Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

12 Dec 2013

ESPN: Benching Josh McCown Is a Mistake

The Chicago Bears are used to searching for one quarterback, so having to make a tough decision between two is new territory. Marc Trestman is going back to Jay Cutler after he's recovered from groin and ankle injuries, but how do you bench Josh McCown after performing at a level Cutler's never reached in his NFL career?

Sure, past history says Cutler is more likely to play better than McCown, but the Bears have enough talent and the right system in place for this offense to keep producing at the higher level it's operated at with McCown.

He may just be another Todd Collins (2007 Redskins) with twice the sample size or a Damon Huard (2006 Chiefs) as he maintains a freakishly-low, fluky interception rate, but the Bears are scoring 2.65 points per drive with McCown compared to 2.00 with Cutler. The latter has showed very little progression through eight years.

However, it has taken the 34-year-old McCown 11 years to throw at least a dozen touchdown passes in a season, making him one of the oldest ever to do that for the first time in his career:

Oldest quarterbacks to throw 12-plus touchdowns for first time
Quarterback Age Season Team TD Years XP* Prev. Starts**
Butch Songin 36 1960 BOS 22 1 0
Doug Flutie 36 1998 BUF 20 5 14
Frank Reich 35 1996 NYJ 15 12 11
Dieter Brock 34 1985 LARM 16 1 0
Josh McCown 34 2013 CHI 13 11 33
*Years of NFL experience
**Number of regular-season starts prior to listed season

Flutie, Brock and Songin all played in other professional leagues. Only Reich did the NFL backup role (mostly in Buffalo) for a long time like McCown.

Late-blooming quarterbacks are a rarity and there's no reason to suspect McCown is the future in Chicago, but why not the present?

McCown's playing so far above his previous career peak that it's hard to imagine he has any shot of sustaining it, but he hasn't failed Chicago yet in all seven appearances he's made this season. McCown's been a nobody, but Cutler is who we thought he was, and nothing more.

The Bears (7-6) close at Cleveland, at Philadelphia and with Green Bay.

This decision will greatly impact the start of Trestman's Chicago tenure, so you can bet this topic will be revisited.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 12 Dec 2013

46 comments, Last at 21 Jan 2014, 10:27am by Cheap Pandora Jewellery


by Jeremy Hansen (not verified) :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 6:54pm

I am significantly dumber for having read this. Thanks Scott.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 7:06pm

Just doing my part. Though I can't imagine you being a Jay Cutler fan, since it actually takes effort to reply.

by NFC North coaches (not verified) :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 7:02pm

Marc Trestman is doing an outstanding job. If he wants to pull his winning QB, that decision should be left with him.


Mike McCarthy and Jim Schwarz

by tuluse :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 7:08pm

Yes, a 34 year old quarterback who is having first good year ever and is riding a freakishly low interception rate is definitely the quarterback you want.

"McCown's been a nobody, but Cutler is who we thought he was, and nothing more."

I don't know what this means at all.

Also the Bears aren't going anywhere in the playoffs regardless. So it really doesn't matter. Might as well play Cutler so the Bears can decide if they want to keep him or move on (or just lowball him on the next contract).

by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 7:14pm

No, Damon Huard rode a low-INT streak. McCown's putting up efficiency and volume while leading the equivalent of a No. 2 scoring offense.

That's a not even subtle play on words on Denny Green's famous line in regards to a QB (Cutler) who hasn't progressed at all in his career.

The Bears could beat a team like Carolina in the playoffs in Chicago. Can they win in Seattle or New Orleans with either QB? Probably not, but that's probably true for all NFC teams unless the 49ers improve on offense with Crabtree.

by tuluse :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 8:03pm

Compare the difference in Cutler's DVOA to his backups the past 2 years, I think you'll find something surprising.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 8:10pm

I'm going to be surprised that Caleb Hanie was awful, or that Jason Campbell couldn't get it done against playoff teams like the Texans, 49ers and Vikings? Might as well bring up the Todd Collins vs. Carolina debacle while you're at it.

by tuluse :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 8:13pm

Jason Campbell had a -50% DVOA. -50. That is supposed to account for opponent adjustments. That's how bad the Bear's offense was.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 8:17pm

All of Campbell's meaningful plays came against the Texans (off the bench in bad weather conditions) and 49ers. Those are elite defenses. You can adjust, but never fully discount that quality of opponent. It's going to impact the numbers. Besides, what are we talking about, 50 plays?

