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By Brad Biggs
, Chicago Tribune reporter 12:41 p.m. CDT, July 11, 2012 Second in a 14-part series leading up to the start of Bears training camp.
Phil Emery wasted little time ensuring he won't commit one of the recognized mistakes of predecessor Jerry Angelo last season when he signed Jason Campbell as the Bears' backup quarterback at the outset of free agency.
The Bears found themselves woefully undermanned last November when Jay Cutler went down with a broken right thumb, an injury that sidelined him for the final six games of the season. With a 7-3 record at the time, all reserve Caleb Hanie had to do was post a .500 record in six games and the franchise would have been playoff bound with Cutler possibly returning for postseason action.
But Hanie failed miserably and the Bears passed over 2011 fifth-round draft pick Nathan Enderle (released last month) to sign Josh McCown off the street as a stop-gap measure. McCown finally stopped a five-game losing streak in the season finale against the Vikings in Minnesota.
The hope is Campbell, who signed a one-year deal with a maximum value of $3.75 million, will not be needed. He's arguably one of the top 32 quarterbacks in the league but he lost a job when the Raiders paid a handsome price to trade for Carson Palmer in midseason.
By agreeing to a one-year deal, Campbell, 31, can explore free agency again in March and gauge if there is a starting opportunity elsewhere. Meanwhile, he should be ready to fill in if needed with a big arm and 70 career starts under his belt.
McCown is also back on a one-year deal for the minimum-salary benefit after he was a marked improvement over Hanie in the final two games. He's athletic and intelligent and has enough experience to handle the role, particularly as a No. 3.
It's telling that the Bears have three veterans on the roster at the position although McCown's spot isn't guaranteed.
With any good fortune, Cutler will prove to be durable again, something he has been throughout his career. The injury occurred on a freak play where he chased down a Chargers defender after an interception and landed awkwardly on the thumb. He is healed up and preparing for his fourth season with the Bears — one more than he spent with the Broncos — and expectations never have been higher. A peek ahead:
Cutler could achieve at least two significant Bears' passing records, but that's much more an indictment of the past than a sign he has racked up huge numbers with the franchise.
He enters the season sixth in attempts with 1,301 and needs to throw 459 passes to eclipse all-time leader Jim Harbaugh (1,759). Cutler is currently fifth with 779 completions and can pass Harbaugh for tops in that category with 246 . At some point in the first half of the 2013 season, he should pass Sid Luckman (14,686) on the career yardage list as he's 5,427 behind.
Again, this is all damning evidence of the franchise's inability to groom and succeed with passers. Sometimes you have to look at the numbers to recall just how woeful it has been.
Just as Emery moved quickly to find a proven No. 2 behind Cutler, he got Cutler the receiver with whom he has had most success in the NFL, trading for Brandon Marshall, who had worn out his welcome in Miami.
Seemingly everything is in place now for Cutler to take the next step to the elite level of quarterbacks. He's 19-8 in 27 regular-season starts for the club and was playing at a high level when he was injured, throwing eight touchdowns vs. three interceptions in his final six games.
Not only have the Bears added a bona fide No. 1 receiver in Marshall, they have paired up Cutler with quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, who he worked with during the successful start to his career with the Broncos. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice has revamped the playbook, adding more plays that should exploit Cutler's athleticism with rollouts and bootlegs. Gone are the seven-step drops and time-consuming routes downfield that were staples of Mike Martz's playbook.
In every way conceivable, the Bears have catered to Cutler's wishes as he can pretty much play for a new contract with his current deal expiring after the 2013 season. Heck, he even will be able to play offensive coordinator occasionally with audibles at the line of scrimmage.
He couldn't ask for more after rocky patches with his previous two coordinators. It's what Cutler does with this opportunity that will determine where he ultimately rates in the pantheon of passers.
At 29, Cutler no longer can be regarded as a young gun. That doesn't mean he doesn't have the capacity to improve. The needed help the club has given him should be a great aid. He has to utilize all of his targets and not be fixated on feeding the ball to Marshall.
Cutler has reduced his interceptions the past two seasons and there should be some natural concern that figure could rise if he gets too enamored with Marshall and the idea that if he just puts the ball close, the physical wideout will make a play for him. But no matter how you dissect it, the reunion of Cutler and Marshall should mean big things for what too often has been a punchless offense.
It remains to be seen what the Bears will do with four quarterbacks on the roster.
MattBlanchard, an undrafted free agent from Wisconsin-Whitewater, was impressive as an invite player in rookie minicamp and earned a contract. He throws a good looking ball and has ideal size. Without a young quarterback on the roster, it might make sense to see how he develops on the eight-man practice squad.
It's a little hard to imagine Blanchard pushing McCown off the team right now but anything is possible. Fourth quarterbacks don't get a lot of work in training camp so he will have to find a way to improve his game while observing. Glass half-full:
Tice's new playbook should lead to fewer hits on Cutler so he could make it through the season healthy and become the second Bears quarterback since 1965 to be selected to the Pro Bowl. That's right, Jim McMahon after the 1985 Super Bowl season is the only quarterback since Bill Wade in 1964 to represent the franchise in the all-star game. Glass half-empty:
Poor decision making has haunted Cutler in the past and was a prime culprit in 42 interceptions in 31 games in 2009-10. If Cutler isn't smart with the ball, his strong arm can lead him to trouble at times.
Disaster would be another injury, though, because while Campbell is the best backup the Bears have had in a long time, he wouldn't inspire confidence for a deep playoff run. Bottom line:
The Bears paid dearly in a trade for Cutler in 2009 after the six-year stint of former first-round pick Rex Grossman concluded. Grossman, of course, was selected out of Florida in 2003, an area that Emery was responsible for scouting. Now, Emery can watch Cutler take the franchise to the next level if he performs up to expectations. Coming Friday: Running backs and fullbacks. firstname.lastname@example.org