Quarterback switch proves to be no answer for Bears
Don't be fooled, Chicago.
Don't overstate the value of quarterback Jimmy Clausen making the Bears more lively Sunday in a 20-14 loss to a Lions team that was in the giving mood four days before Christmas.
Don't wonder where the Bears would be if coach Marc Trestman had benched Jay Cutler earlier or whether late signs of life from the NFL's most underachieving offense in Cutler's absence might affect Trestman's employment status.
The Bears still managed two measly touchdowns with Clausen in charge. Had Cutler gone 23-of-39 for 181 yards and two TDs for a passer rating of 77.0 yet thrown an interception on the potential winning drive — as Clausen did — he would have piqued your anger rather than curiosity.
With the Bears needing a touchdown to win, Clausen took over at his own 21 with 2 minutes, 35 seconds left and trailing 20-14 — and responded by going 1-of-5 for 7 yards on a drive that ended with a floating interception.
"I just went out and competed and showed I can play in this league," Clausen said.
Overall, Clausen did a nice job representing himself as a bona fide NFL backup, nothing more. Clausen was the smelling salts to a sleepy offense, making quick decisions and smart throws. He prevented bad plays from outnumbering big ones and brought as much enthusiasm as efficiency. He improved his job prospects for 2015 — but not Trestman's. Don't fall for that.
Remember, the career Trestman was hired to save was Cutler's, not Clausen's.
Trestman's potential last game at Soldier Field will go down as one of the most irrelevant of his brief tenure. A win would have changed nothing about the Bears future, which Chairman George McCaskey should begin altering as early as today. A six-point loss simply reminded us what everybody already knew about the present; that no matter who plays quarterback, Trestman's game-day coaching cannot compensate for a growing talent deficit management cannot ignore.
For three hours Sunday, the Bears almost kidded everyone into thinking things aren't as bad as they seem by exhibiting some rarely seen spunk. Clarification: They really are. The state of the Bears has devolved so badly that tight end Martellus Bennett was asked postgame how he felt about the Bears being more competitive. These are the meaningless questions 10-loss teams answer, like the one asking him to interpret Clausen's impact.
"It really doesn't matter how anybody played if we didn't win," Bennett said.
The Bears' free fall to 5-10 has been swift and sordid, with their fourth straight defeat merely reminding everyone the most popular player in any NFL city remains the backup quarterback. Of all the numbers Clausen put up during his first start in four seasons, the one that created the biggest stir was on his back. It wasn't No. 6.
The Bears offense benefited by sticking to the ABCs — Anybody But Cutler — and nearly bored the Lions into submission. With Clausen in charge, they took fewer risks than someone investing in savings bonds. Their downfield passing game didn't threaten Lions defensive backs as much as embolden them. They averaged 7.8 yards per completion.
"Because we had a shorter week, we cut down the quantity of the game plan," Trestman acknowledged.
That game plan included the usual head-scratching calls. Please explain the Bears losing by six points in a game in which they left a touchdown on the field on fourth-and-goal at the 1 by throwing to the backup offensive tackle instead of handing the ball to an elite running back. Without Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford throwing two interceptions and the Lions muffing a punt return, this one never would have come down to the final possession.
Yet Stafford will lead the Lions into the postseason while nobody can be sure where Cutler and the Bears are headed, except south. Crestfallen, Trestman never hesitated when asked if this represented the toughest stretch of his career.
"Yes," he said. "It all comes down to the effort players are making and not being able to see it get done on Sundays."
On this Sunday, the noise surrounding Trestman only intensified.
On CBS, Bill Cowher second-guessed Trestman for not firing offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, who apologized after leaking information to the NFL Network: "You have to dismiss him because you now, as a head coach, lose credibility to stand up there."
On ESPN, Mike Shanahan fueled speculation about a Chicago homecoming by all but announcing he wanted to coach again. To paraphrase Shanahan's complimentary comments of Cutler: Hire me. "I really believe in Jay," said Shanahan, Cutler's first NFL coach.
On the radio, Bears general manager Phil Emery declared he and Trestman have an "excellent relationship" and supported the benching of the quarterback he signed to a seven-year, $126.7 million contract 15 games ago. Did Emery tie his uncertain fate to Trestman's?
"Performance determines play time, not contracts," Emery said.
It's a bottom-line mentality worth remembering as McCaskey begins the football makeover at Halas Hall.