LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) When Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler needed a helping hand last season he knew he could rely on his backup.
He had that synergy, that connection, with Josh McCown.
They will be on opposite sidelines Sunday when the Bears host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a matchup between struggling teams.
While much of the focus has been on Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith returning to Soldier Field, there will also be a reunion of sorts between the starting quarterbacks.
''Josh is probably good for a lot of people,'' Cutler said. ''I think you could probably pair him with most of the people in this room and he'd find a way to help make you better. He's not going to make you worse, I know that. He's just one of those kinds of people. So I know he's doing good things for that quarterback room in Tampa just like he did for us.''
Cutler and McCown helped the Bears set the franchise record for yards and finish second in team history in scoring last season - Chicago's first under coach Marc Trestman.
Both quarterbacks got new contracts, with Cutler signing a seven-year deal that guarantees $54 million and McCown going to Tampa Bay for two years and $10 million, but the transitions this season have not been smooth for either player or team.
McCown missed five games after injuring his thumb on his throwing hand. He also had to adjust to losing offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, who is on indefinite leave after having surgery in August, and the Buccaneers are just 2-8.
Cutler is having an up-and-down season. The offense isn't clicking the way the Bears hoped, and at 4-6, Chicago will likely miss the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years.
Who knows how different things would be for the Bears if Cutler and McCown were still together? But it is clear they had a good thing going.
McCown played in eight games last season and filled in when Cutler was nursing groin and ankle injuries, leading the Bears to a 3-2 record in five starts. He threw for 13 touchdowns with just one interception and posted a 109 QB rating.
He was a steadying force for Cutler during games and someone he could lean on during the week as he learned Trestman's system. McCown made a big mark through his professionalism.
''I was excited about helping him kind of take that next step, help him continue to play good football,'' McCown said. ''I was ready to do that. He was ready for that to happen in his career and excited about that. So I just think it was a perfect mix of guys who had opportunity to do things they were passionate about.''
Cutler finished with a personal-best 89.2 rating last season, and he is on pace to break that. His completion rate this year is a career-high 67 percent, but as good as that looks, he is committing untimely turnovers.
He is second in the league with 12 interceptions and has five lost fumbles.
''I think they certainly had a relationship that was impactful during the course of the year,'' Trestman said.
He sees a similar chemistry developing with Jimmy Clausen, but it's taking time.
The former Notre Dame star signed with the Bears in June and needed time to adjust, to learn the system. He had to earn a spot, too.
Cutler said he tries to do for Clausen what McCown did for him - be patient, encourage him.
''I think he's kind of graduated into helping me with coverages, with certain plays, tweaking things,'' Cutler said. ''He's always trying to push the envelope, change things and tweak things around, which I think's been great for us.''
NOTES: WRs Brandon Marshall (ankle) and Alshon Jeffery (hamstring) were limited in practice Thursday after sitting out the previous day. RT Jordan Mills (ribs) and OL Eben Britton (illness) were also limited, while CB Demontre Hurst (knee), DE Trevor Scott (knee), WR Chris Williams (hamstring) and LB Darryl Sharpton (hamstring) sat out. DE Jared Allen did not practice, although his absence was not injury related.
AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org