CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 20: Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears tries to quiet down the crowd against the San Diego Chargers at Soldier Field on November 20, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Chargers 31-20. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Just when the Chicago Bears seemed poised for big things, Jay Cutler's broken thumb could derail a promising season.
It's a shame that this column can't be dedicated to the happenings on the field Sunday during the Bears' ass-kicking 31-20 home win over the Chargers. That performance deserved the praise this space was eagerly waiting to heap upon it. But just as the Bears were starting to look as good as we've seen them in two decades, the story took a dramatic shift: Jay Cutler, who was borderline brilliant in victory, appears set to miss the rest of the season with a broken right thumb. It happened on an interception in the fourth quarter and will keep the quarterback out for six to eight weeks. It's an awful bit of luck for the Bears and their fans.
The Bears have been remarkably healthy for the last season and a half, but it's a fact that should and will get buried in the ensuing grieving process. There is no perspective in times so despair.
It takes a born and bred Chicagoan to know exactly what was lost today. Perhaps other cities wouldn't be painting a six week injury to a quarterback with a passer rating below 85 as a civic tragedy. Other places don't share our scars, though. This is the city where quality quarterback play goes to die. In Cutler, the Bears had their first top level QB since, like, World War II. Now, he might not play another down this season.
Even with Cutler, it hasn't been an overnight process. Chicago waited two seasons for him to turn into the player the Bears thought they were getting in a 2008 trade with Denver that cost two first round draft picks. This season, he was finally starting to justify the incredibly lofty initial hype. Now he's out until, best case scenario, the first round of the playoffs, if the Bears can even make it that far. Nothing is fair and nothing is good.
We were staring straight at the best Bears offense of my lifetime. Matt Forte turned into one of the best offensive players in football seemingly at random. Earl Bennett is starting to emerge as the team's first above-average wide receiver since Bernard Berrian. Devin Hester remains nearly as deadly as he was during the last Super Bowl run. The offensive line, once anemic, is beginning to make major strides. Now, it all seems lost. One of the biggest truisms in sports is that quarterback is the most important position around. Without Cutler, a playoff slot that once seemed cemented is now uncertain.
The Bears won't get this one back, perhaps the most discouraging angle of all. The window for this team to win a championship is narrow. All of the defensive stars are on the wrong side of 30. Brian Urlacher can't be reasonably expected to keep up a level of play this high for much longer. Lance Briggs wants a new contract, or he wants a new home after the season. Charles Tillman and Julius Peppers are typical humans: not getting any younger. This was the Bears' chance, even with Green Bay hovering over everything with an unparalleled level of omnipresence. Now, the Bears are just trying to survive.
Finding silver linings is difficult during a moment like this, but they're out there, I think. The last two contests -- wins over Detroit and San Diego -- were definitive swing games on the schedule. At 7-3, holding tie-breakers over many of the conference's other wildcard contenders, the Bears put themselves in a good position. They might be able to survive this, to get in the playoffs and hope Cutler is ready to go. Here's what the rest of the schedule looks like:
- @ Oakland
- Vs. Kansas City
- @ Denver
- Vs. Seattle
- @ Green Bay
- @ Minnesota
For the Bears to make the playoffs, they probably need to go 3-3. Thankfully, this might be the easiest portion of the season. Kansas City is without its starting quarterback, too. Denver has newfound fight but is highly beatable. Seattle is plagued by Tarvaris Jackson. The Bears play Minnesota as well as anyone and they're starting a rookie at quarterback and had an injury today, as well. Maybe by Christmas, the Packers will be resting their stars.
3-3 is very possible. A 10-6 record would likely get the Bears a date in the first round with either the Giants or Saints. After the way Cutler's name was run through the mud last post-season for a presumed lack of toughness, you have to imagine he'll do whatever it takes to be on the field if his teammates can secure a trip to the playoffs.
Still, looking to the immediate future can be saved for another day. Today should be reserved for recognizing what was lost. Chicago won't be getting over Jay Cutler's season ending injury any time soon. When it takes this long to find competence at quarterback, seeing it disappear so suddenly is an agonizing pill to swallow.
Ricky O'Donnell is a writer and editor in Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. He is always very much available for hire. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com.