Are the Bears Better With Josh McCown?

Josh McCown is playing at a high level for the Bears. Will this impact Jay Cutler's future?

There’s this. And this. And this and this and this.

Everywhere you look, someone’s making fun of or blaming Jay Cutler. The Robbie Gould missed field goal yesterday? That was Cutler’s fault. Alabama’s loss on a field goal return? Blame Cutler.

That’s not my intention here. I’ll be the first one to defend Smokin’ Jay, as logic shows me that he’s not nearly as repulsive as a lot of people make him out to be. Cutler can ball, and despite idiotic speculation, he is tough as nails.

But there’s something going on in Chicago that’s feeding the anti-Cutler clan. And that something is backup quarterback and perennial nobody, Josh McCown.

Chicago’s 4-2 Start

Entering the season, many folks were excited about Cutler’s potential under new head coach Marc Trestman. As I pointed out prior to the start of the year, Trestman did wonders to the Raiders offense back in 2002, and while Cutler hadn’t performed like quarterback Rich Gannon throughout his career, it only made sense to believe there’d be a spike in production from him in 2013.

The start of Cutler’s season was a good one, as he was performing at a higher level than we’d ever seen from him in a while. But he went down with a groin injury at the beginning of the second quarter against Washington in Week 7, and backup Josh McCown stepped in.

Entering that game, Cutler and the Bears were 4-2 despite a defense that kept seeing injuries to key players. From an offensive standpoint, Chicago was better than half of the league according to our Adjusted Net Expected Points metrics. You can see their change from week to week – up until that game – below.

WeekAdj. NEPAdj. NEP RankAdj. PNEPAdj. PNEP Rank

The numbers above reflect both Adjusted Net Expected Points per Play and Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points per Pass. In essence, these figures show how many points the Bears were adding to their scoring output with each play, both through the air and in total. The “adjusted” piece to this metric is important, as it tells us that the numbers have been fixed for strength of opponent.

Also, keep in mind that we're looking at how the team has performed on a per play basis, as game flow for the Bears has changed dramatically through the season due to their weakened defensive unit.

Under Cutler over the first six weeks of the year, the Bears were an above average offensive unit, and one that nearly ranked in the top 10 via the pass. That’s a big deal for them, as Chicago finished as the 25th-, 27th- and 29th-ranked passing offense under this same metric over the last three seasons.

Cutler’s Passing NEP through these contests sat at 21.03, a number that paced him for his second-best season as an NFL quarterback. His NEP score was better than all but seven relevant passers, too.

But while some wanted to praise Cutler for his solid play, others were convinced that this was simply the product of having Marc Trestman’s offensive mind as head coach. That theory would be tested with Josh McCown under center.

The Bears With McCown

Because McCown played the majority of the game against the Redskins, I’ll include those numbers in the chart below. If you’re of the belief that it’s a skewed performance, then simply ignore it.

WeekAdj. NEPAdj. NEP RankAdj. PNEPAdj. PNEP Rank

Numbers don’t reflect the Week 13 game against Minnesota.

Remember, the Week 10 contest against Detroit saw both Bears’ quarterbacks. Cutler threw 40 times, while McCown tossed it only 9 times. However, Cutler’s individual NEP increased by just 2.94 points in that game, while McCown saw a 5.32 NEP jump. Despite throwing less than a quarter of the passes Cutler threw, McCown was much more efficient. Part of this was how the game moved, but it should be noted nonetheless.

Overall, the Bears haven’t really missed a beat without Cutler offensively, and they’ve actually increased their Adjusted Passing NEP per Pass numbers a bit with McCown under center. Though the Bears are 2-3 when McCown throws the majority of passes for the team, they’ve also surrendered 45, 42 and 23 points in those three losses.

Yesterday, McCown and company lost a game where he threw for 355 yards, no interceptions and two scores. Though it was against one of the league’s-worst secondaries, the Bears adjusted offensive scores won’t be getting any worse when the week concludes tonight.

And entering the Week 13 tilt, McCown had a Passing NEP total of 42.06, one that was better than Tom Brady’s (thanks to Brady’s slow start) and just two points worse than Tony Romo’s.

But most importantly, McCown’s Passing Net Expected Points score was 28.83 points better than Jay Cutler’s going into the Vikings game this week. The backup has added .22 more points per pass for the Bears offensive output when compared to the typical starter (.27 vs. .05), and 54.55% of McCown's passes have been deemed successful. Cutler's Success Rate sits at 47.29%. In other words, for every 100 passes, seven more of them contribute positively to the team's NEP with McCown under center than when Cutler is.

Marc Trestman: Quarterback Whisperer

The numbers tell us that McCown is not just playing better than Cutler on an individual level, but when adjusted for strength of schedule, the Bears offense is actually performing at a higher level than it did with Cutler as well.

However, it's a little difficult to believe that a 34-year-old quarterback with such a resume could all of a sudden be this passing monster. I mean, over the course of his career, Josh McCown's been anything but efficient. In fact, in every season he's dropped back to pass, he's never accumulated a positive Passing Net Expected Points total. Never. His best season was in 2011, where he threw 55 passes for a -4.99 Passing NEP. On the other side of the spectrum, his 2004 season saw a -43.12 Passing NEP on 408 pass attempts. Not only was it his worst season, but it was the only season of his career where he threw more than 270 passes.

Josh McCown has never made a positive impact for a team he's played on. I'm sure he's a really nice guy and gets along with his teammates, but on a football field, he's been brutal.

That's why, to me, this is clearly a product of a system than it is the individual quarterback. It's Marc Trestman, the quarterback whisperer.

The Bears Moving Forward

I don't want to take anything away from McCown, who has been, in context, rather brilliant. He's performing at a high level, and even though he's never done anything even remotely close to this efficiency-wise, he deserves all the credit in the world for keeping pace with one of the higher-profiled passers in the league.

And McCown's solid play has now put the Bears in a very interesting situation. Jay Cutler is in the final year of his contract, and given the fact that a player of Josh McCown's historic capability is performing at such a high level under Trestman, the Bears may see less of a need to hold onto Cutler. It's not as though Cutler's been able to stay healthy either - he hasn't played a full season since 2009.

This isn't to say that Josh McCown will be the Bears quarterback next season, and it certainly doesn't mean that he's the quarterback of this team's future. It does, however, shed light to Marc Trestman's efficient offense and the fact that a specific quarterback playing in it may mean less to its overall success.

It will certainly be a situation to monitor. For now, sit back and just enjoy what Trestman's doing in Chicago. They've faced unfortunate injuries defensively, but on offense, the Bears have been one of the most underrated aspects of this crazy 2013 NFL season.