ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter dropped a stunner Wednesday night when he reported the Chicago Bears' plan to bench $126.7 million quarterback Jay Cutler in favor of backup Jimmy Clausen on Sunday when the club hosts the Detroit Lions at Soldier Field.
The situation brings to mind one that transpired in 2008 in Jacksonville, Florida, when former head coach Jack Del Rio made the decision to bench and eventually cut former No. 7 overall pick Byron Leftwich in favor of David Garrard.
When Del Rio informed people inside the organization of the decision he’d long been wrestling with, the team’s assistants agreed -- at least publicly -- while folks on the personnel side, including former front-office boss James “Shack” Harris, vehemently disagreed. The situation became so heated it forced a meeting with then team owner Wayne Weaver involving Del Rio and those on the personnel side against the move.
Del Rio swayed Weaver to give him final say in that decision by making the argument that, ultimately, ownership holds the coach accountable whether the team is successful or not. So if Del Rio was going down, he wanted to do it with the man he preferred under center.
That’s not to say that’s exactly what’s going on behind closed doors at Halas Hall. But with questions concerning Marc Trestman’s job security, if he is going to go down in flames, he'd likely prefer to do so with a quarterback he knows will execute the system the way he asks. As opposed to someone doing his own thing, which is what Cutler has done for the better part of the season -- based on observations from NFL experts such as Trent Dilfer -- leading to serious struggles and the quarterback leading the league in turnovers (24).
Former Bears backup Josh McCown played within the confines of Trestman’s scheme last season, filling in for an injured Cutler and finishing with 13 touchdown passes and one interception while setting the single-season franchise record for passer rating (109.0). While it would be foolish to expect similar success from Clausen against the Lions on Sunday, what Trestman is likely counting on from the backup is for him to simply execute the offense the way he’s asked to, as opposed to freestyling and making the types of game-changing mistakes seen from Cutler.
It may be far-fetched to believe at this point that Trestman can save his job, but if he can find a way to defeat Detroit and the Lions’ vaunted defense with Clausen at the controls, the coach might be able to prove to ownership that he’s not the issue pulling down the team; that it was actually Cutler.
A quarterback whisperer if you will, Trestman made an admission Wednesday regarding Cutler that was telling.
Asked if he’d been able to coax the best from Cutler, Trestman admitted, “I think that’s evident I haven’t up to this point. Am I working on it? Yes. We’ve seen moments, but we haven’t done it on a consistent basis. I can’t hide from that.”
During a nationally televised loss Monday night to the New Orleans Saints, Cutler tossed three interceptions and generated a season-low passer rating of 55.8. He also produced a total QBR of 6.8 against the Saints, which registered as his second-worst performance of the season in that category (6.0 QBR in Week 10).
The highest-paid offensive player in the NFL this season, Cutler has averaged a turnover every 33.3 snaps, which ranks as third worst among all qualified players in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Trestman doesn’t need Clausen to flash Cutler’s immense physical skills: that rifle arm, that sneaky mobility. The coach just needs Clausen to execute within the system the way McCown did in 2013, and the way the team believed Cutler would when the club signed him last January to a seven-year contract extension.
It’s unlikely starting Clausen will save Trestman’s job. But at the very least, it allows him to go down his way as opposed to being forced to play a quarterback who has demonstrated time and time again a maddening inability to lead the team and consistently execute the scheme.