At some point, an NFL head coach must save an injured player from himself and his team from that player.
At some point, he must vow not to let the machismo attitudes that rule so many locker rooms mar his own judgment. He must keep a level head amid swirling emotions and make the tough decisions his toughest players won't like. He must weigh long-term risks more heavily than short-term rewards, prioritizing an obligation to 53 players over his belief in one, no matter how big the game.
For Bears coach Marc Trestman, that point came Sunday in a regrettable 21-19 loss to the Lions. But it took Trestman 57 minutes, 43 seconds to realize it — which was too long for everybody.
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- Not Trestman's best decision
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With 2:17 left and needing a touchdown and two-point conversion to force overtime, Trestman finally inserted backup quarterback Josh McCown to replace an obviously ailing Jay Cutler. A hurry-up offense is the wrong place for a hobbling quarterback leading his team nowhere fast.
Trestman blamed a sprained left ankle Cutler injured in the second quarter, but, like much about a defeat that helped give the Lions the NFC North lead, his explanation lacked logic. From playing Cutler to passing up a second-quarter field goal, Trestman's thought process boggled the mind.
If Cutler wasn't physically capable of performing in the most important two minutes of the game, why did Trestman let him play the first 58 on a left groin that limited him? You didn't have to have a medical degree to see a quarterback in distress.
"I knew he'd have to run around in the two-minute drill," Trestman said. "I don't know if Jay, at that point in time, could have gotten it done.''
McCown did, as Chicago has come to expect. The guy keeps providing the definition of true professional. This time, McCown completed 6 of 9 passes for 62 yards with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall that would have tied it had the Bears not failed on the two-point conversion.
"The best option for the team was to put Josh in," Cutler agreed.
If only somebody in charge would have made the same conclusion before the game — or at halftime at the latest — the Bears might have won Sunday and had a healthier Cutler for Week 11. Instead, Cutler added to his list of injuries. Nobody in his right mind questions Cutler's toughness. His durability, however, is fair game.
The Bears insisted Cutler's groin felt fine and was unrelated to his sprained ankle, but he wouldn't be the first athlete to have one injury lead to another. Cutler never should have been in harm's way anyway. The Bears quarterback who finished should have started, regardless of how Cutler's courage persuaded Trestman and impressed his teammates.
The more Cutler stayed in, the more obviously he struggled. The more faith Trestman showed in Cutler's tenacity, the less he showed in McCown's talent.
Once the adrenaline of the opening touchdown drive wore off, the offensive rhythm vanished. Even Trestman got swept away by the good start, going for it on fourth-and-1 from the Lions' 27. Mr. Fourth Down should have taken the points and early lead.
"We were coming off a game in which the Lions put up 500 yards, and they came down the field on the first series and scored," Trestman said.
The Lions also failed on fourth-on-1 instead of kicking a field goal, but you don't use one coach's recklessness to justify another's — especially when it's Lions coach Jim Schwartz. Yet the Bears couldn't make the Lions pay because their offense slowed as steadily as Cutler did.
In the second half, Cutler completed 9 of 22 passes for 102 yards for a passer rating of 55.5. So much focus shifted to how Cutler was moving that you wonder if it affected the Bears' ability to move the chains.
Yes, Cutler made several plays with his arm McCown only dreams of making. But who's to say McCown couldn't have made some with his legs Cutler couldn't? Any anticipated difference in the offense's production under Cutler for one game wasn't enough to justify endangering Cutler's health for the remaining seven, when the Bears need their starter whole.
Perhaps that reality dawned on Trestman after Cutler threw a one-hopper on third-and-11 with 5:41 left instead of running for the first down the way he usually would when healthy.
"We had a quarterback limited in his mobility and we elected to keep him in the game, and that's the price we paid," Trestman said.
The Bears should feel fortunate Trestman electing to do so all day wasn't more costly.
"I didn't want to get to the point where I was hurting us more than I was helping us," Cutler said.
At some point, Cutler needed to be told it wasn't his call to make.