LAKE FOREST – Josh McCown stepped off of a raised platform at Halas Hall, slung his work bag around his right shoulder and turned his head toward a room full of reporters.
“See ya, guys,” McCown said Thursday as he strolled out of the room.
What followed was stunned silence.
Did he just address us as humans? After he just gave a 17-minute news conference in which he offered polite, thoughtful answers? What’s he after, anyway? What’s the catch?
Not to say Jay Cutler doesn’t mutter farewells to certain media members after his news conferences. They just happen to begin with an expletive and end with the word “idiot.”
But then it struck me.
Caleb Hanie was a really nice guy.
Jason Campbell never turned down an interview request.
Cut through the New England accent, and Todd Collins was practically a Midwestern everyman.
Clearly, no strong correlation exists between one’s personality and one’s ability to play quarterback. But in three appearances this season, McCown has provided every indication that he can avoid the long-standing backup quarterback tradition of Nice Guy, Ugly Game.
Because at 34 years old, McCown is playing the best football of his career.
“I don’t know,” said McCown, missing his opportunity to pound his chest. “It would probably be better to step back after the season. But I feel like right now I’m just trying to play efficient football and just try to do what we’re asked to do.”
It wasn’t always that simple.
On a cold December afternoon in 2002, McCown’s dream became a reality.
A harsh reality, but a reality nonetheless.
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer had thrown his third interception against the Kansas City Chiefs, who promptly scored their sixth touchdown to take a 42-0 lead. McCown was a rookie for the Cardinals after a college career at Southern Methodist and Sam Houston State, and he finally got the call to make his NFL debut late in the third quarter.
Six plays later, Chiefs cornerback Ray Crockett (uncle of Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton) intercepted McCown to spoil his first series. McCown finished his debut with a horrific 10.8 passer rating, and the Cardinals returned to the desert on the heels of a 49-0 loss.
Not much changed during McCown’s four-year tenure with the Cardinals. By the time he joined the Detroit Lions in 2006, he had thrown more interceptions (29) than touchdowns (25).
At some point along the way, McCown realized that his career arc had changed trajectory.
He spoke with his brother, Luke, who was the Cleveland Browns’ fourth-round pick two years after the Cardinals made Josh their third-round pick. Luke started four games as a rookie before settling into a backup role, which continues to this day with the New Orleans Saints.
“My little brother and I talked about this: If there’s an obvious point in your career where you get like, ‘OK, nobody’s going to beat down my door to be a starter,’ ” McCown said. “So you understand. You don’t get content, but at the same time, you understand your role on your team.
“Again, it goes back to [the question]: ‘As a backup, how can I add value to my team?’ ”
Be ready. Be smart.
It also helps to be friendly.
So here stands McCown, behind a lectern, answering questions about his second start of the season and his fourth start in the past five years.
McCown and his teammates will face the Baltimore Ravens (4-5), who have struggled this season but remain tough on defense. The Bears won McCown’s previous start against the Green Bay Packers and badly need a win to bolster their playoff chances.
McCown is confident he can do the job.
“You feel like there’s an opportunity to be successful every game, and you don’t have to step outside the system and press every time,” McCown said. “If you drop back and it’s not there, you can check the ball down, you can throw the ball away, and you know from a play-calling standpoint and the structure of our system that we’ll have another shot, we’ll have another play. …
“So, for me, that’s created a lot of ease and allowed me to play more consistent because I don’t press and try to get outside of the system and get outside of myself.”
The result – at least, up until this long-winded jinx – has been impressive.
McCown has thrown 70 passes without an interception this season, which is the fourth-best mark in the NFL. Philadelphia’s Nick Foles (136) owns the longest streak and is followed by Houston’s Case Keenum (102) and the aforementioned Campbell (75), now with Cleveland.
And next is McCown, who still feels as if he has room to improve.
“Absolutely,” McCown said. “I think the fastest way downhill is to think that you know it.
“The first day that you go, ‘Ah, I got it now,’ that’s the last day.”
Soon after, McCown picked up his work bag and headed toward the meeting rooms.
• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.