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Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Updated: November 6, 11:20 AM ET
Bears should play it safe with Cutler

By Michael Wilbon
ESPNChicago.com

It's not often Chicago has a quarterback controversy. You need two to have a dilemma and the Bears historically are lucky the years they have one worth fussing over.

But what they've got now isn't choosing between Craig Krenzel and Chad Hutchinson, or Shane Matthews and Cade McNown midway through a dead season.
Jay Cutler
The Bears initially expected Jay Cutler, left, to miss at least four weeks with his groin injury.

One week after being lights out during a relief appearance in Washington, Josh McCown very possibly saved the season in Green Bay on Monday night. The offense looked more certain as the game progressed, and increasingly confident, surely emboldened by the fourth-down conversion late.

But Jay Cutler, the closest thing the Bears have had to a franchise quarterback since Jim McMahon was traded away 25 years ago, reportedly says he's healthy enough to come back now, to practice this week and start Sunday against the Lions.

The Bears, considering they still have to figure out what to do about Cutler long term, need him to play as many snaps as he can the remainder of the season. Signing a quarterback to a $100 million deal is only the most important decision a franchise can make.

So there's the immediate matter of what's in the best interest of beating the Lions ... and the big-picture concern of what's in the best interest of the franchise not just now but for the next four to five seasons. And it's not an easy call.

McCown helped lay 41 points on the Redskins, then threw a pair of touchdowns to help beat the Packers. McCown has thrown three touchdowns in those two games, no interceptions and has a passer rating of 100.2. He's rushed five times (three of them for first downs) for 53 yards. McCown hasn't fumbled. He's decisive with the ball, has taken just two sacks and generally makes you wonder whether the Bears are better suited to face the Lions with Cutler back in the lineup or with McCown staying in the lineup.

It's admirable Cutler has worked so hard to come back in less than half the time projected, and if the backup this time around was Caleb Hanie or Jonathan Quinn you'd rush Cutler back as quickly as the doctors allowed, given the tie at the top of the division between the Bears, Packers and Lions.

But McCown ain't Hanie. And Cutler is coming back from a groin injury, perhaps the most nagging injury an athlete can have in any sport. Do you really want to expose your franchise quarterback, the guy you could be about to invest $100 million in, to tangle with Ndamukong Suh so soon after suffering a groin injury? Have we learned nothing from 18 months of talking about Derrick Rose? Haven't we learned it's hard enough to play the position healthy, and that the Bears should take every precaution to make sure Cutler is ready and then some before they put him back out there?

I'd start McCown against the Lions, and I'd have Cutler warming up in the bullpen with no reservation about having a quick hook.

You can start McCown and bring in Cutler with no disruption; Cutler is going back in the starting lineup at some point. You cannot bring McCown in to replace Cutler without all the drama that comes with a real quarterback controversy.

Remember, I'm not talking for one second about benching Cutler; I'm talking about giving him one more week to recuperate and keeping him away from a madman named Suh who is happy to rearrange the Bears' future with one hit after the whistle.

I could make the opposite argument, that starting Cutler is the right move. But Tommy Waddle is so much better at it, so I'll repeat the conversation we had Tuesday morning when I asked Waddle, the former Bears receiver and now an absolute voice of reason on several ESPN platforms, if I was crazy to say I'd start McCown.

"Crazy? No," Waddle said. "You want the more talented player, the better quarterback playing the most important position in sports in a game against a division opponent as the race for a playoff spot really begins.

"Look, if Jay is not at least 90 percent healthy ... if you're limited at all in your mobility at quarterback the ball will sail or be short. My decision would be based on the confidence I have in Jay Cutler, knowing how good he is, to play the position if he's healthy."

Josh McCown
Josh McCown completed 22 of 41 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns against Green Bay.

I asked Waddle when we'll have a better idea of that, of Cutler's relative health, and he said, "When he takes the first snap of the game ... Can Jay get away from [Suh], protect himself and make a good play? Is he confident he can get outside the pocket and make a play with his feet ... or on the edge with his arm? If you're limited at all in your mobility ..."

If you're limited at all in your mobility against the Lions you're roadkill, especially with their ability to pressure up the middle and force quarterbacks to make plays on the move. I asked a physician who deals with these kinds of injuries and timelines how long, reasonably, before a person who suffers this kind of injury is "fully recovered" and he told me as long as eight weeks.

These, in my mind, are huge "ifs," which is to say risks I would be really, really reluctant to take with Cutler. Is there risk in starting McCown? Yes. As Waddle said, speaking in general about No. 2 quarterbacks, "Backups are backups for a reason. Their body of work is why they're a backup."

There's certainly nothing in McCown's "body of work" (40 touchdowns, 44 interceptions, passer rating of 72.7) that suggests you'd want to saddle up with him long term or even annoy Cutler to any degree. But health at the quarterback position is everything in the NFL these days. We know that from the last time (2011) Cutler had to miss any time and the Bears had to depend on the backup.

But this situation appears to be wholly different, not only because McCown, after 11 years in the NFL, appears perfectly ready for long relief but because, as Waddle reminds me, the protection from a steadily improving offensive line seems to be better than it has been in years. And whoever is playing quarterback for the Bears right now has the best offensive weapons (as a group) the team has ever had.

The one thing Waddle and I agreed on quite easily was that making decisions like this and living with the consequences is why NFL head coaches make the big bucks and are stressed to the max.

It's a decision I'm thrilled to talk about, in theory, and happy to not have to make in reality.