Matt Barkley upbeat after tough night:’I can play in this league’
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The Bears signed Matt Barkley as a developmental quarterback. Is this the time to see what he can do?
It might have to be, if Jay Cutler is not healthy enough to play against the Vikings on Oct. 31 at Soldier Field. But at 1-6 after a 26-10 loss to the Packers on Thursday night at Lambeau Field, the Bears quickly are reaching a point where they might better off planning for the future. And it’s possible that — sooner rather than later — an unknown, unproven and untested Matt Barkley might be more intriguing than the veteran Cutler.
Barkley wasn’t signed for a short-term, emergency scenario like the one he was in against the Packers — entering in the second quarter after starter Brian Hoyer suffered a broken arm after being hit by Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews. David Fales, who had spent two regular seasons and three preseasons with the Bears and had better familiarity with the offense and the receivers, likely would have given the Bears a better chance to win Thursday night. But the Bears cut Fales and signed Barkley to their practice squad after the cutdown to 53, two days after Barkley was cut by the Cardinals.
The odds that a quarterback cut by Bruce Arians (in favor of Drew Stanton and Zac Dysert) is anybody’s quarterback of the future probably are long. But Bears general manager Ryan Pace obviously saw something he liked in the 6-2, 227-pound Barkley. The former USC standout was a projected top-10 pick as a junior in 2012, but stayed in school for his senior season and was a fourth-round pick by the Eagles in 2013, the fourth quarterback taken — behind EJ Manuel, Geno Smith and Mike Glennon — in an extremely weak class.
“Our personnel people thought he’s a taller guy that stood in the pocket pretty well,” Bears coach John Fox said. “[He’s] a young guy we thought we could work with that’s had some experience. Hopefully he got a little more experience tonight.”
Barkley played in two games with the Eagles in 2013 as an injury replacement — no touchdowns, four interceptions and a 44.6 rating — and threw one pass in 2014. The Cardinals traded a seventh-round pick for him in 2015, and Barkley spent the season as the Cardinals’ No. 3 quarterback without playing, then cut him this season. Not exactly the script Barkley envisioned as a former projected top-10 draft pick, but he’s confident he can make it with the right situation. He wouldn’t be the first to go the z-pattern route.
“I’m not too sure there are many NFL players that are living their script out,” said Barkley, who completed 6-of-15 passes for 81 yards and two interceptions for an 18.3 passer rating against the Packers. “There’s definitely a few. But for the most part, the business of the NFL and what happens week-to-week in this league, you never really know what’s going to happen.
“That’s no excuse and I’m confident that no matter where I am or what the deal is, I can play in this league. So, we’ll see.”
Cutler, who has missed the last five games with a sprained right thumb, is the best option against a Vikings defense that leads the NFL in fewest points allowed (12.6 per game). Opposing quarterbacks have an NFL-low 65.3 passer rating against the Vikings this season (four touchdowns, seven interceptions), with 19 sacks. And they’re not picking on back-ups, either — Marcus Mariota (86.5), Aaron Rodgers (70.7, five sacks), Cam Newton (47.6, eight sacks), Eli Manning (63.3) and Brock Osweiler (56.1, four sacks).
“I feel great with the guys, from the staff to the players. It’s a good mesh,” Barkley said. “Still have my head down in the playbook, just trying to learn everything. It was definitely a quick transition. But the fit overall, again from the top down I think has been solid.
Asking Barkley to step in as the starter seven weeks after he joined the team is a bit much. There’s a difference between being comfortable with the coaching staff and teammates and actually producing on the field.
“It’s just like learning a new language,” Barkley said of the learning process. “You can picture in your mind what it’s supposed to be. But having to spit it out in a fluid sentence, it just takes reps. So just repping it in meetings, on the field, after the field — back at home, my wife’s helping me out — just spit out plays. It’s one of those things that takes time. We’ve tried to cram as much as we can.”
The Bears, like most teams, have a dubious record playing quarterbacks who were not with the team in training camp or the preseason — Josh McCown in 2011 (68.3 rating) was not the McCown of 2013 (13 touchdowns, one interception, 109.0), when he was with the team in the preason; McCown and Chad Hutchinson in 2004 (73.6) are the only ones who have started since Rusty Lisch’s disastrous turn in 1984 (no touchdowns, six interceptions, 34.9) — a season when the Bears started five quarterbacks and even used Walter Payton behind center in a two-minute drill against the Packers late in the season.
“We’ll get better,” Barkley said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen these next couple of weeks, but I feel confident that I can play. What shows on paper [against the Packers] and those stats, I know I’m better than that. I trust our guys. They trust me. So I think we can keep going up from here.”
Regardless of who starts against the Vikings, every quarteback performance from here on out is an audition for training camp in 2017. Unless Cutler has a magnificent recovery and huge second half, the Bears are expected to start over — with a high draft pick in the mix. And don’t forget Connor Shaw, who was impressive in the preseason before suffering a season-ending broken leg. If he gets the opportunity, Matt Barkley has to make the most of a tough situation to earn a spot in that ring.