Josh McCown has been one of the feel-good stories of the NFL this season, playing at an elite level while filling in for starter Jay Cutler this season, and, had the Bears been willing to spend one dollar more on his deal they could have been in position to extend him in-season.

Instead, the team could end up without an NFL quarterback on the roster when the free-agent market opens in March. Cutler, who returns Sunday as starter after missing about six games with injury, is an unrestricted free agent and GM Phil Emery has said it’s unlikely the team will franchise. And, by Chicago’s insistence on a minimum-salary benefit deal for McCown, they, per the collective bargaining agreement, can only offer McCown a one-year extension for 2014 again at the minimum-salary benefit level. McCown’s performance has rendered that obsolete.

So, there is literally nothing the Bears can do between now and March, when the free-agent market opens, to negotiate with McCown. He is assured of hitting the market, and with so many college quarterbacks getting hurt and/or staying in school, and a shallow pool of NFL free-agent passers, an informal poll of GMs left me very confident McCown will have suitors.

Had the Bears offered him literally $840,001 (and not $840,000) when signing him, they could have protected their right to extend his deal. Had they put in a bonus package that rewarded him per start, they could have retained the ability to work out a deal with McCown in January or February -- after the season but before free agency begins. Had they included $100,000 in Not Likely To Be Earned bonuses, they could have achieved the same thing.

Adding just $1 to McCown's deal would've been a game changer. (USATSI)

One could make the argument that McCown, as a journeyman who has been out of the league for spells, wouldn’t deserve more than the absolute minimum, but, it’s also worth noting that it’s very rare for a team to have its No. 2 quarterback on such a bare-bones contract. The Browns, for example, gave Brian Hoyer $1M a year when they signed him late in the offseason.

Few could have predicted McCown would play this good, but then again, coach Marc Trestman is a quarterback guru. McCown is the rare backup who actually has been able to become close with Cutler -- a tough nut to crack -- and this is also the first time McCown, a third-round pick by Arizona in 2002, has actually had some talent around him and a system that plays to his strengths.

The GMs I reached out to did not think it was in any way out of the question McCown fetches offers worth $3.5M-$5M per season, and some thought that, if he had the opportunity to continue playing and got the Bears into the postseason, a deal in the range of Alex Smith’s ($7.5M per year) would not have been out of the question.

Perhaps, through injury or otherwise, McCown will get that opportunity, but either way he has greatly raised his earning potential. And with Cutler likely eyeing a deal at the very least in the range of Matt Stafford’s $15M/season and quite possibly more like Tony Romo’s ($18M per season), the Bears will have big decisions to make, and, it could turn out that by being so pennywise with McCown, they ended up looking pound foolish.