Injuries are every bit as ingrained in the fabric of What Makes The NFL as marble-mouthed announcing and ubiquitous truck commercials. The players know the deal going in: they get the fairy tale salaries and celebrity status, a compensation most deem worthy of whatever breaks, tears and sprains they'll likely have to endure long after their playing days are over. It's not so simple for fans. With players' faces mostly shielded and their bodies loaded in armor, it's nearly impossible not to feel some sense of dehumanization. Sports exist to give strangers something to talk about, mostly, but they also test a certain part of person's fiber, even from the perspective of fandom. The meatheads who clogged sports talk radio years ago -- you know, the ones who attacked Jay Cutler after an injury forced his exit from the 2010-2011 NFC Championship game vs. the Packers -- are at least a declining species now, as concussion awareness and harrowing stories from former players have permeated fairly deep. There are certain ideals that will never dissipate from the culture of football, though, and most come from a similar place of macho'd-out toughness. "Next Man Up" is near the top of the list.
There are problems with this, of course, and they were on full display in San Francisco last Monday night when Jason Campbell tagged in for a concussed Cutler and promptly led the Bears into a beating via the 49ers. "Next Man Up" will always very much be a reality in a sport as downright violent as pro football, though, no matter how much the results vary. It's why luck is as crucial an element of success as anything else: to be lucky is to be healthy in the world of the NFL, and with such strong parity league-wide, the healthiest team is sometimes the best. This was a fact of existence the Bears clashed with in Week 12, when their vital 28-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings felt largely overshadowed by a slew of injuries.
Five Bears left the victory with various ailments on Sunday, and Lance Briggs exited Soldier Field in a walking boot just for good measure. There were some big names: DPOY candidate Charles Tillman, fantasy star Matt Forte and the team's best offensive lineman, Lance Louis, among them. When a concussion to Devin Hester is really the least of your worries, you know it's bad. And it really was bad, though we'll wait with baited breath for MRI results and the like before knowing if Sunday was enough to derail this season. Remember: It was at this exact point last season when Cutler's broken finger blew apart a promising 7-3 start.
Injuries. It clouded over everything in this game, from those who were lost to the one man who returned. Cutler missed only a game with the concussion he received courtesy of the Houston Texans in Week 10, and thank goodness for that. With Cutler in tow the Bears have at least the semblance of a real contender, a puncher's shot at beating anyone in the league. Without him, well, you saw what happened last season with Caleb Hanie leading the charge. Campbell puts the team in more capable hands, but even his fairly large paycheck only serves to remind that the ability to play quarterback well might be the country's single most valuable trait. You think I'm kidding. There are literally 14 people alive in the entire world who are any good at this.
Don't think Cutler is unaware. Bears-Vikings brought a couple of treats -- that fake extra point was pretty dope -- and a first quarter taunting penalty on Cutler was chief among them. It led to many good tweets:
Could you imagine if Cutler got flagged for every taunt he's dished out in regular life?— jon greenberg (@espnchijon) November 25, 2012
That was the most Jay Cutler of penalties.— David Matthews (@_dmatthews) November 25, 2012
Taunting on Jay Cutler isn't a penalty. It's a lifestyle.— Ben Strauss (@bstrauss1) November 25, 2012
Don't care. That was awesome.— Matthew Watts (@WattsMR) November 25, 2012
DVR Delay Tweet: Cutler called for taunting?!! Welcome back, Jay!— Paige (@LetThereBeNeon) November 25, 2012
Cutler taunts because he can, because he knows he's the most important person in the huddle, in the room. It's the reason a fake Twitter account bearing his name comes with the bio "Jay Cutler is the best QB in the NFL. Dick."
It's fun to mock Cutler's personality, though at this point I'd like to think most are smart enough to know it's main effect is laughs. The Bears aren't losing because Jay Cutler frowns too often, and look, there's another Easter Egg: the Bears' QB tying the shoe of J'Marcus Webb, his beleaguered blind side protector.
So yes: the injuries hover over the win, but the win was essential nonetheless. After the Packers got drilled by the Giants on Sunday night, the Bears now find themselves in first place in the NFC North. Had they lost to Minnesota, they would have been in third.
A steep price to pay, yes, but this is life in the NFL. As the sample size grows larger this season, we're beginning to figure these Bears out. They will kill bad quarterbacks, just as they did to Minnesota's Christian Ponder on Sunday. They will struggle mightily against speed rushers, just as they did last week vs. Aldon Smith and the 49ers. They also might just have enough to win with, at least when the offensive line can hold up somewhat and the Cutler-to-Marshall connection is in full bloom. The Bears are 8-3, and that is a hell of a record. Am I convinced they can block the people they'll have to block in the playoffs, namely Smith, Jason Pierre Paul and Clay Matthews? Of course not. But, you know, NFL success is fragile. Injuries go both ways. I can't say for sure that this is the best Bears team of my lifetime, but they at least make it a worthwhile discussion. With a little luck, we'll be fortunate to see the true value of this team soon enough.