Tom Sorensen

September 3, 2014

Sorensen: At 35, Tampa Bay Bucs’ Josh McCown proving he’s no joke

Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback Josh McCown was a career backup until a breakout season with the Chicago Bears a year ago. That earned him a two-year, $10 million contract with the Bucs, where he’ll start Sunday’s season opener against the Carolina Panthers

Listen to the Carolina Panthers talk about quarterback Josh McCown and you’d think his black and electric blue jersey had been retired.

McCown’s legacy with the Panthers, however, is quiet. As a backup to Jake Delhomme, he twice ended games in 2008 by dropping to a knee. He never threw a pass. In 2009, McCown threw six and completed one.

“I like Josh,” says Carolina center Ryan Kalil. “I think Josh is definitely a professional. He’s talented. I know a lot of people who have a lot of respect for him.”

Says defensive end Charles Johnson: “He’s athletic, man.”

Johnson was so taken with his work on the basketball court that he says McCown could play professionally.

Says Kalil: “The only negative thing I’ll say about Josh is I don’t think he’s very funny. He’d try to give jokes when he was here and I let him know to his face he’s not funny. He didn’t really appreciate that very much.

“Make sure you tell him: ‘Ryan had a lot of nice things to say about you except you’re not funny.’ ”

On Wednesday, I deliver the message to McCown, who talks via a speaker phone from Tampa. He signed a two-year, $10 million contract with the Buccaneers in March and will make his Tampa Bay debut Sunday against the Panthers.

“Well, obviously because Ryan is the funniest person in the world I have to respect his opinion on comedy and yield to him,” says McCown, 35. “So no more jokes from me then.”

Although McCown left the Panthers, the McCowns never left Charlotte. He and his wife and four children live in Union County. They don’t plan to leave soon. Their oldest daughter is a high school sophomore and the McCowns thought it unfair to ask her to move again.

McCown, however, still gets around. Some people say they see him in church. I saw him at least three times this offseason on a basketball court.

Kalil might not be able to recall any McCown one-liners and fans might not be able to recall McCown completing his pass.

But linebacker Thomas Davis remembers.

“Me and Josh are really good friends and I know how tough of a competitor he is, and I’m excited to go out there and compete with a friend,” says Davis. “And I know he’s a competitive person and I know that he’s going to have the offense ready to go.

“I played several basketball games with him (at Charlotte’s Dowd YMCA) and he might be one of the best basketball players that’s not in the NBA I ever played with. We just have to understand he brings a different dimension to the (Tampa Bay) offense. He’s a guy that has a very strong arm and can make all the throws. But he can also get out of the pocket and make plays with his legs and keep the down extended.”

Davis is a superior athlete. It would be interesting to watch him and McCown play with or against each other.

“Man, he has a game,” says Davis. “He obviously can make the jump shot. I’ve also seen Josh go and dunk on guys.”

How many times did McCown, 6-4, dunk on you?

“Never,” says Davis, 6-1. “I would never let Josh dunk on me.”

Davis would say the same about LeBron James.

The route from the hardwood to the hoop was easy for McCown. The trip from Sam Houston State to Tampa Bay was more complicated.

Arizona took McCown in the third round of the 2002 draft (the year the Panthers drafted Julius Peppers).

McCown played four seasons for the Cardinals. Then he played for Detroit, Oakland, Miami, Carolina, the United Football League’s Hartford Colonials, San Francisco and Chicago.

In 2011 and ’12, McCown was out of work when the NFL season began. So he volunteered to assist football coach Scott Chadwick at Waxhaw’s Marvin Ridge High.

In both seasons, the Bears called him up in November.

Last season was different. Last season was the season to which all the others led.

Replacing injured starter Jay Cutler, McCown played in eight games and started five. He completed 65.5 percent of his passes. He threw for 1,829 yards and 13 touchdowns. He threw 224 passes and only one interception. He had three 300-yard games. His passer rating was so high, 109, it ought to be preserved behind glass.

After the season, Chicago stuck with Cutler. McCown left for Tampa Bay, where he is a backup no more.

I ask him if, when the NFL season began and he was not part of it, he thought his career had ended.

“I was hopeful it would keep going,” says McCown. “I try to deal in reality and understood the situation, and I was at peace with moving forward. So I think I would prefer to phrase it that way.”

He was prepared to move on.

“Just through my faith and everything, I had peace knowing this might be the plan for me,” says McCown.

But he thought he had something left to give the game.

As his amazing 2013 attests, he did. How amazing? Only one quarterback, Peyton Manning, had a higher quarterback rating.

Did being away from football make you a better quarterback?

“I think anytime you grow personally and spiritually, if that’s part of who you are in your core, it’s going to help you professionally,” says McCown. “And so it absolutely did, especially the time I spent coaching at Marvin Ridge. Working with the kids, it just changed my perspective into a kind of coach’s point of view.”

There were, says McCown, “Things I might have unknowingly taken for granted as a player.”

As Davis and Johnson will tell you, nobody takes McCown’s basketball prowess for granted.

“Thomas and Charles are on my Christmas list,” says McCown. “I’ve played with guys that are really good and I’m not one of them.”

Somebody asks McCown if he’s played with Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, who was on the basketball team at Mississippi.

A reporter tells McCown that Hardy has said he would dominate LeBron one-on-one.

“Well God bless him,” says McCown.

Hey, that’s kind of funny.

“Tell Kalil I said hello, please,” McCown says.

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