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Chicago BEARS
Peter King
August 30, 1999
Charismatic quarterback Cade McNown has shown early flashes of brilliance, giving new coach Dick Jauron and Windy City fans reason for hope
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August 30, 1999

Chicago Bears

Charismatic quarterback Cade McNown has shown early flashes of brilliance, giving new coach Dick Jauron and Windy City fans reason for hope

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FIRST-YEAR FOLLIES

Of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 1999 draft, Cade McNown is widely regarded as the best prepared to play in the NFL right away. If Dick Jauron does make McNown his starter for the Sept. 12 game against the Chiefs, it will mark only the fourth time since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger that a rookie coach has employed a rookie as his opening-day starting quarterback. It would also be a bad omen for McNown and the Bears: The other three combined for a 1-23-1 record as rookie starters.

Team

Rookie coach

Rookie quarterback

Team W-L

Rookie's performance

1989 Cowboys

Jimmy Johnson

Troy Aikman

1-15

0-11 as a starter

1982 Colts

Frank Kush

Mike Pagel

0-8-1

Started all nine games

1973 Colts

Howard Schnellenberger

Ben Jones

4-10

1-4 as a starter

The bears are looking for a savior. Jordanless Chicago is looking for a champion. Is feisty rookie quarterback Cade McNown the man to lead the Bears and fans in the Windy City out of the fog? Early indications are that the kid has the charisma and the work ethic to get the job done.

After a nine-day holdout, McNown arrived at the Bears' training camp in Platteville, Wis., and, not being sure where to park his car, pulled into a handicapped spot. Coming in the wake of reports of his involvement in an embarrassing episode at UCLA—11 Bruins have been suspended for the first two games this season for submitting false applications for handicapped-parking permits from 1996 to '98—McNown's move wasn't the wisest. The Bears, however, have found little else amiss with McNown, whom they took with the 12th pick in the draft.

"He hasn't had trouble picking anything up," says first-year coach Dick Jauron, a former NFL defensive back who joined the coaching ranks in 1985. "He's one of the brightest quarterbacks I've seen come out of college football." McNown, who for all intents and purposes was handed the starting job when the Bears waived Erik Kramer on July 20, is working overtime; he often stays after practice with running back Curtis Enis or wideout Curtis Conway to accelerate his learning curve. And he has stepped right into a leadership role. "He can lead this team," says Enis. "As soon as he got here, I told him, 'Hey, man, it's your squad now. Lead us. Swing the lumber.' "

The lefthanded McNown rarely combs his short auburn hair. He likes to wear his T-shirts inside-out. He's an avid reader; one of the books on his night table at training camp was Bednarik: Last of the 60-Minute Men. (Former Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik, an admirer of McNown's competitiveness, sent it to him after the two met at a banquet.) And though he never collected autographs as a kid? McNown knows that signing is part of being a franchise savior. Following his first practice as a Bear, he waded into a crowd of about 750 and signed autographs for an hour. When the last scrap of paper had been inscribed, he looked around and said, "Anybody else?" Finding no one, McNown said, "O.K., thanks for coming, everybody"

Of course, McNown and the Bears know that what really matters is how he performs on the field. On that count there is a lot of skepticism because of McNown's modest height (6'1") and dubious arm strength. But he is only an inch shorter than 49ers quarterback Steve Young, and shouldn't this height thing have died after the way Doug Flutie performed for the Bills last season?

McNown's competitiveness is unquestioned. When playing on grass at UCLA, he usually looked like Pigpen by halftime, the result of extensive sliding and diving. He has shown he can throw from the pocket and on the run with equal efficiency. In his last two seasons at UCLA, he had 49 touchdown passes and only 17 interceptions, connected on 59% of his attempts and averaged 9.84 yards per attempt and 16.63 yards per completion. Unlike the first pick in the draft, Browns quarterback Tim Couch, who said early in camp that he hoped the game would slow down, McNown says things felt the same as they had on the UCLA practice field. "I think I'm one of those guys who sees the whole field and what's going on every time he steps back to pass," he says.

On one play during camp, offensive coordinator Gary Crowton called for McNown to roll left and throw to wideout Bobby Engram streaking down the left sideline. But when the defense came with three blitzers, Engram cut his route short, and McNown, just before getting buried by the rushers, jump-passed an eight-yard strike to Engram, who turned upfield for a big gain. "Make 'em pay!" Crowton yelled, smiling. Enis hollered, "There it is! Way to go, 'Slinger!" As in Gunslinger, Enis would explain later.

McNown was blasé about the completion, but everything about the play—the cool rollout, seeing the whole field, making a split-second decision to abandon his target downfield and athletically making the throw—was big time. "Maybe they just haven't seen that play work around here in a while," he says.

In recent years the hometown quarterback hasn't made many big plays at Soldier Field. A team and a city have their fingers crossed that McNown is up to the task.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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