The last seven games of the Bears' 2016 season represent the extended case study (barring injury) of one Matt Barkley, and no evaluation is conclusive until information is in. But on the basis of my favorite James Bond axiom — “once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action” — Barkley now having a book of business consisting of three games invites some conclusions, if only interim ones based on the limited sample size, particularly since the samples come from games in good weather, bad weather and indoors.
The issue, incidentally, is not whether Barkley is or even should be the Bears’ starting quarterback in 2017. The organization’s mantra last offseason was competition, and ideally general manager Ryan Pace secures someone better than Barkley, who could sign elsewhere but will need to win a job then, not now.
More than any statistical points of reference, the current Bears administration is placing a priority on fit, specifically how a quarterback works within the concept of complementary football, rather than simple points or yardage production. More is involved, and by those measures, Barkley’s three games have bordered on startling.
For casual comparison purposes, consider Jay Cutler. As a Denver rookie in 2006, Cutler’s first three games proved an interestingly early window into what he would become as an NFL quarterback: passer rating 90.1 (vs. an 86.0 full-career mark), six touchdowns, three interceptions and an interception rate of 3.7 percent (vs. 3.3 for his career).
Since being parachuted in against Green Bay, Barkley has thrown 104 passes, two of which were intercepted — a rate of 1.9 percent, which is in the sub-2.0 range where the Aaron Rodgerses (1.4) live. For a team dependent upon complementary football, ball security ranks among the most prized traits.
If the Bears look at past as prologue, Brian Hoyer was performing similarly at ball security (200 pass attempts, zero interceptions).
Ball security begins with composure, which was an unknown with Barkley. Now, not so unknown. In particular, Barkley has operated in must-pass situations and run two-minute offenses nearly flawlessly, with no turnovers with the game on the line, in three consecutive weeks.
“He does have the mental makeup and the intangibles, the qualities that you look for in a quarterback,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said, adding. “That part was impressive, the way he was able to handle the two-minute situation and really played the fourth quarter in two-minute and gave us a chance at the end to win.”
Complementary football involves the entire offense, including fitting with the capabilities and limitations within the offensive line and receiving corps.
Again parenthetically, using him only as a point of reference, Cutler was sacked once every 11.3 dropbacks in those first three Denver games he started in 2006. For his career he has been sacked once every 15.9 pass plays.
Despite the injury-based turmoil on the offensive line the past month, Barkley has taken just two sacks in 106 dropbacks — one every 53 pass plays. Hoyer was being sacked once every 51 pass plays.
The ability to throw on time and extend plays is registering with receivers.
“He did a great job (against Detroit) in the pocket making plays with his feet, extending those plays down the field,” said wide receiver Cameron Meredith, who caught six passes against the Lions, one for a 31-yard touchdown. “I think it speaks a lot about him as an athlete. It’s good to have a guy back there that can extend those plays and keep his eyes down field looking for us.”
Performance under pressure
Evaluating Barkley through three games becomes more than a statistical exercise (just as Cutler’s ultimately was, as well). The Bears are 1-2 in his starts (the Broncos were 1-2 in Cutler’s first three starts, too), but more notably perhaps, they came from behind in the win over San Francisco and were end-of-game dropped passes away from winning against Tennessee and tying or defeating Detroit.
“I don’t think you ever really know until they get thrown in there," coach John Fox said. "I mentioned yesterday it’s not so much surprise but pleased how he’s handled it. You don’t know until you put guys in and that’s why it so hard in this league to develop quarterbacks because they don’t get a lot of playing time. Until they do and they get their opportunity, you don’t really know.”