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Short and long term, Cutler injury puts Bears in tough spot

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

This isn’t 2011, which you can interpret as being either a good thing or a bad thing – or both at the same time – for the Bears.

These Bears won’t become an affront to offense because of a Jay Cutler injury to the extent that the 2011 group did. This year, backup quarterback Josh McCown is surrounded by vastly superior skill-position talent and a passable offensive line. I’d certainly expect McCown’s play to be superior to Caleb Hanie’s season-torching incompetence. And Cutler, who suffered a muscle tear in his groin Sunday, could be back in a month.

So, the Bears won’t fall as far, which I guess is good news. That’s partly because they don’t have as far to fall. When Cutler broke his thumb two years ago, they were 7-3, winners of five straight and, in my opinion, playing as well as anyone in the NFL. And I thought Cutler was playing the best football he’s played for the Bears (that includes this season, when his supporting cast is way better) when he went down two years ago.

This season, the Bears are a fairly encouraging 4-2 in games Cutler completed. I thought they were probably a playoff team until he went down, but unlike in November 2011, I had no illusions about the Super Bowl. Then, Cutler was the centerpiece of an offense I thought might be just good enough to compliment an elite defense. Now, he’s the centerpiece of a good offense, but one I thought would fall short of carrying a bad defense anywhere significant.

The timing of Cutler’s latest injury stinks in an immediate sense because we probably won’t get to see if I’m wrong. Decent as McCown looked Sunday, the Bears’ playoff chances took a major hit because he’ll be playing, and also because the Bears lost to a one-win Redskins team.

The injury’s timing also stinks long term because the Bears have to make a decision on Cutler’s future with them once the season ends and his contract expires. Pre-injury, they seemed likely to use the franchise tag on him, but there was a chance that in 16 games he would have convinced them to sign him long-term ... or to dump him.

Obviously, the route the Bears choose will be heavily influenced by how Cutler plays – and how healthy he looks – upon his return. Even if the answers are well and very, will the Bears really want to pay about $15 million for one more year (or many, many millions for multiple years) for an inconsistent, temperamental quarterback who has suffered three relatively major injuries in four years?

There’s a silver lining in that the injury might lower Cutler’s asking price. The line to pay top dollar for an oft-injured, inconsistent, temperamental quarterback might be short, if not nonexistent. Then again, there are enough teams such as Arizona, Cleveland and Tampa Bay that could convince themselves they’re a decent quarterback away from contending that I wouldn’t count on Cutler becoming too big a bargain.

You can’t blame Cutler for getting hurt, but this injury just adds to his mystery – he’s 30 years old, but the Bears still don’t know exactly what they have with him.

Absent a viable Plan B, they’re probably going to have to pony up, at least for another year, and trudge forward with him, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to justify that as an approach likely to produce championships.

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