The Chicago Bears might get their most important players on offense and defense back just in time for the final stretch of a playoff race and, of course, just in time to face the hard-luck Browns.
With three regular-season games remaining, the Bears (7-6) are tied with the Detroit Lions for first place in the NFC North, so they can’t afford to be upset by the Browns (4-9) in the final game this season at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Even though Bears starting quarterback Jay Cutler has missed the past four games with a high-ankle sprain, the offense has been rolling, as evidenced by a 45-28 thrashing of the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night. That’s because backup quarterback Josh McCown has been lighting it up and making some wonder if Bears coach Marc Trestman, an assistant for the Browns in the late 1980s who interviewed for the head-coaching job that Rob Chudzinski ultimately landed, should re-insert Cutler into the starting lineup once he’s ready.
As for the Bears’ defense, it hasn’t dealt with the loss of its leader nearly as well as the offense has coped without Cutler. Starting weakside linebacker Lance Briggs has missed the past six games with a fractured left shoulder. In the meantime, the Bears tied an NFL record by allowing a 100-yard rusher in the six consecutive games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The status of Cutler and Briggs will become more clear as the week unfolds, but there is a chance one or both of them will return to action Sunday in Cleveland. Rich Campbell, who covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune, discussed those possibilities and more in the following question-and-answer session:
Q: What’s the latest on Cutler?
A: “The Cutler situation is really interesting because Josh McCown has played extremely well in Cutler’s absence. Cutler hasn’t played since Nov. 10. He suffered a high-ankle sprain in that game. Josh McCown, he’s a 34-year-old backup who I don’t think anybody expected to necessarily do much on the field. He’s a great locker-room guy, and the organization loves him because he’s very supportive, he’s very professional, he’s extremely upbeat, he’s a top-class teammate and cheerleader. But now he has come in and he’s got a passer rating of 109.8 this season, 13 touchdowns and one interception. He really does a great job running the offense, anticipating receivers, understanding where to go with the ball. He’s has a 67 completion percentage. Those are pretty good numbers, but I think the coaches will find that he’s inaccurate at times, maybe misses a receiver in the end zone. But ultimately he’s moving the offense. He’s developed some type of connection with Alshon Jeffery, and it’s very easy for quarterbacks to trust these two receivers, Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, because Jeffery’s 6-3, Marshall’s 6-5, and they can go up and get the ball against defensive backs. Both quarterbacks for the Bears will throw with a lot of trust and it helps also to have Martellus Bennett as a tight end and Matt Forte as a running back. McCown, as a backup quarterback, to step into that situation where you’ve got that good of a supporting cast, I think there are a lot of backups in the league who would like to get an opportunity with that type of talent around them. But McCown also is very, very professional. He’s a student of the game. He’s been at it a long time, so he knows how to prepare and how to conduct himself, especially as it relates to Cutler. McCown continues to defer to Cutler, saying he’s just keeping it warm while Cutler is getting healthy. But now with the win Monday night, the Bears are 7-6, they’re tied for first place, and it’s a three-game sprint to the finish here. The Bears are fourth in the NFL in yards per play, seventh in yards per carry, seventh in yards per pass and now they could have to change quarterbacks here. It’s sort of a dilemma that they’ve worked themselves into that if Cutler comes back this week, they will be making a change at the most important position when things are running fairly smoothly. As far as Cutler’s injury goes, we’ll find out on Wednesday morning whether he is going to practice, and Marc Trestman will talk to us. Probably we’ll get some clarity. But Jay hasn’t played since Nov. 10. It’s a really interesting dynamic. Throw in the fact that his contract is up at the end of this year, and it’s got the makings of such a juicy situation.”
Q: Do you think Cutler will play Sunday against the Browns?
A: “I’ve kind of gone back and forth on this and now to the point where I think he won’t, but Jay last month characterized the Cleveland game as a worst-case scenario for his return. So he seemed convinced that he would be back, and he did return to practice and quarterbacked the scout team last week. So that was a step forward for him. I think the Bears at this point can afford to be extremely cautious, even slow, with Cutler’s return, but Marc Trestman and other people in the organization, including Josh McCown, insist that as soon as Jay is cleared by the doctors that he is the starter and everybody’s behind that.”
Q: Do you think Cutler will be back with the Bears next season?
