Conspiracy theorists thinking the Bears exaggerated Jay Cutler's sprained ankle to mask his groin injury suffered a blow Thursday when the quarterback showed up at the Walter Payton Center wearing a hard cast below his left knee.
"Just precautionary to stabilize his ankle,'' Bears coach Marc Trestman said.
Yet the bigger development at Halas Hall, if not the buzz, surrounded the stability Josh McCown restored this week once Trestman removed doubt by naming him the starter against the Ravens. The Bears have operated under an odd sense of calm since, despite not knowing when Cutler will come back from his assorted injuries.
They focused on the Ravens and only the Ravens, X's and O's instead of MRIs. Unlike the distracting days before the Lions game, nobody wondered how long Cutler might last if he indeed started. Nobody endured questions about whether Trestman was playing the right quarterback. Nobody worried about anything but the game plan.
How often does a backup like McCown step in and supply a higher degree of certainty for an NFL team heading into any given Sunday?
"We're fortunate,'' offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said.
True, but McCown has been more good than lucky in relief. The Bears need to see another season from Cutler before determining whether to make him the center of their long-term future. (Use the franchise tag, Phil Emery.) But until Cutler becomes healthy enough to finish a game he starts, McCown gives the Bears a better chance to win in the short term. McCown never will match Cutler's immense talent but he is attuned to a Trestman offense full of dynamic playmakers and proves that chemistry still counts in the NFL. His unselfishness tends to be contagious too.
"That's really the definition of humility, when you understand that it's not because you're doing it well, it's because all those people are putting you in a position to do well and that's what you're doing for them,'' Trestman said.
Teammates respond to McCown's folksy brand of leadership that, to outsiders, casts him as the anti-Cutler. As McCown admitted Thursday that he apologized to offensive linemen for taking a sack against the Packers, it was impossible to imagine him ever shoving one of them in a sideline snit. He humbly credited Kurt Warner and Jon Kitna for demonstrating early in his career how to be a professional and basked in the success of fellow backups Nick Foles of the Eagles and Kellen Clemens of the Rams. He downplayed how this season could add years to his career and millions to his bank account and talked like a man who had been inoculated for what Trestman calls "the success flu.''
"The fastest way downhill is to think that you know it all,'' McCown said.
More than anything, McCown knows what he is after 11 seasons as an NFL quarterback — and what he isn't. He is a guy efficient enough to complete 42 of 70 passes for 538 yards and four touchdowns without an interception for a passer rating of 103.2. He isn't a guy like Cutler with a big arm that inspires bold ideas, so McCown takes fewer risks with throws into tight spots. He is in the right place at the right time, the product of attitude and ability conspiring to achieve something positive for one of the game's good guys.
"Sometimes, in life, it's just about opportunities,'' McCown said.
This was the week Cutler was supposed to get the opportunity to go against Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, whose contract year in 2012 went much better than Cutler's is going. Flacco won the Super Bowl and signed a six-year deal worth $120.6 million. But suddenly, that comparison bears little relevance to Cutler — and not because Flacco has struggled mightily as the richest quarterback in NFL history.
Before the Bears even could consider investing that heavily, Cutler has much to prove that goes beyond performance. Durability has replaced consistency as the biggest concern any team should have about making a Flacco-like commitment to Cutler. Forget regular-season stats or postseason prowess. Flacco will start his 90th straight game Sunday against the Bears. Cutler has missed all or parts of 10 of the last 31 games dating to November 2011 because of injuries to his thumb, groin and ankle and a concussion. Does that make Cutler injury-prone or unlucky? Does it matter to an organization weighing whether to pay him $20 million per year?
Cutler's recent health history gives the Bears every reason to proceed more cautiously than Trestman did Sunday when he threw Cutler to the Lions. There is no rush to get Cutler in the fold or back on the field. Let Cutler's groin and ankle heal entirely before returning. Until he does, the Bears have found solid footing under McCown.