And I still don't see why that matters here. It's a revamped OL, it's a new offensive-minded coach and Alshon Jeffery is thriving in year two. If McCown was "winning" but not playing well like a Mike Tomczak or Jim Miller or 2005 Orton, then fine. But that's not the case at all.

by tuluse :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 8:37pm

Well I had two points. One that I think Cutler is clearly better than McCown. Two was that playing McCown more does nothing to help the Bears in the future, so it's pointless.

by WeaponX (not verified) :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 11:26am

"Bears could beat a team like Carolina in the playoffs in Chicago" While it's always possible, Chicago is a favorable matchup for Carolina IMO.


by tuluse :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 1:48pm

I just want to point out that DVOA thinks Carolina is better than all the teams you mentioned except Seattle.

by chitown_jim (not verified) :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 7:16pm

For an advanced statistics site to link to an article about "a hot quarterback" is just simply dumb considering the statistical fallacy of "the hot streak" itself.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 7:19pm

Maybe you should read beyond a title and subtitle that I did not write. ESPN has editors.

Just point to one time in eight years where Cutler's been as good as McCown's been this year. That's all you have to focus on.

by tuluse :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 8:04pm

1 in 8 is more frequent than 1 in 11.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 10:15am

There's nothing past the title, its all just meaningless shit.

The whole article is "I don't like Cutler, so lets use the guy on the hot streak"

This place is supposed to be better than this.

by Anthony (not verified) :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 8:01pm

Actually, playing consistently at a high level for seven games *is* statistical. How many games does he have to play before you credit him for playing well? Look at his numbers compared to Cutler's numbers this season.

by jeeferso (not verified) :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 7:43pm

so which is it?

this quote--Just point to one time in eight years where Cutler's been as good as McCown's been this year

or this one--past history says Cutler is more likely to play better than McCown

personally i'd stick with McCown.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 7:54pm

It's both. McCown's peak (all this year) is better than anything Cutler's done, but Cutler has more career value to point to.

It's a risky decision either way, but if I have a QB working better in the offense (and this was not just one or two good games) I'm not making a change. I think history can back that up too.

Kaepernick over Smith? Yes.
Maddox over Stewart? Yes.
Williams over Schroeder? Yes.
Dilfer over Banks? Yes.
Stick with Brady over healthy Bledsoe? Yes.
Johnson over Flutie? Shouldn't have.
The scrambled egg version of Trent Green over Huard? Shouldn't have.
Grossman over Orton? Okay, Orton wasn't any good, but at least Bears knew they had to play well on defense and running game with him.

Tom Landry finally wised up in 1971 and gave Staubach the job over Morton.

I can't recall the dynamics of the 2002 Rams. Did Bulger get hurt and Warner got another start? Because Bulger was playing far better that season.

Some will say if the 49ers didn't blow a game to Arizona, Steve Young may have taken Joe Montana's job much sooner than he did in San Francisco.

by tuluse :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 8:07pm

How many of those examples were QBs who were playing above average for the first time in the 11 years since they entered the league?

by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 8:13pm

Tommy Maddox came out of nowhere (the XFL even) for Pittsburgh. First-round bust all the way. And again, Kordell Stewart was just a couple of games removed from a Pro Bowl season and appearance in the AFC Championship. While he didn't have a great start to the season, most people realized the defense getting shredded by the dink-and-dunk from New England and Oakland was the biggest problem. One comeback win against Cleveland by Maddox and the job was his.

Did he make it count in 2003? Of course not, but that just allowed the Steelers to draft a real QB in Roethlisberger.

If I'm Chicago I let Cutler go, re-sign McCown to a cheap deal and look to draft the next QB for Trestman to groom as the future.

by MichaelJ (not verified) :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 8:57pm

How many backup QBs with 11 years of mediocre experience have put together a seven game stretch as good as McCown's? It's hard to point out exact examples of this sort of thing gone right when there are so few examples period. I don't think anyone can really argue that McCown looks worse than - or even just equal to - Cutler this year. That said, we don't see all the practices or know how the calls played in game are supposed to go. We aren't aware of a great many things that Trestman sees and evaluates. If he thinks that Cutler is the better option because of things he sees that we don't, I can respect that. If the decision is just based on this ridiculous idea that players can never improve or respond favorably to a good team and coach situation, than I absolutely disagree.

by Duke :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 2:10pm

Grossman over Orton? Okay, Orton wasn't any good, but at least Bears knew they had to play well on defense and running game with him.