A: “Yeah, I do. I see McCown’s strong play as giving the Bears some leverage, so the better he plays and the more he sustains a high level of play, I think my level of surprise if Cutler doesn’t come back is sort of proportionately decreasing. But ultimately, McCown is 34. He’ll be 35 next year. You don’t know how his body would hold up as a full-time starter over the entire season, and Cutler has got the physical talent to play at a high level and be a consistent solution for the Bears for a longer period of time than McCown. Cutler is 30 right now. The key is the franchise tag for quarterbacks is going to be about $16 million, and the Bears are reluctant to have Cutler play under the franchise tag because that entire $16 million goes toward the 2014 salary cap, and they have major problems on defense right now. They’re at 32nd in total rushing yards allowed, 32nd in yards per carry and 23rd in yards per pass, overall, 30th in yards per play. So they’ve got an aging defense and a front seven that because of injuries and underachievement could be among the worse in pro football, and they might need every bit of their salary-cap resources to fix problems on that defense. If for some reason, Jay Cutler’s camp thinks that he’s going to get $16 million on the open market and that’s the number they’re willing to go after and they’re willing to leave the Bears to go get that number, then I think the Bears at least could say they see a plan B forming in Josh McCown as a placeholder starter and the option to draft a quarterback either next year in the mid rounds — because I think they’d have to spend their higher picks on the defensive side of the ball — and then maybe even if that doesn’t work out, you could still pick a high-round quarterback in 2015 and sort of look at the bigger picture that way.”
Q: The Bears will come off a short week because of the Monday night game and they’ll be on the road. Aside from that, is there something they should be concerned about when they face the Browns?
A: “Yeah, for sure. The Bears have already lost three games to last-place teams in the NFC. They’ve lost on the road to the Washington Redskins, St. Louis Rams and Minnesota Vikings, so there’s no game on the schedule that you can comfortably say they’re going to win, and it’s because this defense has been so bad against the run. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, they tied an NFL record Monday night by allowing a 100-yard rusher for the sixth consecutive game. So it just kind of gives you an idea about how their run defense has been, and it doesn’t take Adrian Peterson to do it. Adrian Peterson ran for 200 yards against them last week, but the week before that against the Rams, they were gashed by Benny Cunningham, who’s an undrafted rookie, and Zac Stacy, who’s a fifth-round rookie. Add in Tavon Austin’s counter end around, and it was 261 rushing yards by three rookies. The Bears have such a problem up front basically because their front seven starts with injuries. They lost Pro Bowl tackle Henry Melton for the season in Week 3 to an ACL. A couple games later against the Saints, his replacement, Nate Collins, also suffered a season-ending ACL injury. Since then, they have just been trying to patch things together on the interior of the line. Then you have Julius Peppers on the edge who has not duplicated the Pro Bowl form of last year. He’s now 33 and has admitted that his body does not always do what his mind wants it to do. So he will have games where he disappears. He’s had games this season where he has not recorded a statistic. I think he had his best game of the year two weeks ago against the Vikings, 2½ sacks and was really active in run defense. Monday night, he was a little bit quieter. It really does seem like a week-to-week proposition with him right now. So if Peppers is up and plays well, it’s a very big boost for the defensive line because the defensive line really needs him with all the shuffling they’ve done inside. In early November, the Bears signed Jay Ratliff, who was a four-time Pro Bowler with the Cowboys, and Ratliff had a falling out with Dallas due to a groin injury that sounded like his camp and the Cowboys disagreed on the severity of and the nature of. They Cowboys ended up releasing him and the Bears took a flier on him because their line was just so decimated that it was a low-risk signing. And Ratliff came back in the Vikings game two weeks ago, and he started Monday night and actually had a sack. So if they can get something out of Ratliff the last three games, I think anything will help over what it has been. A huge piece of news that we’re watching leading into this game is the status of Lance Briggs. Briggs fractured his left shoulder in a game against Washington on Oct. 20 and he sounded optimistic after Monday night’s game that he’s going to practice this week and play. If that’s the case, he would replace rookie fourth-round linebacker Khaseem Greene in the starting lineup. You’re replacing a fourth-round rookie with a veteran who’s the best tackler on the team who’s been to seven Pro Bowls. In terms of recognition and calling signals and lining guys up — that’s Briggs’ responsibility as well — that would be a huge boost to the defense. More so than Cutler coming back would affect the offense, Briggs’ return I think is going to affect the defense.”