By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — Sunday’s in sight, with that one play could change everything. Backup quarterback Matt Barkley is ready, still waiting for his chance with the Bears.
Barkley inspires confidence with his touch of California cool. He was the all-everything prospect who landed at USC and compiled numbers that stand with the prestigious program’s best. Entering his senior season in 2012, Barkley was perceived to be a Heisman front-runner and potential first-round pick.
Four years into what’s been an unfulfilling NFL career, Barkley doesn’t want to be defined by untapped potential.
“I don’t regret anything,” Barkley said Friday. “It’s been definitely a long and winding road — different from what I would’ve imagined. But I’ve learned a lot along the way. I definitely think I’ve become a better quarterback. I’m still being patient and working my butt off to play.”
Now 26, Barkley chose to sign with the Bears for just that reason. He believed that Chicago could be the home of possibility and that offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains was man who could develop him as a quarterback.
When general manager Ryan Pace came to Chicago, he spoke of bringing in a developmental quarterback. The Bears have yet to draft a quarterback in Pace’s two years, but they may have a prospect in Barkley.
Barkley fell from first-round potential to the fourth round. Pace, who was then the Saints’ director of player personnel, and Loggains, then the Titans’ offensive coordinator, believed what many scouts didn’t — that Barkley could become a successful NFL starter.
Inside Halas Hall, Barkley is still viewed for his potential, not his past.
“We’ve liked him since he came out,” Pace said when he signed Barkley.
The Bears are 0-3 entering Sunday’s contest with the Lions (1-2) and looking to salvage their season. No team has ever made the playoffs after three losses to start the season since the modernization of the format in 2002. If the losing continues, the Bears must begin to look toward the future.
Once again, the Bears are working without Jay Cutler, whose future in Chicago has come in to doubt. Cutler is owed no guaranteed money after this season and can be cut loose from the organization. It’s possible that the Bears could be drafting high enough to take a DeShone Kizer or Deshaun Watson next spring, but they have to look at their own roster for answers.
In looking beyond 2016, the Bears need to see what they have in Barkley. They likely will as the season progresses.
Pace spoke of that upside he saw in Barkley’s game — that strong arm, terrific IQ and ability to lead. Loggains feels it, too, even more now than his first meeting at the NFL Combine back in 2013.
Teammates have been impressed with what Barkley brings. He’s absorbed the playbook at a tremendous pace through four weeks, and it has reflected on the practice field. His abilities are reflecting that self-confidence.
“He’s definitely a talented quarterback,” said receiver Cam Meredith, who has worked extensively alongside Barkley. “Smart, he’s got a great arm and puts the ball where it’s got to be.”
Many promising quarterbacks have come and gone through the NFL with hardly a chance. Another Trojan star, Matt Leinart, won the Heisman Trophy at USC and was out of the league before the age of 30. Brady Quinn was a Heisman finalist at Notre Dame who never lived up to his first-round billing in the NFL. Both are flourishing as television analysts retired from playing.
Jimmy Clausen fell in the draft similar to Barkley. Despite his strong arm and knowledge of the playbook, he became a backup after his rookie season. The Bears let him go last November, choosing instead to develop David Fales.
Despite the disappointments and bad breaks, Barkley has maintained confidence throughout his career. Now, he has an opportunity to grow with the Bears and learn from Loggains. Barkley will suit up as the backup Sunday and could be called upon at a moment’s notice.
“I’ll be ready to roll,” Barkley said.
Even Loggains conceded that Barkley still needs more time to learn the playbook. But if Barkley is forced to the field, he will give it his all.
Chances are few and far between for NFL quarterbacks. The good ones last a decade in one place. Then there’s that next tier of backups, going from one destination to the next and waiting out for that chance to prove their place. Their careers can be short-lived, and potential goes without cause.
While the Bears endure what seems to be another season of struggles and with their future more uncertain than three games ago, they would be wise to look closely at Barkley.
Pace was quick to claim his excitement for signing Barkley. He wants to develop a quarterback each season. The team must find those extra reps in practice for Barkley and get him a chance. If the season continues to slide, get Barkley a starting opportunity.
For now, Barkley stays cool and keeps ready. His untapped potential is waiting for a chance.
“I know I can play quarterback in this football league,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting an opportunity and taking advantage of that chance.”