Josh McCown or Josh McClown?

You can't tell in this picture, but Josh McCown is a dead ringer for Ivan Drago. Seriously. Google image search it.

As disappointed as Kristin Cavallari may be about Jay Cutler’s groin injury, I doubt her frustration could compare to what fantasy owners felt when the Bears quarterback went down just before the half of their Week 7 game with the Redskins. And with another significant injury occurring later that night to Reggie Wayne, the cries of the faux football community were so loud that nobody noticed Josh McCown and his 14 for 20, 204-yard, one-touchdown day. And by nobody, I mean nobody but me. Why me? Because I am awesome, you guys.

McCown on Film

Before I hopped into stats, metrics, and scouting reports, I sat down and watched McCown’s two 2011 starts for Chicago. The first thing I noticed was how hungry I was, so I made some popcorn. The second thing I noticed was how similar his playing style is to Cutler’s, including their better than expected athleticism (McCown displayed this on a nice 28-yard scamper against Minnesota in Week 17). The Sam Houston State product also shows plus arm strength, even if he does lack the elite velocity of Cutler. In fact, the similarities continue right down to the same baffling tendency to make the occasional awful decision. McCown forced fewer balls than Cutler, but he also played a much more conservative, dialed back offense presumably designed to account for his back-up quarterbackness.

After this trip down memory lane, I queued up the second half of the Bears’ Week 7 debacle against the Redskins. McCown showed nearly all the same attributes as his two game audition two years prior. The one thing that changed? Among his 26 dropbacks, I didn’t give a single negative mark for throwing into coverage or displaying poor accuracy. Despite being under pressure a number of times, McCown took but a single sack, often moving up in the pocket, standing tall, and getting rid of the ball in the face of an impending hit. He showed no signs of panic or happy feet and didn’t attempt to force the ball at any point.

Operating out of the shotgun on 92 percent of pass plays, McCown looked very much like a competent NFL backup capable of sustaining the fantasy value of Chicago’s four start-worthy skill players. (Note that the Bears run shotgun on pass plays more than 70 percent of the time.) Encouragingly, he checked down to a running back only twice, with both occurring when Washington was in a prevent style defense on the last possession of the game. Among the 23 passes McCown threw (including plays nullified by penalty), they traveled an average of 9.3 yards in the air, with nine going 13 or more yards downfield. All of this bodes very well for Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.

Numbers are Fun

The main weapons in Chicago (Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett, Marshall, and Jeffery) fare well in our net expected points (NEP) metrics. NEP is a measure of how a player contributes to the real life score of their team. The higher the NEP per pass, target, or rushing attempt, the more efficient a player is on a per play basis.

Chicago Bears Skill Player NEP Ranks

PlayerRankQualifying Players
Matt Forte641
Brandon Marshall3378
Alshon Jeffery3478
Martellus Bennett1134

Please note that running back ranks are among those with at least 50 carries, wide receiver ranks are among those with at least 30 targets, and tight end ranks are among those with at least 20 targets.

The receivers' NEP ranks are good, but don’t exactly jump off the page. Fortunately, Marshall and Jeffery make up for their non-elite efficiency in other ways. Marshall is 11th in the NFL in targets per game at 9.7 and Jeffery has averaged 1.26 fantasy points per game on the ground, having at least one attempt in four of seven games. Jeffery has also seen a greater level of involvement in the pass game the last month, posting a 20/457/2 line the last four games (plus an additional 58 yards rushing on four carries).

Opportunity Knocks

From an opportunity standpoint, there is every reason to expect Forte to continue at his current pace. Going back to the game against Washington, the play calling split with McCown at the helm (1.62 passes per rush) was right on par with Chicago’s season numbers (1.54). Coach Marc Trestman is a system guy of sorts, so regardless of who is under center, I expect him to call plays roughly the same way. If that holds up, as it did during the second half of the Redskins game, Marshall, Jeffery, and Bennett should see a similar number of targets to their 2013 averages.

Target Distribution

PlayerTargets Per Game2nd Half Targets, Week 7
Matt Forte6.03
Brandon Marshall9.77
Alshon Jeffery8.14
Martellus Bennett6.71

It bears mentioning that Jeffery had an additional two targets on plays called back due to penalty.

What to Expect During Cutler’s Absence

Will Josh McCown pick up where Cutler left off? Despite the encouraging results in Week 7, the roughly similar skill set, and the Trestman offense, it is hard to imagine that will be the case. The fact remains that McCown at his best has never been anything more than a serviceable backup. But at the same time, this offense is designed to make life easy on the quarterback and he has never had weapons even close to what they harbor in the Windy City.

numberFire has McCown as the 19th-rated passer this week, but only projects 18 passing attempts and 12.16 points (a rate of .667 points per attempt). Because our metrics are purely mathematical, they don’t always adjust the volume perfectly in instances such as this. So let’s take Cutler’s 31.3 attempt per game average and do a bit of extrapolation. After some quick math, we end up with 20.88 points (.667*31.3), which would make McCown our number four quarterback for the week. While that seems unreasonable, in this offense it is not out of the question. Even if we find a much more probable outcome somewhere in the middle, it should be enough to keep the Chicago skill players productive.

Another quick look at our rankings for Week 9 show Forte as the number two running back, Marshall and Jeffery as the number four and 25 receivers, respectively, and Bennett as the ninth-best tight end. Jeffery is the only player we really expect to dip much, and with his top-10 upside, is still imminently playable. I think these rankings are a solid representation of what we can expect as long as Cutler is out of action. And with a little luck, and perhaps a visit from the Groin Fairy (no idea what that means), hopefully that won’t be for long.