Really? Your argument is that Orton was useful because he rallied the other parts of team into shape with his awfulness?

by Scott Kacsmar :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 2:18pm

Funny part is Orton was on the other end of that in 2011 with Denver. The Broncos didn't magically start playing better defense and running the ball when they went to Tebow. They did it out of necessity or else the games would be blow outs (which they still were when faced with a team like New England that season).

You stick a bad QB out there, you're not going to try to make him win the game. I don't think Sam Bradford was holding back Zac Stacy or Tavon Austin, but when he went down and Kellen Clemens became the QB, something had to change for the Rams to compete.

Changing the QB often changes the team dynamic. Vince Young from Kerry Collins in 2006 and 2009 is another good example.

by Duke :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 2:21pm

In the case of Tebow and Young, those are running QBs. There is a lot of evidence that running QBs make running offenses more effective, right? And not because they are bad at passing.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 2:33pm

Yeah, that's fair, but the defensive improvement was pretty unexpected on those teams. Guess you do cut down some of the risk on turnovers (giving up field position) by going to a more conservative run approach. Works well until you run into those better teams. Remember the 2009 Titans finishing 8-2, but lost to the Chargers and Colts.

by MC2 :: Sat, 12/14/2013 - 9:52pm

Actually, in the case of the Titans, you have it backwards. They got 3 or 4 defensive starters back from injury at the same time that they made the switch at QB, and it was the vastly improved defense that allowed them to go to a much more conservative offensive game plan, rather than the other way around.

The reason they had been passing so much with Collins (who I believe was leading the league in attempts at the time of his benching) was not because they wanted to, but because they had to, as their defense was just getting shredded on a weekly basis.

I remember posting a comment on this very site at the time, saying that if Young had been asked to throw the ball as often as Collins was, the results would have been disastrous, and no one would have been talking about how Young "saved the season".

by titansjoe (not verified) :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 9:18pm

i love the extreme defensiveness by the author in the comments. always a good sign of a well-crafted argument

by Charles Jake (not verified) :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 9:23pm

From http://nflphilosophy.com/

"In the weeks where Cutler took the most snaps (weeks 1-6, 10), the Bears are 4-3. When McCown has taken the most snaps (7, 9, 11-14), the Bears are 3-3. While McCown seems to have the better numbers, the Bears actually have a worse record under McCown. When looking at opponents, Cutler’s opponents are a combined 46-44 (51 percent) and McCown has faced teams whose records are now 31-45 (41 percent). Neither has faced a slate of tough competition but Cutler has clearly faced a more competitive schedule based on records. Based on Football Outsider’s week 13 DVOA rankings, Cutler has faced an average of defensive DVOA ranking of 14.7. McCown’s faced an average DVOA ranking of 22.0."

by NFC North coaches (not verified) :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 12:50pm

You can't just look at W-L. Romo lost to the Broncos even though the Cowboys had 40+ points. Is that on Romo or on the Cowboys defense?

by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 2:27pm

It's on Romo. Everything bad that happens to the Cowboys is on Romo. It's state law.

by akn :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 9:58pm

Small sample size theater says his int rate is unsustainable, but I'm not sure the author actually watched all of McCown's starts. In each of them there have been boneheaded throws that should have been easily intercepted
and were dropped. Three in the last game alone.

Live by the dropped int, die by the dropped int. I'm used to that already with Cutler, and Cutler gives me better YPA, scrambling ability, and red zone potential. McCown's wins have come against Green Bay without Rodgers for the most part, the Ravens in a tornado, and Dallas in Siberia (against quite possibly the worst defense I've ever watched).

Assuming the Bears just get in by the skin of their teeth, they win the right to get destroyed in Seattle (payback for 2006 and 2010, I suppose), all while losing draft position. If Cutler craps the bed, the McCown/draft pick plan is still available and becomes the right path. But I need to see Cutler in a few more games in Trestman's system before giving up on him entirely.

by kamiyu206 :: Thu, 12/12/2013 - 10:05pm

First, I read the entire article on ESPN, so please don't ask me to read beyond a title and subtitle.

