By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — It wasn’t that long ago Matt Barkley was a highly-regarded quarterback prospect.
Barkley was a standout at Southern Cal who seemed to have a bright future in the NFL. Now, he has five more games to fight for it.
Few could’ve imagined Barkley as the Bears’ starting quarterback some three months ago — or even just a few weeks ago. He hadn’t even joined the team until just before Week 1, and that was a practice squad spot. Barkley saw the opportunity to develop in Chicago. That said, he couldn’t have imagined starting — not as the team’s de facto fourth-string quarterback.
Still, Barkley has spent this season preparing as if he was the starter. He’s been waiting for this chance. It’s here, as starter Jay Cutler has been ruled out for the season with a shoulder injury that will require surgery.
“I know who I am as a quarterback, and I know what I’m capable of,” Barkley said after his first NFL start last Sunday, a 27-21 loss to the Titans in which he threw for three touchdowns and 316 yards.
Opinions on Barkley were mixed four years ago after he returned for a senior season of college that left more to be desired. He went from being a projected first-round pick to being selected in the fourth round. Many scouts didn’t see the upside anymore.
Chip Kelly believed in Barkley, drafting him for the Eagles in 2013. His 49ers face Barkley on Sunday at Soldier Field..
“He’s one of the most prolific quarterback to ever play in the Pac 10-slash-Pac 12,” said Kelly of Barkley, whom he faced while coaching Oregon. “The numbers he put up at USC while he was there kind of speak to themselves.
“Matt was really talented, and I knew (in 2013) Matt would be a really good player in this league.”
Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains would agree. In 2013, he was coaching with the Titans and scouting quarterbacks. Barkley’s potential stood out.
When the Cardinals cut Barkley loose this past September, Loggains and general manager Ryan Pace — who liked Barkley out of college, too, when he was with the Saints — were among the leading influences to make the signing.
Loggains has been able to compare the perceptions and the realities of Barkley in preparing him as a starting quarterback.
“Until you get your hands on these guys, you really don’t know what you’re getting,” Loggains said. “Matt has been a hard worker. He has got all the intangibles. He’s a positive leader. He’ll continue to grow in the system, and we’ll continue to grow as an offense.”
In his first NFL start last Sunday, Barkley’s Bears trailed 27-7 in the fourth quarter. Facing a major deficit, teammates turned to Barkley, who rallied them back. After struggling for three quarters, Barkley drove the Bears to the end zone, then did it again. They were goal-to-go in the final minute when the potential winning touchdown slipped through receiver Josh Bellamy’s hands. The Bears couldn’t come up with the game-winning score.
Looking back at the loss, Loggains saw the Barkley he believed in.
“Poise,” Loggains said. “The ability to overcome adversity.”
Added coach John Fox of Barkley’s first start: “He never blinked.”
In all likelihood, Barkley isn’t the Bears’ quarterback of the future. That man is likely finishing his collegiate career right now. But at 26 years old, Barkley is still a young quarterback with a chance.
Barkley is fourth in line among the Bears’ quarterbacks this season, taking over after in-season injuries to Cutler and Brian Hoyer and the preseason injury to Connor Shaw. Now, he’s the starter with five more games to show what he can do. The Bears will be watching, as will the rest of the league.
“I know I can play quarterback in this football league,” Barkley said earlier this season. “It’s just a matter of getting an opportunity and taking advantage of that chance.”
Then, he was a member of the Bears’ practice squad. Surely he couldn’t have seen this coming. There are just 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL, then legions more wishing they could get that chance. The good ones can stay in place for years. The rest can only hope for a chance.
Here is that opportunity. Let’s see if Barkley can make the most of it.