The 34-year-old Chicago Bears quarterback had spent time away from football after not making the Bears' roster out of training camp in 2012. He did sign with the franchise after an injury to Jay Cutler, but he wasn't assured of a roster spot entering 2013.
Quarterback guru Marc Trestman took over for Lovie Smith as the Bears head coach before this season and that gave McCown a better chance at being Cutler's backup. McCown and Trestman were a good fit for each other, but nobody realized at the time just how valuable McCown would be.
When Cutler again missed time during the 2013 season, McCown was brought closer to the spotlight. This time he wasn't just signing back onto the roster, he was on the field as the starting quarterback.
McCown played in eight games, starting five, and finished the season with 1,829 passing yards, 14 total touchdowns, two turnovers and a completion percentage of 66.5. Because the Bears won three of his five starts and because ESPN's QBR metric rated him above any other qualifying quarterback, McCown became a fan favorite.
Now, the fan favorite is perceived as a priority free agent.
Rotoworld ranks McCown as the second best free agent quarterback, after Michael Vick. Sports On Earth believes that McCown could be a valuable commodity for a team bringing in a young starter. McCown himself believes that he could even return to the Bears if things don't go as expected.
McCown's story has been fascinating to this point, but it's about to hit a crossroads.
If McCown is signed to be a starter somewhere, then he will likely need to perform much better than he did in 2013. Statistically, McCown was excellent as the Bears starter. However, he was also playing in the perfect spot to mask his flaws.
The veteran signal-caller proved to be a very smart, mechanically sound and capable athlete for the Bears. However, his arm strength limits what he can do with the football and his accuracy was a major concern that went unnoticed in Chicago.
Playing with Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall behind a decent offensive line was the perfect situation for McCown. Each of his receivers could fight for the football and take it away from defensive backs even when he threw an inaccurate pass.
There isn't another team in the league that can boast an arsenal of weapons like that. Other teams have incisive players who can break off big plays, but none have the ability to eradicate the need for precision from quarterback position quite like they do in Chicago.
Furthermore, because the Bears had a good running game and receivers who excelled at making plays down the field, McCown's arm strength was less of a factor. He didn't need to force the ball into tight holes over the middle of the field on a regular basis and it didn't matter if his deep passes floated because his receivers would adjust in midair.
McCown's most statistically productive game last season came against the Dallas Cowboys—a defense that did little to test any offense in 2013. He threw for four touchdowns, zero interceptions and 348 yards with a completion percentage of 75. He also ran for a touchdown.
Those are Peyton Manning-caliber numbers, but the performance was far from that.
McCown's first touchdown of the game showed his strengths. He finds Earl Bennett underneath on a short throw to the end zone. McCown drops into a clean pocket, keeping his eyes downfield as his feet move. He doesn't immediately look for Bennett, but doesn't waste time manipulating the coverage longer than he needs to.
At the perfect time, McCown steps up in the pocket to evade the edge rusher. Importantly, he doesn't drop his eye level as the pressure arrives. From there, he makes an accurate, well-timed throw to an open receiver.
This is a good play, not every quarterback in the league will make it consistently, but it's also not the kind of play you can build an offense around. That is because there was very little resilience from the defense. This play shows off the ineptitude of the Cowboys defense as much as it highlights McCown's strengths.
On the following drive, McCown made a couple of good throws, before rushing into the end zone for a short, but impressive touchdown. That wasn't the most notable play of the second quarter however.
The most notable play of the second quarter was a pass down the sideline to Jeffery. McCown reads the situation well, shows off impressive mechanics in the pocket again and times his pass perfectly. However, he underthrows it and forces Jeffery to make an incredible play on the ball.
McCown needed to put better velocity on this pass to push it further down the field. Instead, he puts it in a spot where the defensive back is in position to make a play on the ball. This isn't necessarily a bad throw because Jeffery is capable of taking 50/50 balls away from defenders in the air, but it's not the kind of throw that works with your typical NFL starter.
If this was a rare occurrence for McCown, then it would be an acceptable issue, but unfortunately his ball placement was consistently bad last season. McCown was essentially throwing at receivers rather than to them. Maybe he understood how to lead them to space, protect them from contact and where to put the ball, but he failed at consistently executing sharp throws.
The statistics that were attributed to McCown this season should stand as a testament to the quality of the players around him and the creativity of Marc Trestman.
Trestman's offense is well designed because it allows the quarterback to make easy throws without limiting the potential of big plays. He consistently showed creativity throughout the regular season and this game was no exception.
Creativity is often mistaken for complexity. Sometimes, the most creative and most effective plays are very simple. Sometimes, it's about taking an already-established concept and slightly altering it. On this play, Trestman gave McCown a simple first down by adapting an established concept: A screen pass.
The offense's formation, situation and the alignment of the defense are vital here. The Bears have three receivers tight together to the left, with Brandon Marshall alone on the right. This keeps one safety deep for the Cowboys defense.
Importantly, the Cowboys leave their left defensive end wide of the right offensive tackle, with no other defender outside of him. This leaves a lot of space to that side of the field. It's 2nd-and-8, so the Cowboys aren't overly preoccupied with the run and they are playing man coverage.
A few key things happen at the snap. Bears right tackle Jordan Mills doesn't block the Cowboys left defensive end at all. Instead, he immediately jumps into the flat. The left outside linebacker sees this and motions to run into the flat.
However, Marshall is running a pick play, something that is technically illegal but not always enforced. Marshall occupies the space that the linebacker wants to run into. Importantly, he doesn't engage him to try and block him, but rather he just prevents him from getting to the flat with his presence.
McCown doesn't have a difficult throw to make. He simply lofts the ball into the air for Forte to wait under. When Forte catches it, Mills is already out in good position to block for him and Marshall has taken both the outside linebacker and the cornerback who initially covered him out of the play.
Forte has an unopposed first down, but then he breaks multiple tackles to turn the play into a 30+ yard gain.
McCown is an ideal backup quarterback because he is smart and able to facilitate those around him without much preparation time. He won't elevate the players around him and he won't be as productive outside of Trestman's offense because he relies on his supporting cast to make too many plays.
Obviously that means McCown's best fit on the open market would be back with the Bears. However, if he is intent on being a starter, then he needs to go somewhere that can carry him. The Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings appear to be the best fits, but even they don't make much sense.
The Titans will likely move forward with Jake Locker, while backup Ryan Fitzpatrick is already under contract.
If the Vikings don't get a quarterback in the draft, they could bring in McCown to compete with Josh Freeman, presuming he returns, for the starting spot. McCown would be surrounded by playmakers such as Adrian Peterson, Kyle Rudolph, Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson in Minnesota. He would also play behind a good offensive line.
Although the fairy tale would have been fun, Josh McCown didn't suddenly turn into a franchise quarterback at age 34. He enjoyed a hot streak in the perfect situation. If he does sign a big contract, it's likely that the team signing him will regret it.
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