Josh McCown made a good impression as a backup quarterback in his one season with the Lions in 2006, but nothing to compare with what he did for the Bears in their big victory over the Packers on Monday night.
With the national spotlight blazing, McCown was steady throughout and made big plays to lead the Bears to a 27-20 victory at Lambeau Field. He passed for 272 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.
With Jay Cutler recovering from a severe groin injury, most signs point to McCown starting for the second straight week against the Lions at Soldier Field on Sunday in a game that is more important than most midseason matchups.
There is no soft-pedaling that the race is on in the NFC North. It’s an eight-week sprint to the finish, with the Lions, Bears and Packers beginning the second half of the season in a three-way tie for first with 5-3 records.
Teams are fighting to gain an edge, and no advantage is bigger than winning a head-to-head game. The pressure falls on everyone – from the stars, to the role players to backups like McCown who’ve been elevated into starting jobs.
Lions coach Jim Schwartz departed from his normal conservative approach when asked how his players have embraced being in a playoff battle, and the importance of Sunday’s game.
“This is an NFC North game,” Schwartz said Wednesday. “There are three teams tied at the top. Not only would that be a win for us, it puts a loss on the Bears.
“I’m famous for saying I don’t really care about things that aren’t tiebreakers. Well, guess what? Division record is a tiebreaker. Those are all important things for us. We want our players to feel that urgency. We can’t control anything other than the game we play this week.”
For McCown, handling the pressure of leading a team in a playoff race – at least until Cutler returns -- is a situation he has not faced before in a career now in its 12th season.
He signed with the Lions in 2006 after four seasons with the Cardinals and was beaten out by Jon Kitna for the starting job.
McCown never threw a pass in ‘06, but he made an impression as an all-around athlete. In pickup basketball games, he was a leaper who could dunk with ease. On the football field, the Lions used him sparingly at wide receiver when injuries struck the position.
“I always liked Josh’s game,” said center
“He was athletic. He was one of the hardest workers. He’s a good player. One thing about a competitor – and he’s a talented competitor -- when the odds are stacked against them, they’re going to shine the best.”
McCown hit the QB merry-go-round after 2006. In 2007, he was traded to the Raiders, where he started nine games. He spent the next two seasons in Carolina and has been in Chicago since 2011. He played in three games in 2011, starting two, but did not play a game in 2012.
Cutler went out early in a Game 6 loss at Washington, and McCown performed well. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 204 yards and a TD and did not have a pick.
The Bears obviously would prefer to have Cutler available, but McCown instilled confidence in his teammates with the way he’d prepared since coming to Chicago.
“We knew what we had in Josh,” Bears receiver Brandon Marshall said in a conference-call interview. “He doesn’t have the ‘C’ on his chest, but he’s a captain on this team, one of our leaders.”
The biggest improvement has been protecting the quarterback. The Bears have given up 12 sacks. Last year they gave up 27 in the first eight games.
Newcomer: The Bears have been hit hard by injuries on defense. They’re without two veteran Pro Bowlers. Defensive tackle Henry Melton went out for the year with a knee injury in a loss to the Lions in Game 4. Linebacker Lance Briggs is out with a shoulder injury sustained in the Washington game.
Defensive tackle Jay Ratliff was signed earlier in the week after being cut by the Cowboys. Don’t expect to see him Sunday, though.
“I wouldn’t expect him this weekend, and it will be day-to-day and see how it goes.,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said in his conference-call interview with the Detroit media Wednesday.
How the Bears got to 5-3:
They’ve started and ended the first half with dramatic victories. A 19-yard TD pass from Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall midway through the fourth quarter gave them a 24-21 win over the Bengals in the opener. Monday night at Lambeau, they won the battle of the backup QBs – Josh McCown over Seneca Wallace – to beat the Packers, 27-20.
Beating the Bengals helped the Packers to a 3-0 start. A 16-yard TD pass to tight end Martellus Bennett with 10 seconds left beat the Vikings 31-30 in Game 2, and the Bears followed that with a win at Pittsburgh the next week.
Chicago’s most disappointing loss: 45-41 at Washington in Game 7 on a TD in the last minute.
Stats Pack: Offense
Passing: Jay Cutler 146-225 (64.9 pct.), 1,658 yds., 12 TD, 7 Int., 10 sacks, 91.7 rating; Josh McCown 36-61 (59 pct.), 476 yds., 3 TD, 0 Int., 2 sacks, 100.2 rating.
Rushing: Matt Forte 149-658, 4.7 avg., 7 TD; Cutler 18-92, 5.1 ave.; Alshon Jeffery 7-89, 12.7 ave.; Michael Bush, 31-69, 2.2 ave., 1 TD.
Receptions: Brandon Marshall 53-647, 12.2 ave., 6 TD; Jeffery 38-621, 16.3 ave., 3 TD; Martellus Bennett, 36-392, 10.9 ave., 4 TD; Forte 40-316, 7.9 ave.
Stats Pack: Defense
Sacks (team total 14): Shea McClellin 3.5; Julius Peppers, Corey Wooton, D.J. Williams, Lance Briggs 2 each.
Tackles, solo, asst.: Lance Briggs 47-17-64; Major Wright 44-17-61; James Anderson 39-8-47; Chris Conte 34-7-41; Charles Tillman 27-9-36; Tim Jennings 24-5-29.
Tackles for loss (team total 35): Briggs 8, Corry Wooton 5, James Anderson, 4, Tillman, D.J. Williams, Shea McClellin 3 each.
Interceptions (team total 11): Tillman, Jennings 3 each; Wright 2.
Pass breakups (team total 35): Briggs, Jennings 8 each; Tillman 5; Anderson, Williams, Zach Bowman 3 each.
Stats Pack: Special Teams
Returns: KOR -- Devin Hester 25, 28.2 ave., 80 long; Punts -- Hester 10, 14.3 ave., 81 long, 1 TD.
Kicking: FG Robbie Gould, 14-58, long made 58 yards; PAT 24-25.
Punts: Adam Podlesh34, 43.4 gross ave., 39.0 net, 1 blocked, 1 touchback, 15 inside 20.