When Brian Hoyer signed on with the Bears last offseason, he came in with the full knowledge that he was the understudy to quarterback Jay Cutler. He may still be, but leading the Bears (1-3) back from the abyss with a 17-14 win over the Detroit Lions vaulted Hoyer into some conversations that a couple of months ago may have seemed beyond unlikely.
Against the Lions (1-3) Hoyer completed 28 of 36 passes for 302 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 120.1, the second-highest in his career. He ran his string of 2016 passes without an interception to 97 and in the process played his way into a problem coaches typically crave: being forced to choose between two good players for a position.
Indeed, Cutler-or-Hoyer may be the ultimate embodiment of what GM Ryan Pace and coach John Fox sought this past offseason when they built competition at myriad positions. What Fox needed was a leader to pick up the flag and order, “Follow me!” and Hoyer did that against the Lions.
Cutler’s future in Chicago is problematic, whether this week, this season or whenever. And that was open to question even before Hoyer demonstrated that the Bears may have the second coming of Josh McCown sitting on their depth chart.
Rumors started even during Sunday’s game that Cutler was the object of trade talks between the Bears and Miami Dolphins, who have a quarterback problem of their own but who also have Adam Gase as head coach. That would be the same Adam Gase who brought out the best in Cutler last season before the Dolphins hired him away and who lobbied hardest to stay with Cutler in the 2015 offseason.
CSNChicago.com confirmed later Sunday that nothing of the sort was in the works. But the speed with which the chatter arose was suggestive of how fluid the situation is perceived to be.
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Fox did not dismiss the possibility of Hoyer winning and keeping the starting job last week when he said, regarding whether Cutler coming back from his thumb injury was a given to remain the starter, that there are no givens for a team in the Bears’ situation.
Fox essentially passed on the opportunity to end the discussion. Again, instead of stating that Cutler would start when healthy, Fox left the door open for Hoyer: “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” before opting to enjoy the moment of just his second win in Soldier Field as Bears coach.
And perhaps that decision already has been made, considering that few NFL coaches start into a week with any huge unknowns, particularly at one of the single most important positions in sports.
A quarterback question does have some chance of creating discord in locker rooms. Cutler was voted a co-captain by teammates and he has earned the respect of players. But Fox and coordinator Dowell Loggains will not be making the decision based on who likes Cutler vs. who likes Hoyer.
A mistaken notion is that players can’t lose their jobs because of injury. They don’t; they lose their jobs because their replacement played better than they did, including at the quarterback position. Case studies: Tom Brady for Drew Bledsoe in 2001; Jim Miller for Shane Matthews, also in 2001.
The decision will not turn on purely on tangibles, like arm strength or other talents. It will come down to the “best chance to win” determination, and Sunday afternoon it was difficult to argue against Hoyer.
“He played great,” said wide receiver Eddie Royal, who caught all seven passes Hoyer threw him, for 111 yards and including one for 64 yards and another for four yards and the Bears’ first-quarter touchdown. “Being accurate with the ball, getting it out on time and doing all the little things, converting on third down. Those things are key and he did a great job today.”
“Those things” are absolutely the key, and those are things that make offensive lines’ jobs easier, running backs more effective, sustaining drives – all axiomatic to the style of football Fox demands.
The belief inside Halas Hall is that the Bears erred in not staying with McCown when he demonstrated in 2013 that he was better suited to run Marc Trestman’s offense than Cutler. But management dictated that Cutler resume starting when back from two injuries that season. The decision this time will rest solely with the coaches, who have no vested, ego or financial interest in who starts, beyond best-chance-to-win.
“He’s played great,” said tight end Zach Miller, who has caught 13 passes from Hoyer, three for touchdowns. “His communication is very good. He’s leading in the huddle, taking care of the football, getting the ball out. Everything he can do, he’s doing.”
Which is pretty much what teams like players to feel about their starting quarterback.