Jay Cutler must be healthy. The ankle and groin must have checked out. He worked out for the coaches and medical staff, and he must have passed the tests. Because on Thursday, Marc Trestman announced Cutler will start for the Chicago Bears in Week 15.
Josh McCown has brought strong play and a hot hand to the quarterback position in relief this season. But Cutler wasn't replaced because of poor performance; he was hurt, dealing first with a groin injury that kept him out from Week 7 through Week 9, then with a high ankle sprain that has sidelined him since Week 10.
Yet, many football-savvy, quarterback-hungry Chicago fans likely are dissatisfied with the decision, thanks to visions dancing through their heads of McCown torching Dallas on Monday. And I get that reaction. Cutler, who is eligible to become a free agent at the end of the season, rubs people the wrong way with his comments and his oft-dissected body language. McCown, meanwhile, has absolutely looked the part.
But don't get duped here. We're talking about a starting quarterback versus a backup quarterback.
Sure, Cutler is 4-4 with a 63 percent completion rate as a starter this season, while McCown, who is completing 66.8 percent of his passes, is 3-2. They've both thrown 13 touchdown passes, but McCown has just one pick to Cutler's eight. The Bears have had more explosive plays, both through the air and on the ground, with McCown under center. These are facts. And McCown should get a ton of credit. He's earned it as the ultimate backup, a good study and experienced athlete with a solid arm who boosts the quarterback room with his presence.
That said, there is a key word in that last sentence: McCown is the ultimate backup.
Please, let's stop comparing him to my friend and colleague Rich Gannon, who played for Trestman when he was the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator in Oakland from 2001 to 2003. The veteran Gannon, who had become the Raiders' starter in 1999, earned league MVP honors and took his team to the Super Bowl in 2002 at age 37, part of what ended up being a very-good-to-great NFL career. Some say Gannon was a late bloomer, but I would argue it was more about him not getting proper chances, thanks to previous foolish coaching decisions in Minnesota and Marty Schottenheimer picking Elvis Grbac in Kansas City.
I'm a McCown fan, but the 34-year-old has had opportunities to start before and didn't stick. He's the perfect fit in Trestman's offense as the No. 2 quarterback, having shown he's the guy you would truly want to be an injury away from the top spot.
But a healthy Cutler needs to start in Chicago -- now and in the future. He's the better player.
I have to acknowledge that Cutler is far from perfect. He's had injury issues over the past few years. His leadership skills have been questioned. But quarterbacks don't grow on trees; you can't just go out and pluck one. And while Cutler is not currently a top-10 signal-caller when it comes to stats, he absolutely is when it comes to talent.
I love Trestman. I campaigned for him to be an NFL head coach for years before he snagged this gig. He's a brilliant offensive mind and a leader of men. But we should remember that he rightly landed the Bears job for his ability to maximize Cutler. That was the sell, and he surely knows it.
Before Cutler's season was interrupted, Trestman was in the process of doing just that. Cutler's arm and increased savvy should give the Bears their best chance to win a Super Bowl and get the most out of receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery over the next few years -- provided they keep the quarterback.
Of course, Chicago is reportedly primed to let Cutler walk, with general manager Phil Emery indicating he wouldn't be so hot to use the franchise tag on him. But if the Bears don't keep Cutler, they'll regret it, as there are two types of teams in the NFL: those who have a big-time talent at quarterback and those who are searching for one.
When I asked one general manager this week about the Bears letting Cutler go, he said, "Hell no! He's a top-10 quarterback. You can't let that guy walk. They are talking like they might move on, but how could they?"
Another personnel director simply said, "Don't write the 'Sign Cutler' piece. We'd love him!"
Of course he would. Talent like Cutler's isn't exactly widely available.
Some scouts and analysts I respect believe the 2014 draft class is vastly overrated at quarterback. I don't buy the notion that the Bears should part ways with Cutler and spend money on defense; I believe they should sign Cutler, fill in the defensive gaps via free agency and the draft and let strong coordinator Mel Tucker do his job.
Is Cutler worth the money he'll likely command? According to past performance, not necessarily. But considering his potential moving forward -- with Trestman and these receivers -- I think he is.
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Chicago needs Cutler if it wants to compete and win in an NFC North that also has Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford. If they jettison Cutler, the Bears will always be chasing the Packers and Lions -- while Cutler will instantly help whichever quarterback-starved team he lands with, whether it's the Titans, Raiders, Jaguars or even the rival Vikings.
Trestman's guidance, wisdom, acumen and playbook are the best things to ever happen to Cutler. So with the news that he's starting against the Browns on Sunday, score one in the win column for sanity and logic.
I hope, for the sake of the Bears and their fans, that we can score another with a long-term deal this offseason.