Bears need more than caddie for Cutler

There are questions at backup quarterback and McCown not an answer

Nobody can tell much about a team based on the first minicamp practice of a coach's tenure held indoors five months before the season opener.

But one thing jumped out immediately after watching the Bears usher in the Marc Trestman era Tuesday at the Walter Payton Center — and it wasn't that Trestman got more exercise zipping around the field than bored specialist Devin Hester.

It was impossible not to notice how the Bears neglected the quarterback depth chart, which should make using one of their first three draft picks to supplement the position a higher priority. Backups Josh McCown and Matt Blanchard taking snaps after Jay Cutler screamed potential problem more than solution, if anybody could hear anything over the construction noise around Halas Hall.

A year after general manager Phil Emery paid backup veteran quarterback Jason Campbell $3.1 million to provide peace of mind, the Bears went on the cheap by re-signing McCown as their No. 2 for the veteran's minimum. That Campbell lost his only start against the 49ers didn't make it an unwise investment in quarterback insurance. Emery's plan was sound even if Campbell's execution always wasn't.

An NFL team that goes into any season without a trusted backup quarterback asks for trouble. Unless Emery signs a more proven veteran or drafts a possible successor to Cutler, the Bears are asking for trouble in 2013.

Nothing against McCown, who will be 34 in July, but he has played in six games over the last four seasons. Yet the Bears dangerously chose to preserve salary-cap space and put faith in those numbers instead of the ones posted by other more accomplished, albeit expensive, free-agent backups such as Ryan Fitzpatrick (Titans) or Matt Hasselbeck (Colts). How bad an option could Brady Quinn have been if Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who knows something about the most important position in sports, signed him?

At the end of training camp last summer the Bears considered McCown good enough to coach high school football in North Carolina and cut him. They welcomed McCown back in November after Cutler's concussion because of his acumen and ability to mesh with a franchise player with whom not everybody meshes. If Trestman is the quarterback whisperer, McCown is Cutler's designated caddie. Still, that is no reason to put McCown one play away from running the Bears offense. That is a reason to make McCown an assistant coach.

Trestman's offense indeed requires a high football IQ. After Tuesday's first installation phase, Trestman plans Wednesday to add another 100 plays. On Thursday, he might show players how to split the atom. So let the brainy backup, McCown, hold a clipboard but not the fate of the Bears in his hands if something happens to Cutler.

"The thing that I've gained an appreciation for is how deep (McCown's) influence is in this building — he's a glue guy,'' Emery said. "I'm more than confident that he can get on the field and help us win.''

The Bears have to think beyond employing a backup quarterback who can help win a game next season and seek someone Trestman can groom to help win the NFC North one day if Cutler isn't around, for whatever reason. Cutler has yet to prove he is indestructible or the quarterback of the Bears' future.

No guarantees exist that Cutler will return after playing out the final year of his deal. If the Bears believed without a doubt he was the long-term answer they already would have locked him up contractually. Suffice to say in his first practice under Trestman, Cutler was trying out more than just his new beard.

"We have to win games to sign those contracts,'' Cutler correctly answered when asked about Joe Flacco-like, nine-figure deals.

In case the Bears conclude Cutler can't, Emery must keep an open mind with the 20th pick of one of the more delightfully unpredictable NFL drafts in years.

What if USC's Matt Barkley falls? Everybody knows how willing Emery is to trade down as far as early in the second round, so what if Syracuse's Ryan Nassib remains on the board when the Bears finally are on the clock? Both Barkley and Nassib ran West Coast offenses in college. Both would give the Bears more reason to feel good about their quarterback depth than they currently can. Surely, Emery the scouting guru can unearth a quarterback no later than the fourth round to upgrade the position.

"Jay's contract status doesn't impact it (but) I'd like to draft a quarterback every year,'' Emery said. "If we could find the right quarterback, those are very valuable.''

To protect themselves better for now — and later — the Bears need Emery to keep looking on April 25.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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