Jeff Haynes/Sports Illustrated

Josh McCown was out of the NFL and coaching high school football in North Carolina a year ago. Now he's gone from Jay Cutler’s backup to the man keeping the Bears in the playoff picture—and at 34 his career might finally take off

By Robert Klemko
November 18, 2013

CHICAGO — We talk of a light switch going on for certain NFL players as if there’s a quick fix for mediocrity, when, in reality, maturity in pro football is a slow, deliberate crank. Bears quarterback Josh McCown has been churning forward the past three seasons, shuffling in and out of Chicago, but there was an invaluable lesson he only came to learn over the past three weeks:

Sometimes you just have to shut up.

A career backup who hasn’t spent more than four seasons in one city since being drafted by Arizona in 2002, the 34-year-old McCown helped thrust the Bears (6-4) back into the playoff picture with a 23-20 overtime victory against the Ravens on Sunday. Filling in for Jay Cutler, who is still recovering from an injured groin and ankle, McCown threw for 216 yards and came to appreciate the difference between being a backup and the starter.

On the sideline, it’s his job to play the role of devil’s advocate to help coaches consider all possibilities. Under center, he needs to ease his restless mind and stop making so many suggestions.

“That’s what the coaches say, that’s the joke, that I suggest too much,” McCown said outside an empty locker room five and half hours after the noon kickoff. “I think every quarterback does that, but I probably do more so because I’m used to being on the sideline and helping that way. But I’m definitely learning to just shut up and let Marc call it.”

Words TK (Jeff Haynes/Sports Illustrated) McCown threw for 216 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions in awful weather conditions on Sunday. (Jeff Haynes/Sports Illustrated)

And call it Marc Trestman did. The first-year coach navigated McCown to a turnover-free day in conditions that punter Adam Podlesh described as a “pigpen.” Gale-force winds tore through Soldier Field as more than 70 tornadoes touched down in Illinois and Indiana. Lightning delayed the game for almost two hours, and when players came back to the field, they finished in a rain-soaked muck.

 “I’ve never played in mud like that. We were covered,” Bears tackle Jermon Bushrod said. “I thought it was neat how grimy and gritty everyone was looking. It looked like we were out there in a battle and that was cool to see.”

The grit and the grime were neat for everyone but the quarterbacks. Reigning Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco (17 of 31 for 162 yards, one TD and two picks) threw a silly interception to Bears defensive end David Bass that was returned for a touchdown in the second quarter, and McCown labored through the second half as the wind dictated the play-calling. In the third quarter, he didn’t attempt a pass. Said McCown, who completed 19 of 31 throws: “You look across the field and see Joe Flacco and look on the sideline and Jay is over there and I’m like, ‘Can I borrow somebody’s arm?’ ”

McCown didn’t need world-class throwing power to do what was required of him in overtime. On the Bears’ first drive, he found Alshon Jeffery on a quick slant out of a bunch formation that had cornerback Corey Graham screaming at his teammates, and he hit Martellus Bennett on a seam route that was designed for the quarterback to hit the tight end in stride. Instead, McCown looked off the safety and aimed above the shoulders of Bennett, who came back to the football, rose above cornerback Lardarius Webb and hauled it in to put the Bears in field goal range.

Would McCown have made these plays two years ago, when he first got to Chicago because of another injury to Cutler? Perhaps. But they probably would have been preceded by the kind of head-scratching interceptions that can be avoided with meticulous film preparation—something McCown has finally made a habit of doing after he most of the 2012 season out of pro football coaching a high school team in North Carolina.

Trestman believes McCown compares favorably to Rich Gannon, who didn’t become a bona fide starter until late in his career and won MVP honors at age 38.

“I didn’t study when I got into the league like I study now,” McCown says. “I don’t think I knew necessarily how to work or how to study. Being around different guys through the course of my career, I’ve learned. The coaching helped put things in perspective … I would do it differently if I had another chance.”

Now in his 11th season, this could be McCown’s last chance at nailing down a starting job, in Chicago or elsewhere. In four appearances, including two starts, he has 754 yards passing, five touchdowns and a 60.4% completion rate. Trestman wouldn’t say if he thought McCown outperformed Flacco, but the coach has told personnel men around the league that he believes McCown compares favorably to Rich Gannon, another journeyman quarterback who didn’t become a bona fide starter until late in his career and received MVP honors in 2002, with Trestman as his offensive coordinator in Oakland.

For now, McCown remains the Bears’ starter. The players are grateful for that, though they’re careful not to heap praise on the backup without mentioning the ailing Cutler, who tried unsuccessfully to gut it out a week ago against Detroit. The Lions (6-4) hold the tiebreaker over the Bears in the NFC North, and both teams have rather weak schedules in front of them.

Yet it won’t be easy for Chicago, whose problems are many: The run defense has suffered as a result of injuries to Lance Briggs and Henry Melton, and their replacements didn’t fare well against the Ravens, allowing the struggling Ray Rice to go for a season-high 131 yards on 25 carries. And Chicago’s greatest weapon against the pass, cornerback Peanut Tillman, is out for the remainder of the regular season with a torn triceps. Offensively, the pass protection has gotten better, but it remains less than ideal while rookie right tackle Jordan Mills continues to get comfortable. Despite their issues, the Bears have something invaluable that can help them win a playoff race: a backup quarterback who is letting his play do all the talking.

Words TK (Jeff Haynes/Sports Illustrated) The Bears are tied with the Lions for first in the NFC North at 6-4, but Detroit swept the season series and holds the tiebreaker. McCown, filling in for an injured Cutler, pulled off an overtime victory against the Ravens on Sunday and has drawn comparisons to former journeyman QB Rich Gannon, a league MVP. (Jeff Haynes/Sports Illustrated)

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