '13; 8.3 in '12) are both down, significantly.
In just one season, Trestman has fixed almost everything that plagued so many of Smith's offenses.
As you'd expect, the big guns on offense are now enjoying career seasons.
Source: Pro Football Reference
Before his injury, Cutler was close to new career highs in completion percentage (63.0), passer rating (88.4), yards per attempt (7.2) and yards per game (238.5) McCown, a career backup, has obviously put together his finest ever season.
Matt Forte has been a huge beneficiary of a new offense designed to keep him well-fed. The Bears running back already has 272 touches in 12 games, which puts him on pace to tally 362 this season. Only his rookie season, which featured 379, would have more.
Forte is also averaging more carries (17.8) than at any time since his rookie year, and his 4.8 catches per game would be far and away his best ever receiving average.
The touches have been productive, too. Forte is on pace for 1,888 total yards, which would set a new career high. His 118.0 yards from scrimmage per game would be his best since 2011, when he averaged 123.1.
In the passing game, the Bears are well on their way to establishing new franchise records for a receiver combination. Brandon Marshall is just 10 yards and one touchdown away from another 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown season, while Alshon Jeffery, a 2012 second-round pick, has blossomed into the game's most dangerous No. 2 receiver.
The two have combined for 148 catches, 2,099 yards and 14 touchdowns, with Jeffery's 1,109 yards (fourth in the NFL) and 15.8-yard average leading the way. Their current pace of 197 catches and 2,798 yards would shatter both previous franchise marks.
Finally, after years of wasting away in the receiver abyss, the Bears have two legitimate and dangerous options to get the football to.
Even Martellus Bennett, who was brought to Chicago to fix a position that hasn't had a real option in several seasons, is posting career numbers. At his current pace, Bennett will record new career highs in receptions (on pace for 64), receiving yards (726) and receiving touchdowns (six).
It's clear the Bears offense is accomplishing what every good offense should: acquire difference-making players, and then find new and creative ways to get the football to those players every single week.
Herein lies why the Bears should be good on offense for years to come, regardless of who is at quarterback. The core difference makers will be around to thrive under Trestman.
Forte, 27, is signed through the 2015 season. He's the perfect back for the Trestman offense—tough between the tackles and accomplished as a receiver—and he should remain productive throughout the life of his contract.
Jeffery is only 23 years old. His ceiling is limitless, considering how physically dominant he has become in a short time and the little refinements now showing up in his game. While far from a burner, Jeffery has learned how to create separation, which is probably the most useful skill for a receiver outside actually catching the football. He has Pro Bowl receiver written all over him.
Grade the Bears offense under Marc Trestman in 2013.
Marshall is still one of the game's few bona fide No. 1 receivers, even if his numbers have conceded some to Jeffery's development. He's under contract for another year past 2013, and it's possible he could be persuaded to stick around long term if Cutler is kept as the franchise quarterback.
Bennett, 26, signed a four-year deal through 2016. He's been productive as the seam-busting middle receiver. He's also tough as nails as an in-line blocker.
The Bears have smartly invested into the offensive line, shoring up the left tackle spot with Jermon Bushrod and drafting two starters on the right side. Without much doubt, the Bears quarterbacks are operating behind the best offensive line Chicago has possessed in several seasons.
Of course, this offense is far from perfect.
The Bears could use help on the interior offensive line, and there's a real need for a slot receiver that can consistently take advantage of the middle of the field. With Marshall and Jeffery outside, a legitimate slot receiver could cause havoc inside.
Trestman also hasn't been perfect. He's getting railed for becoming too conservative at times in games, including Sunday's loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Those criticisms are rooted in truth, but it's easy to forget that Trestman is a first-time NFL head coach. There's a learning curve he's still working through.
Yet, when looking at his full body of work this season, it's clear that Trestman has evolved the Bears from a middling, inconsistent offense into one that looks primed to annually rank among the league's best. And he hasn't even required an elite quarterback to do it.
Cutler was good but far from great early on, and McCown has exceeded even the most optimistic of projections.
The long-term success of any NFL offense will eventually fall back on the quarterback-coach relationship. That's been established over decades of football.
But Trestman's ability to adapt to the differing styles and attributes of Cutler and McCown this season is proof positive that the Bears will remain competitive on offense. His first 12 games as the Bears playcaller must be considered a smashing success.