Josh McCown is not a young, up and coming quarterback prospect. He is 33year old career backup. There is virtually ZERO chance that he suddenly becomes great after that many seasons.

It's fair to put more weight on his recent games when projecting his future performances, but you have to combine it with his past projection to get a better picture.

And I don't think McCown's projection (even after adjusting his recent performance) will come out better than Cutler's, so I wouldn't call starting Cutler over McCown thing a mistake.

Also, freakishly low INT% is not sustainable and I think you know it as well as anybody, Scott. Just because Damon Huard could pull it out for 10+ games once doesn't mean you can expect other guys to do it again.

by NFC North coaches (not verified) :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 12:48pm

Nit: McCown is 34 years old.

by dbt :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 2:58am

Josh McCown lost to the Vikings and the Rams, two terrible football teams. At least in the Vikings game the inability of the offense to score was a huge part of the problem. (Yes, QB wins is bullshit, but I feel very comfortable citing QB wins as a retort to the drivel above).

McCown is doing GREAT for a backup, but he's not Rich Gannon. He doesn't have the ceiling Cutler does.

Also, one of the two major reasons anybody has played well at QB this year is likely to drop off in play quality for emotional reasons if you unfairly bench Cutler.

Look, let's be super clear. Nobody was making this argument last week. This is all in response to McCown having a historically great game against a Dallas defense that laid a fucking goose egg and spent the entire second half trying to play from the airport. Absolutely nobody was making this argument 7 days ago, when McCown was coming off a performance that was described like this in Week 13 quick reads: " Not counting passes to guys named Alshon, McCown went 11-of-21 for 107 yards with five first downs and four sacks."

Cutler is the better QB. McCown is not the future of the QB position in Chicago. Just like Matt Flynn wasn't anybody's future starter after he went off a few years ago in a backup role. Cutler is someone who gives them a better chance to win, and is more important to evaluate before next offseason. This is the right move for both reasons.

by jds :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 12:06pm

"Cutler ..... more important to evaluate before next offseason." This. At best, Chicago is one and done in this year's playoffs. At best. GM and coach really have to see Cutler in a few more games to finalize what to do in the offseason at QB. No comment on the premise of the article, because it is not relevant as to who is better to "win now" for the Bears. The next 3 weeks (maybe 4) are Cutler's combine for whether the Bears go for a QB in next year's draft.

by Aaron Schatz :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 12:40pm

Hi everyone.

I just want to say that while I appreciate the constructive criticism of some of Scott's work, it's very hard for me to take comments seriously when they are posted by non-registered, anonymous users. If you truly want your criticisms to matter and perhaps improve our work, it really makes sense to register and let us know who you are so perhaps we can keep track of whether complaints are coming from multiple people or just the same two guys over and over.

Also, please remember that Football Outsiders is not a hive mind.


by drobviousso :: Sun, 12/15/2013 - 1:47pm

Great point. I've been reading and commenting for a long time. This article is below the quality I expect from the FO brand. You may not be a hive mind, but when an author violates the wisdom developed under this banner, they should acknowledge it. Do they think the wisdom is wrong? Do they think it doesn't apply because of some important factor? Do they just not know how to apply it? Hard to say if its not addressed, and easy to assume the worst.

(PS - I'm referring to the following section. I can't believe a statistically oriented writer could write that, think about it, and be happy.
"Late-blooming quarterbacks are a rarity and there's no reason to suspect McCown is the future in Chicago, but why not the present?
McCown's playing so far above his previous career peak that it's hard to imagine he has any shot of sustaining it, but he hasn't failed Chicago yet in all seven appearances he's made this season. McCown's been a nobody, but Cutler is who we thought he was, and nothing more.")

by Steve in WI :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 12:47pm

I think bringing Cutler back is only a mistake in the sense that the Bears probably need to win out to have a chance at making the playoffs, and they can't afford to lose this weekend because Cutler's rusty. Unfortunately, I predict that's what's going to happen.

But when it comes to the longer term, clearly you go with Cutler. What people are ignoring about the stats from this year is that Cutler got the first few games with a brand-new offense and coaching staff (plus most of a game in which he was still hurt and never should have set foot on the field...thanks, Trestman) while McCown got to take the reins of an offense that had come together into something really powerful. I don't recall anyone on that offense looking as good in the first 5-6 games as they have since.

