Josh McCown is not an All-Pro quarterback. He's not a Pro Bowl quarterback. He's probably not even an above-average starter. But he is what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have at quarterback, unless the rookie they will draft or Mike Glennon manages to beat him out in training camp. That begs the question: what can we expect out of him?
McCown has been a career backup, who got an extended starting chance last year -- and put up some ridiculous numbers while doing so. His statistics were right up there with the top passers in the league, but that doesn't mean he's actually that good. As has been noted over and over again: his career statistics are far worse, he had a great supporting cast and faced a terrifyingly easy schedule.
Just writing off his production last year as a fluke because it's not in line with his previous numbers is superficial, though: there are reasons why he produced that way in Chicago, and we can analyze those reasons, rather than dismissing him out of hand based on a cursory glance at the statistics. Still, those statistics do look out of whack.
We can quickly see that McCown's production last year is completely out of whack with the rest of his career. He was dominant, when he'd barely been a replacement level player before. So the question is, why is there this disparity?
There are a few reasons. Josh McCown has been a starter just six times in his career over very short periods, with the exception of his 2004-05 Arizona stint. In those six seasons, he's had a quality offensive team surrounding him exactly once: last year. His supporting cast in Arizona was awful -- yes, even when he had Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, as evidenced by the fact that Kurt Warner barely did better than him when Warner took over in 2005.
McCown's 224 attempts last season also represent 17% of his career production -- hardly an insignificant number. You can't just throw those out because you think the earlier 1,113 attempts are more important. You need to take both data sets into account, and then remember the circumstances under which those statistics were produced: supporting cast, offensive structure, and McCown's own progression as a player. The veteran has noted repeatedly that some time spent coaching high school teams, and playing in the UFL helped him tremendously. It's entirely plausible that he's simply a better passer now than he was a year ago.
Moreover, more recent statistics tend to be a better indication of current production than statistics produced longer ago, for a variety of reasons. Passing stats increase in value seemingly every year, for instance, with multiple 5,000-yard passers in recent years. This also goes back to the idea that players can improve with extra time in the NFL, especially at a position not overly dependent on physical gifts.
The All-Pro Season
Last year, McCown's production equaled that of an All-Pro quarterback. It was a ridiculous outlier -- but outliers happen for a reason, as did the veteran quarterback's 2013 season.
Those reasons are threefold: McCown was throwing to two receivers who excelled at contested catches, he was managed in a very structured offense, and he faced a very easy slate of defenses. The first two are both in place in Tampa, albeit to a lesser extent. Jeff Tedford's offense revolves around structure and providing answers to quarterbacks, so the system should play to McCown's strengths. Systems that work with a QB's strengths can make a big difference.
Kurt Warner's the best example of this phenomenon. He was an undrafted free agent, and it took him until he was 28 to get a shot at a starting job. When he got that shot, he blew up the league for three seasons, before being replaced by Marc Bulger (oops). When he left St. Louis, his earlier production looked like a fluke, even more so when he subsequently bombed with the New York Giants. But when he got another shot at a starting job in Arizona, he returned to his earlier Pro Bowl form, and helped the Cardinals reach the Super Bowl for the first (and so far only) time in their history.
Similarly, Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson have large catching radii, and are very good at making contested catches. Not as good as Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, but good enough to help McCown out. The one thing we can't expect is a repeat of an easy defensive schedule, especially not with Carolina and New Orleans in the defense.
Still just a game manager
But, as noted above, this simply means we can't expect the dominant statistics McCown put up last year. But we can expect him to play well, overall, and be good enough to at least manage the offense and lead the team to a winning season, if paired with a strong running game and a quality defense. Overall, the Bucs have the players and system to help McCown play well. He won't put up last year's numbers, but we can expect something similar to Brad Johnson's 2002 season, or perhaps Alex Smith the past few years.
If the Bucs can put up good defense, that should be good enough to at least get to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.