With the opportunity of a lifetime after a disappointing introduction to the NFL, Bears quarterback Matt Barkley is too wired to stay in-the-moment to consider the big picture.
“[I’m] taking this one game at a time and not getting caught up in the emotions of this sport and finishing this season strong, because without that, nothing else matters,” he said. “So that’s where my head is at, making sure these guys are in the attitude of winning these last two games and we’ll see what happens from there.”
Indeed we will. Barkley was just another guy when the Bears signed him to their practice squad prior to the season opener. In four starts he hasn’t exactly been a revelation — his passer rating is 82.6; he’s won one game, and that was against the 49ers, who are 1-13. But unless he flops tremendously in the final two games, Barkley at the very least will be in the running when training camp begins in 2017 — and not just for No. 2.
And if he finishes with a flourish, Barkley arguably could have the strongest resume of all when the Bears start preparing for the 2017 season. If the Bears part ways with Jay Cutler as many expect, and a Peyton Manning doesn’t fall in John Fox’s lap again, who would have stronger career momentum — Brian Hoyer? Connor Shaw? A first-round draft pick? David Fales? Jimmy Garoppolo?
The challenge for Barkley is to finish strong. His completion percentage has improved each game. He threw for a career-high 362 yards last week — the most for a Bears quarterback against the Packers in the 204-game history of the historic rivalry. After throwing two interceptions in the third quarter, he drove the Bears to two touchdowns in the fourth.
Barkley has thrown five interceptions in his four starts, but one was a Hail Mary. The targets on three of the others were rookies Ben Braunecker and Daniel Braverman and reserve tight end Daniel Brown. Who knows what Barkley can do with a full complement of proven NFL receivers, but he’s showing he deserves the chance to find out.
“He’s playing faster each week,” Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “He’s getting a better feel for the offense each week and starting to really learn his teammates some, which is a big help. He’s trying to get better timing with those guys.”
Barkley has been loathe to analyze his performance and what it might mean for his future. “I’m just playing football,” he said after a 20-17 loss to the Lions at Ford Field two weeks ago. “It’s not my job to determine whether I’m proving something or not.”
But he knows he’s shown something. “I think progress,” Barkley said. “Week-in, week-out of just commanding the offense and understanding the offense and understanding where Dowell is in regards to calling plays. I feel like I’ve done a good job of continuing to build on that.”
And he dared to at least peek at the future when asked how far he can take this.
“I feel I’m capable of a lot more,” Barkley said. “The negative, glaring plays of the last couple of weeks are eating me up. I know those are easily correctable. And I know there’s not a lot holding me back. It’s just a matter of putting my head down and making sure that everyone around me is on the same page.
“So I think a full offseason and whatever that’s going to look like next year where you get just timing down — you get cohesiveness in the huddle with guys and snap counts and all the calls. There’s a lot of room for growth with this team.”
Barkley might end up being just another candidate. But at the end of a dreadful Bears season, he’s added some intrigue to what figures to be a muddled quarterback picture in 2017. He’s a California kid who plays well in cold weather. He’s got the footwork to overcome limited athleticism. His teammates play for him. There’s an edge to him. He’s earning the chance to be at the right place at the right time.