I don't see the wisdom of getting rid of your quarterback at exactly the point that you've built the team and coaching staff around him that you've been working on for 5 years. If the Bears don't believe in Cutler enough to see how he does in an injury-free year, then they should have gotten rid of him years ago. (And I don't care how QB-heavy next year's draft class looks, it's a crapshoot. You might get someone who's clearly better than Cutler, or you might get someone who's out of the league in four years. And even if you get someone who turns out better than Cutler, it may take 2-3 years to develop him at which point some of your other offensive weapons aren't as useful as they would be next year.)

I look at McCown's success as an endorsement of what Trestman's doing with this offense, and thus I expect Cutler to be able to do even better with it.

by Hurt Bones :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 1:08pm

This. Before this season McCown had 1113 career pass attempts which showed that he wasn't a very good QB. To my mind McCown is a bad QB who had a few good games against bad passing defenses for a team in a new QB friendly system that was just gelling. I expect Cutler to do really well in the final three games.

by Duke :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 2:18pm

It's been said by others, but...

Making your decisions solely to maximize the (slim IMO) chances you make the playoffs this season is a bad philosophy as far as I'm concerned. When you consider the remaining schedules, the situations in which the Bears beat the Lions for the division seem remote. And it's not like benching Cutler is giving up on that--he can play well, he's played well, and they can win with him.

The thing is, the Bears have a huge decision to make this offseason (what to do with Cutler). Getting that decision right, IMO, is going to have a bigger benefit to the franchise for the next 5 years than getting to the playoffs this season would. I say that it's more important for the team's success, finances, AND for the fan's enjoyment that they make the right call on Cutler after the season. And to that end, having more information to make that decision is very important. That's why I support the switch and why I'm glad it's being made.

It would be reasonable to ditch Cutler in the offseason and go with McCown and a rookie. That's a plan that could work. But you'd want to be pretty sure that Cutler is not going to be a star before you do that. You need to see how he plays in these last few games.

by John Courage :: Fri, 12/13/2013 - 3:51pm

I think most of this has been said, but I feel the need to put down my thoughts:

1. McCown is clearly not the future for Chicago and it's very much an open question if Cutler is, so I want as much clarity on that point as possible in the last three weeks. If Cutler flames out, then drop him and draft a rookie with McCown as a stopgap. If Cutler absolutely lights it up, resign him if he's not too expensive, focus on the D line and maybe a speedster receiver in the draft. If Cutler is more of the same, well then it's a tough choice.

2. Best case scenario for the Bears this season is a first round playoff loss. The defense is decimated, and it's remarkable to me they've stayed this competitive. I'm more concerned about the future than this season, so some clarity on the first point is my biggest concern.

3. I suspect that part of the reason McCown's numbers are better than Cutler's is that the entire Bears offense has improved over the course of the year. Early in the year, Jeffery looked about like his rookie season - lots of potential, but mistakes, drops, miscommunications. In the second half of the year he's really come into his own and has had huge games with really impressive plays. Perhaps that's about who's throwing to him, but I think it is largely just getting more experience. Same with the offensive line. They were pretty good even early in the year, but it's a whole new group with 2 rookies, and I think just getting more experience together has helped them over the year.

by PUSSYMASTER 007 (not verified) :: Sat, 12/14/2013 - 3:05am

Jay Cutler is the best Quarterback the Bears have ever had. Yeah, lets bench him for a guy that played well against some of the worst defenses in the league. Maybe the Bears could trade Cutler for Matt Flynn too?

by TomC :: Sat, 12/14/2013 - 1:29pm

To me the only question is whether Cutler is truly 100% healthy. The biggest mistake Trestman has made this year was starting Cutler against the Goons of Schwartz when he was still gimpy, which led unsurprisingly to not only a crucial home loss but also to Cutler getting a new injury. Counterfactuals are tricky, but you could make a case that the Bears probably win that game with McCown and get Cutler back fully healthy, which would have given them a much better chance to beat Minnesota.

To argue that McCown is a better QB than healthy Cutler requires, in my opinion, ignoring not only every eyeball test but also all historical data other than the past several weeks.

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