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Sunday, November 10, 2013
When toughness isn't enough

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Nine games into his first season as the head coach of the Chicago Bears, Marc Trestman got his Welcome to Chicago care package Sunday.

Trestman
Marc Trestman eventually made the right call to go with Josh McCown, but it was a quarter too late.
The contents: A bag of cheese and caramel popcorn, a parking ticket for street cleaning, and a transcript of 500,000 fans yelling expletives at you from their couches.

Now Trestman is officially a Bears coach because you can say you make better decisions "dan dat bum on da sidelines."

Trestman probably shouldn't listen to the radio or, um, log on the Internet for a few days if he doesn't like to be second-guessed.

Because the self-styled open thinker bowed to the culture of football Sunday and it cost his team in a wildly important 21-19 defeat to Detroit that gives the Lions the tiebreaker in the NFC North.

Trestman valued toughness over intelligence. He made the easy call over the hard one. He stuck with the status quo over rocking the boat.

A week after wowing fans with a gutsy fourth-down call that locked up a win at Green Bay, Trestman didn't have the intestinal fortitude to sit down a hobbled Jay Cutler when the quarterback was obviously too banged-up to play at his full potential.

I realize the inanity of saying Josh McCown was a better option than Cutler, but it's true. McCown, who won a rare game in Green Bay last week, all but proved it by leading the Bears to a touchdown on his only drive of the game. He was a missed two-point conversion away from tying the game in dramatic fashion.

A proud man, Cutler wanted to keep playing while dealing with the remnants of a torn groin muscle and a newly, mysteriously injured ankle that turned him into a late model Drew Bledsoe. So Trestman let him until he couldn't anymore.

"I didn't want to take him out unless he felt he couldn't do the job," Trestman said. "I thought it was a very courageous performance throughout."

Courageous is great, Marc. But Cutler couldn't do the job. That was your call. And you made it for the last drive, which was only a quarter too late.

It's not as if the Bears didn't discuss pulling Cutler beforehand. They talked about it throughout the second half as Cutler struggled.

"I just asked him at one point, 'Do I look OK and am I still getting it done?'" Cutler said. "Because I felt really restricted in the pocket with what I was able to do. [The ball] wasn't getting out as quick. Some of my throws didn't have as much on them as I wanted. I knew Josh was ready to go and I just didn't want to get to the point where I was hurting us more than I was helping us."

He got to that point. We all saw it.

Cutler was lights out on his first drive of the game, completing three straight passes for 61 yards, resulting in a 32-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall. After that, he either hurt his ankle (the Bears excuse) or had pain in his injured groin (what everyone else thought, especially as Cutler kept grabbing it during the game. Cutler turned into a 50 percent passer who could only throw deep balls, the kind of passes that didn't require him to move or utilize his lower body.

With Cutler's full blessing, Trestman finally changed quarterbacks for the last drive. It almost worked.

When McCown came into the game on the Bears' final drive, he promptly led them to a touchdown and a chance to the tie the game with a two-point conversion. McCown had to move around in the pocket under pressure to find Marshall in the end zone.

"[Cutler] wouldn't have been able to make that," Marshall said. "He wouldn't have been able to make it. Hopefully he'll be healthy enough to go. I think he will be."

No one's questioning Cutler's heart or his arm. But those assets weren't enough, especially against the Lions' front four. Cutler was a half a quarterback out there. The Bears had to adjust their playbook mid-game.

"I just didn't feel like I could make some of the throws I wanted to make, I couldn't move around," Cutler said. "Couldn't be mobile as the game went on. It just kind of limited us."

Really, it shouldn't have been up to Jay and everyone knows that. Trestman all but admitted he might regret his decision when looks at it with some time and distance.

"I'll look at the tape and see what the tape shows and I may come back tomorrow and say I made a mistake and I should've taken him out earlier," Trestman said. "But at the time, the decision was made to keep him in there and let him play with this football team, and here we are. That's the result."

Jay Cutler
Jay Cutler felt restricted in the pocket Sunday, and that should have been enough to get him off the field sooner.
Trestman was annoyed when reporters questioned playing Cutler during the week, noting that trainers and doctors cleared his torn groin muscle a week earlier than the most optimistic prognosis. He said again Sunday that the trainers felt Jay could play on the ankle or the groin or whatever else is damaged.

This reminded me of the time Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau re-inserted Joakim Noah into a playoff game when the center obviously couldn't walk on an injured ankle and then blamed the trainer, Fred Tedeschi. "Fred cleared him" has become a mocking refrain of Thibodeau's Green Beret approach to player health.

Of course this isn't the NBA. In every NFL game, there are guys who gut out injuries with a mixture of mental fortitude and modern pharmaceuticals. If Cutler's fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery doesn't get overturned by replay and the Bears win, maybe we're talking about what a brave, macho leader Cutler is now. I'm guessing we'd still be second-guessing Trestman.

The truth is, Cutler doesn't need people to pat him on the back for being a tough guy. But the Bears needed this win. McCown was the better option. Maybe not to start the first half, but certainly to start the second one.

This week's storyline will be if Cutler can start this week. Cutler said they won't know until Monday how the ankle is doing. He said the groin was fine after the game.

I know what you're thinking. Everyone criticized Cutler for sitting out with an injury in the 2011 NFC title game. But that's fan stuff. No one on that sidelines was thinking about the social media scorecard, but they were thinking about the outmoded ideals of the sport itself. That toughness is better than say, accuracy. I disagree, but that's easy to do from the press box.

Still, Trestman is known for making hard decisions look easy. He's cool and confident on the sidelines. I think he's going to regret not making this one, especially if Cutler looks bad again next week.

Marshall agreed with pulling Cutler for the last series, but disagrees with any notion that the Bears should have pulled Cutler before the last series. Marshall called him a "soldier."

"All right, let me say it like this, there aren't a lot of Jay Cutlers walking the streets," Marshall said. "I'm talking to everybody. I don't care how great Josh McCown does. He's awesome, I'm glad we have him as a No. 2; I don't think we could have a better No. 2, but Jay Cutler is our quarterback and no one can lead this team better than he can right now."

Marshall added, "Look how efficient he was when he was able to move around and the pocket was clean for him."

That's kind of the point. Cutler couldn't do those things for most of the game. There is no quarterback controversy here. There shouldn't be much fallout from this loss.

Some might say this was just tough luck. I say, be smarter next time.