Josh McCown: The Unwanted Quarterback in Demand
Coming off an impressive half season as the Chicago Bears’ starting quarterback in 2013, Josh McCown was a highly demanded free agent quarterback the following offseason. Coming off an awful 11 games as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ starting quarterback in 2014, Josh McCown is still a highly demanded free agent quarterback.
In 2013, McCown spent half the season as the second most efficient quarterback in terms of our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP indicates how well above or below expectation a player is performing and is based on the context (e.g. down-and-distance, score, time on the clock) of what a league-average player would be expected to produce.
In 2013, McCown posted a 0.35 Passing NEP per drop back. That ranked behind only Peyton Manning -- in his record-breaking year -- at 0.41. Despite being in his age-34 season and never before having a positive Passing NEP per drop back in any other season of his career, McCown was the top quarterback on the open market.
Cashing in on the Outlier
Teams desperate for a quarterback appeared unconcerned about how much of an outlier McCown’s half season of 2013 was, and that type of disregard could be a hint as to why those teams were desperate for a quarterback in the first place. It would be one thing if McCown had shown the ability to be even an average starter earlier in his career, but that was very much not the case.
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Before 2013, McCown’s most positive contributions to a professional football team came in 2010 when he was the season’s highest rated passer in the United Football League, quarterbacking the Hartford Colonials. His best NFL contributions came in 2006, 2008, and 2012 when he did not attempt a pass. In all other seasons, McCown cost his team at least 0.03 Passing NEP each time he dropped back to pass.
Some things get better with age, but quarterbacks are rarely fine wine. Some players such as Tom Brady can adjust their games as they get older -- compensating for diminishing arm strength and deep accuracy by relying on shorter, higher percentage passes -- but McCown wasn’t even taking that route. His 2013 was helped by throwing jump balls to tall receivers, 6’4” Alshon Jeffery, 6’4” Brandon Marshall, and 6’7” tight end Martellus Bennett.
Tampa Bay thought it could recreate that offense with 6’5” Vincent Jackson, 6’5” Mike Evans, and 6’6” tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and signed the quarterback to a two-year, $10 million contract. The 2014 Bucs offense looked less like a 2013 Bears redux and more like the Lovie Smith Bears offenses of the mid-2000’s led by Rex Grossman. The experiment did not go as planned, which led to McCown’s finishing as the fifth worst quarterback by Passing NEP, Mike Glennon’s starting five games for the Buccaneers, and McCown’s getting released at the end of the season.
Best of the Bunch?
If teams were really honest with themselves, none of them want to sign Josh McCown, but some teams have resigned themselves to a need to sign Josh McCown. Since being released, McCown has met with at least four teams -- the Bears, Bills, Browns and Jets -- and was one of the most talked about players at this year’s NFL Combine.
McCown is aided by two other things besides his half season of glory still sitting in enough coaches’ and executives’ heads to be in demand. McCown’s early release allows him to meet and sign with teams before free agency begins on March 10. This allows teams to get a handle on their quarterback situation -- or at least as much that can be handled when the quarterback situation involves Josh McCown -- before the thick of free agency and draft season begins. For a lot of these teams, having something now is the better alternative to having nothing.
The 2014 crop of free agent quarterbacks also does not offer offer a clear superior option to McCown. Other free agents include Brian Hoyer, Mark Sanchez, Ryan Mallett, and Jake Locker. While all finished with a Passing NEP better than McCown’s, none appear ready to serve as the long-term answer for any franchise. Hoyer could cost twice as much to be average (he ranked 25th of 43 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts in Passing NEP per drop back). Sanchez could be just a beneficiary of a Chip Kelly offense. Mallet played just two games before tearing a pectoral muscle, and Locker was one of four quarterbacks to finish 2014 with a lower Passing NEP per drop back than McCown.
The Quarterback Market
McCown’s market says more about the state of quarterbacks in general than about McCown himself. It’s why last offseason quarterbacks such as Andy Dalton and Alex Smith received long-term contracts to be okay. NFL teams are becoming more okay with okay at the quarterback position because without a set plan in place, the alternative is searching through a non-existent market and coming to a quarterback such as McCown.
Josh McCown will probably sign somewhere soon, and fans will be disappointed. Not much will be expected, and not much value will be returned. At this point, McCown has made himself marketable enough to figure into a quarterback competition on a bad team. He can be a placeholder while the team develops a young quarterback or decides which young quarterback should eventually be developed.
It’s not a sexy role, and it’s not going to lead to a lot of wins, but for some team in 2014, Josh McCown will serve a purpose. There are enough teams in the NFL desperate enough for a quarterback to create a strong market for that purpose.