Bears should ride the hot hand

CHICAGO -- If Jay Cutler is healthy this week, the Chicago Bears have a real quarterback quandary on their hands.

Whom do they start in a must-win game at Cleveland: Josh McCown or Hurricane McCown?

Sorry, sorry. That's just an old Saturday Night Live "Super Fans" joke in honor of Mike Ditka's jersey finally getting retired Monday night.

After the first half of a surprisingly one-sided 45-28 victory over Dallas, Da Coach praised "McNown."

That means he's the real deal, gang.

But every joke has a hint of truth.

The answer, of course, is ... not that simple.

Let's be clear. There is no wavering in my belief that the Bears should sign Cutler to a long-term deal after the season. His injury history is concerning -- though given it's the NFL, not surprising -- but Cutler seemed to be taking well to Marc Trestman's offense before he went down with concurrent groin and ankle injuries.

In a city with an annual quarterback problem, there's nothing wrong with having two good ones. Your backup doesn't have to be a Dumpster fire with a wristband. That doesn't make Cutler expendable.

But it's a fun argument, isn't it?

General manager Phil Emery needed just two offseasons to build a potent offense around a maturing Cutler. But he did it with a purpose, and it wasn't starting over with a 34-year-old McCown as a short-term replacement for whatever wunderkind they can find in the draft.

It was properly using his best asset, a rocket-armed, albeit erratic, football savant who is a whiz in the classroom and unfortunately for him, a dunce sometimes in front of the media.

It's all about building for the now while not giving up the future.

And for as efficient and heady as McCown has been in his stint as Cutler's replacement, there's no reason to believe Cutler wouldn't be better.

But there is a very legitimate question about whether McCown should ride out the rest of the regular season, which consists now of just three must-win games, as the starter.

Yes, even if Cutler is "healthy." Because while McCown isn't the future of the Bears, he is the present.

The reason is time. The Bears are almost out of it, and McCown is the hot hand.

I don't live in fantasyland. That isn't how things work in the NFL. The starter is the starter, and that's Cutler. But McCown has proved to be a perfect replacement, the proto-backup.

The Bears are technically tied with Detroit at 7-6 atop the NFC North, but the Lions have a tiebreaker. The Bears have to run the table -- at Cleveland, at Philadelphia and home against the still-living Green Bay Packers (6-6-1) -- to have a chance at the playoffs.

The Bears defense is loathsome. Jim Brown himself could run for 150 yards next week against it in Cleveland. Why so few yards? Well, he's 77.

That means the offense has to carry the team.

"We got no margin for error," cornerback Tim Jennings said. "None."

The Bears players have praised McCown sincerely, with deep appreciation of skills, though in moderation with respect to Cutler. They talk about him fitting into the system and using the team's abundance of riches in receiving, coaching and even blocking.

McCown, perhaps the nicest quarterback in football, wants no part of this debate, calling it "completely reasonable" that he goes back to the bench despite for 1,543 yards in his five starts (1,809 total).

Yes, despite his 13-1 touchdown-interception ratio. Despite three straight 300-yard games, which has never happened in Bears history.

Despite his last start, a masterpiece: 27-for-36 (that's 75 percent) for 348 yards, four passing touchdowns and one brave leaping rushing touchdown.

He's lucky enough to have a dynamic running back in Matt Forte, a capable offensive line, the best quarterbacks coach in football in Marc Trestman, and most importantly, the best 1-2 receiving punch in football in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. I'm predicting a wave of children named Alshon in Chicagoland.

"That's a pretty good offense," Ditka said after the first half. "McNown [sic] is playing as good as you can imagine. What Marc is doing with this offense is so imaginative and it's so good. It's so talented. He's got great receivers. He's using everybody."

And they are playing off McCown, who took the team's red zone woes into his own hands by jumping into a Cowboys defender for a helicopter-style rushing touchdown.

"We have had our issues down there the last two weeks, and I just wanted to make sure we scored and that is what it was all about," he said.

The McCown lovefest has been going on since he started, and won, in Green Bay. That's something Cutler hasn't been able to do.

The overall theme of his latest postgame news conference was veering close to: "How can we get you to say you should start over Cutler?"

"I'm the backup, Jay's our starter," McCown said Monday night. "When Jay is healthy, Jay should be the starting quarterback. That's really it. I don't go out here going, 'You know what, if I do this now I'll be the starter.' That's not my mindset. I've told you guys that. My mindset is to serve this team as the backup quarterback as best I can and play efficient football and winning football in this situation to keep us in contention. So, whenever he takes back over, we're in position to make a playoff run."

Trestman hasn't wavered from that message, either, obviously. If he did, we'd have a full-scale public relations disaster.

"There's no change in the plan," he said. "We'll see where Jay is this week. He'll have to be released by the doctors. When Jay's ready to play, he'll being playing."

Of course, the Bears have a say in that. But given that Trestman kept Cutler in against Detroit when he could barely move on his severely sprained ankle, it's fair to say he's telling the truth.

Not surprisingly, a few ex-Bears have chimed in in support of McCown. After the game, former special teams ace Brendan Ayanbadejo tweeted Cutler and McCown's stats and wrote, "I'm sticking with mccown." Rashied Davis, a former receiver for the Bears, tweeted, in response to a reporter saying everyone is behind Cutler: "all lies! I can say it but they can't! McCown = 13-1 td/int deserves to start."

Of course, as we know, Cutler isn't the most popular person in the NFL. McCown is not only a great guy, but a great story. Every NFL player loves an underdog.

I predict that Cutler will start again this season if he's healthy, which isn't a scoop. As much as he loves McCown, this is his team. And the Bears will let him, because that's how the NFL works.

Here's the good news: Either way, the Bears are in good hands under center.

I can't believe it either.