Josh McCown was sometimes the starting quarterback, often the backup — and always among the most-respected and well-liked players in whatever locker room he was in.
And there were many.
McCown, who turns 40 on July 4, wrote in a piece for The Players’ Tribune posted Monday that he is retiring from playing football after an NFL career that spanned 16 NFL seasons and included stints with 10 teams. He will be helping coach his two sons — also quarterbacks — in high school this year. McCown said he also plans to work as a TV football analyst in the future.
He was immensely popular among his many teammates and coaches for his even-keeled yet passionate demeanor, unquestioned leadership skills and professional approach to whatever his role was. McCown’s love for the game rubbed off on his teammates, and many considered him a player/coach late in his career. Jets safety Jamal Adams often jokingly referred to McCown on social media as “Uncle Josh,” a nickname that quickly spread.
McCown was often considered a “bridge” quarterback, and his career record as a starter was only 23-53. But McCown’s career was about more than numbers.
“I guess it just goes to show that you don’t always get to choose your own path,” McCown wrote. “But looking back, I’m proud of how my career has gone. I don’t shy away from the journeyman label. I embrace it, full force.
“Because it’s been one heck of a journey.”
He played the last two seasons with the New York Jets, serving as the starter in 2017 and as a veteran backup to rookie Sam Darnold last year. Darnold often raved about how McCown prepared every week, particularly during a four-game stretch when the rookie was sidelined by a foot injury. McCown filled in during that time for Darnold, who stepped back into the starting job when he was healthy and finished his first NFL season with a flourish.
“Just watching Josh, just the way he went about studying the plays that are in the game plan, it’s literally everything, walkthrough, practice, how he treated everything,” Darnold said late last season. “I think it was just awesome to be able to learn and watch him.”
McCown issued a statement through agent Mike McCartney shortly before the NFL’s new year began in March that his desire to continue playing remained strong, but he wanted to spend more time with his family to consider his options. McCown, an unrestricted free agent, made the Jets aware of his situation, and New York signed Trevor Siemian to serve as the backup to Darnold this season.
McCown was a third-round draft pick of Arizona in 2002 out of Sam Houston State. McCown and Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers were the only remaining active players from their draft class. Now, there are none; Peppers announced his retirement last month.
After four seasons with the Cardinals, when he started 22 games, McCown signed with Detroit as a free agent in 2006. Next came stints with Oakland (2007), Miami (2008) and Carolina (2008-09), and then a stop in 2010 with the Hartford Colonials of the United Football League. McCown also coached high school ball during that time, and it appeared his NFL playing career might be over.
He got a look from San Francisco during training camp in 2011, but was cut before the season. Chicago signed him, and he revived his career with the Bears. He had what was then his best season in 2013, when he threw for 1,829 yards with 13 touchdowns and just one interception while filling in for an injured Jay Cutler.
McCown signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent in 2014, spent two years with Cleveland and then joined the Jets, for whom he had a career year in 2017. He had personal highs of 2,926 yards passing and 18 touchdowns with just nine interceptions in 13 starts before missing the last three games with a broken hand.
With New York’s quarterback situation uncertain last offseason, McCown was re-signed for one year and $10 million. The Jets ended up trading up in the draft to take Darnold at No. 3 overall, and McCown became a high-priced backup — something team chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson had no regrets about.
“Josh is very valuable whether he’s on the field or not,” Johnson said early last season. “Not just for Sam, but for a lot of other players. They talk about his leadership. I think he’s money well spent.”
McCown finished with 17,707 career yards passing, 98 touchdowns and 82 interceptions, with a 60.2 completion percentage and 79.7 quarterback rating.
“At the end of the day, no matter what team I was on, I tried to serve it to the best of my ability, and I tried to influence my team in a positive manner,” McCown wrote. “I hope I did that. And I made sure that when my number was called, I was prepared, and I gave it everything I had, every time.”