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Smug Cutler still Bears' best choice

He may lack tact in assessing McCown's play, but his arm strength adds another elite weapon

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

9:09 PM CST, December 12, 2013

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Nobody in the Bears organization offered anything but high acclaim for backup quarterback Josh McCown the past month as he became Chicago's darling and one of the NFL's best stories.

Until Jay Cutler returned to the Bears lineup and the lectern Thursday at Halas Hall, that is.

Answering questions for the first time in 32 days, Cutler initially sounded sincere expressing pride in McCown. He complimented the way McCown ran the offense during Cutler's five-game absence and took advantage of the opportunity. But Cutler subtly but significantly credited coach Marc Trestman's scheme for McCown's success and referred to how McCown managed games — code for a quarterback with limitations — rather than made plays.

Perhaps most tellingly, when asked near the end of the session about feeling any extra anxiety replacing a quarterback as hot as McCown, Cutler damned the reigning NFC offensive player of the week with more faint praise.

"He's played well,'' Cutler said. "He played really well the last game, (but) before that Josh made his mistakes just like I have. He'll tell you himself.''

With friends like Cutler, McCown needs a good agent.

Josh made his mistakes? In his last five starts, McCown threw one interception compared with 10 touchdown passes and goes to the bench as the league's third-highest-rated passer. Cutler's reluctance to fully embrace McCown's career renaissance as tightly as, well, everybody else showed how sensitive he is to the notion McCown might be a smarter option.

"There is not a debate in this building, so that is where my concern lies,'' Cutler said dismissively.

Not only is Cutler's ankle 100 percent, but clearly his ego is as healthy as ever. Where McCown's enthusiasm put a skip in the step of the Bears offense, Cutler's attitude marks the return of its swagger. Cutler's condescending nonchalance, a stark contrast to McCown's refreshing modesty, also suggested Cutler senses as much pressure Sunday against the Browns as any regular-season game he has played as a Bear.

He would be right. Has Cutler faced another situation in eight seasons where it was less clear-cut he was The Man? Vulnerability is unbecoming a franchise quarterback, no matter how wanted Trestman made Cutler feel.

"When he was ready to play, he was going to play,'' Trestman repeated.

Trestman made the correct decision because, while McCown is hotter, Cutler remains better because of his array of skills. No self-respecting talent evaluator would disagree.

On a wintry, windy day in Cleveland, the Bears will benefit from the strength of Cutler's arm. His ability to throw downfield and keep plays alive gives an explosive offense another elite option. As magical as McCown has been, most backup quarterbacks come with an expiration date, which he was nearing regardless of how enjoyable he made the experience for everyone.

The choice still comes down to potential, not popularity. That was the gist of what Cutler was trying to say through the smugness. At his locker before Cutler qualified his compliments, even McCown urged everybody to remember why Trestman did what he had to do. McCown, among the league leaders in perspective, acted more upset over missing his daughter's basketball game in North Carolina than losing his starting job.

"Before Jay got hurt, he was playing the best ball of his career, so there's no reason to think that won't continue,'' McCown said. "I don't think I'd be here if I didn't want to play, but you also want guys who understand their roles.''

McCown resumes a role that requires him to be ready at a moment's notice. As much sense as it makes for Trestman to turn to McCown quicker Sunday if Cutler struggles trying to force big plays, nothing about the coach's recent game-day stubbornness hints he will. No wonder Cutler seemed so confident about not getting replaced if he looks rusty.

"I would think not, but you'd have to talk to Trestman," Cutler said.

Posed that scenario earlier, Trestman refused to consider "hypotheticals."

Everybody else around the league is, especially regarding the Bears applying the franchise tag on Cutler or letting him test free agency. The Bears would be fools to do anything but use the tag, buying time to negotiate a longer deal that takes advantage of the leverage McCown supplied. While many view the final three games as a chance to prove his worth to general manager Phil Emery, Cutler left the impression he already knows where Emery stands.

"I think Phil has a plan — actually, I know Phil has a plan,'' Cutler said. "You guys might not know Phil's plan, but he has a plan.''

Replacing the NFL's hottest quarterback with Cutler for a December playoff run allows a pretty revealing peek.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh