The Chicago Bears don’t want to use the franchise tag on quarterback Jay Cutler. With Josh McCown playing as well as he is, the Bears may be able to pull it off.
While a talent gap clearly exists between Cutler and McCown, a performance gap doesn’t. And if McCown can continue to play like he did Monday night against a talented playoff contender with a small margin for error in Chicago-style December elements, the Bears would have an extremely viable Plan B.
Which could eventually become Plan A, if the Bears win the NFC North under McCown.
With neither Cutler (who is 30) nor McCown (34) the long-term answer at the quarterback position, the best move for the Bears could be to keep McCown and have him groom a rookie drafted by Emery and coach Marc Trestman in 2014 or 2015.
Bears fans won’t be picky. With precious few (arguably no) franchise quarterbacks since Sid Luckman, the name on the back of the jersey won’t matter, as long as the guy throwing the passes is completing them. That’s a far easier proposition with guys like Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Martellus Bennett running the routes.
The situation could make Cutler more eager to return from his week-to-week high ankle sprain that at one point had his lower leg in a hard cast. It also could nudge the Bears toward applying the 100-percent rule to Cutler, prompting them to wink-nod the medical staff toward not concluding Cutler is able to play for the rest of the season.
Speaking of winks and nods, a few of both could be necessary when it comes to McCown. He signed a one-year deal in the offseason under the minimum salary benefit, which allowed the Bears to pay him $840,000 at a cap charge of only $580,000. The Bears can’t re-sign McCown until he becomes a free agent in March. Technically, they can’t even negotiate with McCown until he hits the market.
If McCown carries the Bears to the playoffs, Chicago may have to pay McCown more than they’d want to pay a guy to hold the spot and mentor a rookie.
That’d still be a lot less than the $60-plus million over three years that the franchise tag would generate for Cutler. Which would give the Bears plenty of money to spend on positions other than quarterback. Which would be in capable hands in the short term with McCown — and over the long haul with whomever Trestman and Emery regard as the best guy from the current crop (or the next crop) of rookies to run Trestman’s offense for the next decade.
If they make the right choice, Trestman and Emery become much more likely to be employed by the Bears for most or all of the next decade.