Marc Trestman has one job: Get the Chicago Bears deep into the 2013 playoffs.
Former head coach Lovie Smith wasn't fired so that Trestman could come in and "draft his guys" or "install his system" over a couple of years. Trestman was hired to fix the offense, add some fresh perspective and get the perennially good-but-never-great Bears back into Super Bowl contention.
So, when starting quarterback Jay Cutler becomes available, Trestman must politely inform him he'll be holding a clipboard until further notice.
Josh McCown's stunning 27-of-36, 348-yard, five touchdown, zero interception Monday Night Football performance might have been a product of the Dallas Cowboys defense offering nearly no resistance. Still, McCown couldn't have played any better.
More importantly, even before McCown eviscerated the Cowboys in front of a national TV audience, the 34-year-old journeyman was outperforming Cutler in nearly every passing statistic. The fact is, McCown's playing better right now than Cutler has in a long, long time—and Trestman would be a fool to start Cutler now.
Producing When It Counts
The Bears have a very, very narrow window of opportunity. Beating a Cowboys team that had a share of the NFC East lead on Monday Night Football was a must to keep that window from snapping shut.
The Cowboys defense has been all over the map in 2013, from dominant (vs. St. Louis Rams, at Philadelphia Eagles) to doormat (vs. Denver Broncos, at New Orleans Saints). Against the Bears, though, the Cowboys presented absolutely no resistance.
After an opening Cowboys touchdown, the Bears took their first possession 83 yards and scored on the first of McCown's four touchdown passes. Incredibly, McCown and the Bears went on to score on their next seven possessions after that:
You read that right: No interceptions, no fumbles, no punts.
Tailback Matt Forte had 102 yards rushing on just 20 carries, McCown added a seven-yard rushing touchdown of his own and Alshon Jeffery confirmed his status as a budding superstar with this incredible touchdown catch right before halftime:
While the Cowboys defense is battered by injuries and organized poorly (and strangely) by defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, they looked completely lost against the Bears—not surprising, considering they didn't get a single stop.
The Cowboys needed this game as badly as the Bears did, but only McCown and the Bears played like they wanted it.
You Never Lose Your Starting Job to Injury, Except When You Do
Jay Cutler is the Bears' starting quarterback, and a starter shouldn't lose his job to injury. Every rule has its exceptions, though, and one of those is when a backup quarterback is significantly outplaying the starter on a team fighting for its playoff life.
Let's look at the two quarterbacks' statistics before McCown's Monday night explosion, per Pro Football Reference:
|Cutler vs. McCown, by the Numbers (pre-MNF)|
McCown has Cutler beat in completion percentage, average yards per game, average yards-per-attempt and NFL passer efficiency rating. The two quarterbacks have been throwing touchdowns at the same rate (4.9 percent of attempts), but while Cutler's interception rate was 3.0 percent, McCown's was a miniscule 0.5 percent.
After throwing 36 times without a pick on Monday Night Football, that rate will be even lower.
Best of all, McCown has developed a rapport with Jeffery, the Bears' outstanding second-year receiver. Cutler was widely criticized (including by yours truly) for locking on to No. 1 receiver Brandon Marshall. Jeffery, healthy and clicking with McCown, is realizing the potential he flashed as a rookie.
Would Jeffery be developing so quickly under Culter? That's a hypothetical question to mull in the offseason. As long as they keep playing must-win games, the Bears have to stick with the players who are winning.
Smoothing it Over
It's not as though Trestman has to hang a sign on McCown that says "STARTING QUARTERBACK." He can simply continue to rest Cutler, allude to Cutler's long-term health and keep letting McCown roll over teams.
The same do-or-die situation that's forcing Trestman to play McCown also gives him his out: As soon as McCown shows any sign of slowing down, Trestman can yank him for Cutler. It won't seem like a benching, but rather an opportune time to let the starter save the day.
If McCown does lead the Bears to the (likely) three straight wins needed for a playoff berth, Trestman won't have a hard sell to the players, the fans or the media if he chooses to keep McCown in.
"Jay Cutler is our quarterback," Marshall told the Chicago Sun-Times' Patrick Finley. "There's no one like him."
That might be true in the long-term, franchise-quarterback sense—but Cutler's contract will be up this offseason. Will the Bears attempt to extend Cutler or slap the franchise tag on him and hope no other team comes hard after him?
Those questions are better saved for another day. The Bears are built to win right now, and right now, the Bears are winning.
For Marc Trestman, hired to help a winning team reach the mountaintop, that's all that matters.