It's been a miserable season for the Chicago Bears in 2016.
Not Cleveland miserable, mind you, but a 3-11 season makes the Chicago winter feel even darker and more brutal.
However, scattered among the dark clouds have been bright spots. Rookie running back Jordan Howard eclipsed 1,000 yards on the season in Sunday's loss. And while it didn't end in a victory over the hated Green Bay Packers, quarterback Matt Barkley once again kept the team in the game until the end.
In fact, Barkley's play over the last month has raised a possibility that would have been called lunacy not too long ago—actually, a pair of possibilities.
The Bears' 2017 starter under center may already be on their roster, and that player is not Jay Cutler.
Cue cheers from Chicago fans.
OK, and maybe a few groans. Let's be honest: No one is going to confuse Barkley with Aaron Rodgers any time soon. The 26-year-old former USC star doesn't have a plus arm and turned the ball over four times against Green Bay, even if one interception was on a Hail Mary and deserves an asterisk.
Matt Barkley is never going to be a top-five quarterback, or even a top-10 quarterback.
But were it not for Barkley's 362 passing yards against the Packers, the Bears would have been trounced by Green Bay. He completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and tossed for a pair of touchdowns. Just as he did against the Detroit Lions and Tennessee Titans, Barkley kept the Bears in it against a more talented team.
Center Cody Whitehair lauded Barkley's play, per ESPN.com's Jeff Dickerson:
He just kept his poise out there. He really didn’t panic or anything. He just sat back in the pocket and did what he did. Matt’s a great player, and it doesn’t surprise us. We never got the feeling [after the interceptions] that he was down. He never lost confidence in himself. He just kept doing what he was doing.
Barkley hasn't been phenomenal, but he also hasn't been horrifying. He hasn't done any worse for the Bears than Cutler did in 2016, and at a fraction of the latter's salary.
|Matt Barkley vs. Jay Cutler 2016|
|Per Pro Football Reference|
No, those numbers aren't eye-opening. They also aren't stomach-turning. Barkley has topped 300 yards through the air twice in four starts and ranks a respectable 15th among quarterbacks per Pro Football Focus.
This isn't to say that Barkley is better than any of those quarterbacks, only that his level of play in 2016 hasn't been as bad as some of his less-than-stellar numbers indicate—especially when you consider that Barkley just got wideout Alshon Jeffery back and doesn't have tight end Zach Miller at his disposal.
The overwhelming belief is that the Bears will part ways with Cutler in the offseason and begin the search for their next franchise quarterback. Or will it be the search for their first franchise quarterback?
Sorry—that was uncalled for.
At any rate, the Bears should consider that at least in the short term, the answer to that question is already on the team.
For starters, you can forget free agency. Kirk Cousins isn't going anywhere. And after him, the list of available quarterbacks gets ugly quickly.
You can also forget the Tony Romo fever dreams. Even if the Bears were willing to offer the Cowboys enough to land Romo, the Bears don't need a 36-year-old quarterback with a bad back. If the Cowboys outright release Romo, odds are that much more attractive possibilities than Chicago will open up (looking at you, Denver).
As things stand today, the Bears will have pick No. 4 in the 2017 NFL draft. The Dallas Cowboys took Ezekiel Elliott in that spot last year, and we've seen the difference he's made in Dallas in 2016. The Bears don't need a running back, but with holes all over the roster, Chicago does need exactly that sort of impact player.
Yes, that player might be an elite quarterback prospect like Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer (who has a cannon for an arm) or Clemson's Deshaun Watson (who has led the Tigers to two straight CFB Playoff appearances). But there's no slam-dunk prospects under center this go-round, and two of the teams ahead of Chicago (Cleveland and San Francisco) are absolutely desperate at football's most important position.
Even if the Bears do draft a quarterback, there's no guarantee that the youngster will be close to ready to just start out of the gate. And the fact is that over this past month, Barkley has demonstrated that the Bears may not be quite as desperate under center as they thought.
All this isn't to say that Barkley should immediately and most certainly be anointed the Bears 2017 starter. Even he admitted to Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times that his uneven play has to improve:
It seems almost deja-vu-ish. We’re right there until the end and then it just doesn’t go our way. It’s defeating of course. We hate losing. [But] the effort’s there. It’s just a matter of execution. You hear me say that over and over again. So we’re going to continue to harp on that day-to-day as we…try to finish this season strong.
Barkley's shown enough as the starter to add a measure of intrigue both to the last two games of the season and the offseason that follows. If he continues to play relatively well to close out the season and can notch a win over the Redskins or Vikings, Barkley will have at the very least earned the right to a legitimate shot at winning the starting job in camp next year.
Assuming that the team brings back Brian Hoyer, let the veterans truly duke it out with whatever rookie the team brings on board. The Bears need a real competition—not one of those faux ones teams talk up when their minds are already made up.
If the rookie wins, so be it. If Hoyer wins, so be it. At least the Bears will have the same depth at quarterback that was so sorely tested this season. And bringing back Hoyer is far from a fait accompli. There are going to be teams interested in the 31-year-old, and a low-ceiling veteran only makes sense for Chicago if the price is right. There are too many holes to patch elsewhere.
Let's be honest: The Bears are in a full-on rebuild. They aren't going to be vying for a playoff spot next year any more than they did in 2016, especially if head coach John Fox is let go.
But the cloud that is the 2016 season in Chicago might just turn out to have a silver lining: a player who can bridge the gap between the franchise's past at quarterback (the terrifying reign of King Jay Cutler I) and their future.
It surely wasn't what they expected, or who they expected it from. And Matt Barkley probably isn't the long-term answer for the Bears at quarterback.
But it isn't unheard of for a late bloomer to become a viable starter a la Cousins. The Bears will at least need a bridge player at the position.
Barkley has earned the right to try to be that guy.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter: @IDPSharks.