Seven years ago, Matt Barkley was once the number one high school football recruit in the country. After a prolific prep career, he was then the quarterback of a University of Southern California team that never quite lived up to the hype they received.
Like many former top recruits before him, Barkley’s spotlight shined a bit too early, and it had him fall to the fourth round in the 2013 NFL Draft. Barkley then of course bounced from Philadelphia to Arizona and now to the Chicago Bears, with nary an opportunity to show what he’s capable of - even if erratic in extremely limited spot samples.
Multiple injuries and a subsequent sudden press into action will do wonders to spring any semblance of life into a career.
Barkley’s recent stretch of efficiency didn’t seem like it would happen a little under two months ago. In spot duty on ‘Thursday Night Football’ at Lambeau Field, it was the picture of a quarterback who would never show any NFL competence. Deep set preconceived notions often won’t steer you wrong, but they’ll also allow for pleasant surprises - even if in rare situations. A man already written off by plenty, was erratic in going 6-15, with 81 yards, and two lame duck interceptions against the Packers.
With an overall career stat line of 36-65, 386 yards, zero touchdowns, six interceptions, and a 34.2 quarterback rating before the game against Green Bay, Barkley’s performance only filled in confirmed biases. A flash in the pan will never exist without an extended sample size. But, how were the Bears supposed to salvage anything out of play such as this?
Stranger things have happened when a player continues to plug away.
While the Bears are just 1-2 in the only three starts of Barkley’s career, their failure hasn’t been his fault in that respect. If anything, it’s more appropriate to commend the still green passer for putting his team in position to win each of these games in place of Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer. Barkley hasn’t set the competition on fire or been perfect as he works through his new experiences, but he’s done just about everything you can ask from a man in his position.
And he hasn’t blinked. A testament to poise not many thought he possessed.
“It’s not so much surprise, but pleased how he’s handled it,” said Bears head coach John Fox of Barkley’s quality work.
No. You can instead blame the makeshift Chicago receiving core in Joshua Bellamy, Deonte Thompson, Cameron Meredith, and Marquess Wilson letting Barkley down in key spots when he’s put the ball on target. And continue to blame the offensive line - as well as officiating - in that same respect, for negating huge chunk pass plays of well placed balls by Barkley. Holding penalties haunted the Bears in Sunday’s loss to the Detroit Lions.
Despite that, the quarterback is typically the first to answer questions for a team’s shortcomings, and Barkley has been ever the professional in facing the music. When opportunity comes to your door knocking, it’s best to embrace it. Barkley’s steady stability even if just as a game manager, has been a welcome addition to Chicago’s offense.
“I think the young man has continued to impress me.” said Fox.
He’s impressed everyone and in turn earned himself a more focused magnifying glass upon his performances.
In those three starts, Barkley is averaging 240 yards, a touchdown, and an 87.5 quarterback rating. Nothing necessarily special, but a measured step up from what many circles had figured would be someone to struggle ever consistently making simple throws.
It’s up to the Bears now to ask what kind of an asset they have in Barkley.
Certainly, his play has been better than expected as a quarterback who hasn’t played much before. With Cutler likely on his last legs in Chicago, maybe Barkley is playing his way into a potential starting role. That’s one less talent gap the continually rebuilding Bears would need to fill in the offseason if they believe they already have their starting quarterback of the future.
Some seem to believe in Barkley more than others.
On Sunday, CBS color commentator Solomon Wilcotts waxed poetically about comparisons of Barkley to the Hall of Famer, Kurt Warner, in a mid-career rise to prominence. One should pump the brakes on that drastic sentiment - at least for now. That kind of success for Barkley would inherently be shocking even if greeted especially delightedly in the city of broad shoulders. Finding diamonds in the rough is fortune Chicago has rarely enjoyed.
More likely, the Bears have found themselves a quality back-up and or veteran caretaker to hold the reins while they develop a franchise quarterback they deem worthy to hand the baton off to this April. Barkley’s capable stretch changes no plans of acquiring a young potential star quarterback, again at the minimum. Considering where Barkley’s formerly completely bleak NFL career was just two months ago, this would still be quite the consolation prize for him. His on-field interview has gone well enough so far to earn an extended tenure with Chicago or another job in the league, whether in a limited capacity or not.
Whatever the case, it’s irresponsible to ascertain what the Bears have in Barkley presently. He still has just three starts and hasn’t played a worthwhile defense for a full game.
Difficult defensive tests are up on the docket soon in the Packers and Minnesota Vikings. To respond in a strong fashion against Green Bay after his objective poor play against them the first time around, would have Barkley display worthwhile growth. And sterling play against the league’s third best defense in the Vikings on the road, would be nothing to sneer at either. A proper evaluation against stiff competition.
Barkley’s also working with that mentioned cast of receivers largely comprised of undrafted free agents as Eddie Royal is unavailable. That obviously hasn’t fully worked in his favor. The return of a bona fide target in Alshon Jeffery this week will be a huge boost for the young passer to shine if he takes advantage. A quarterback with even one more legitimate weapon begins to create more magic. Be sure that the Bears will be eager to see what Barkley does with improved talent to support him.
“It’s your job as a quarterback to make sure you’re getting the best out of every player,” said Barkley in a self-evaluation of his play.
Who knows what will happen in the future?
For now, Barkley has earned the standing to continue to improve and see where his concerted effort takes him.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @Robert Zeglinski.