By Adam Hoge-
CHICAGO (CBS) It was all coming together for Jay Cutler.
After two-plus seasons of up-and-down play by the Bears quarterback, Cutler had put together a string of six straight above average games, none better than his effort Sunday afternoon in the Bears’ 31-20 win over the Chargers at Soldier Field.
And now, all that momentum may have come to a screeching halt.
Multiple outlets are reporting Cutler broke the thumb on his throwing hand Sunday night and could miss 6-8 weeks. It’s never a good time for any injury, but for the Bears, this injury is devastating.
It took so long to get Cutler, Mike Martz and the entire Bears offense on the same page. Game after game went by with nothing but frustration as Martz, Cutler, the wide receivers and offensive line could not get a complex system to click. Finally, in recent weeks, it appeared that was happening as the Bears ran off five wins in a row.
And now Caleb Hanie might have to lead the Bears to the playoffs?
During the win-streak, Cutler was showing poise, toughness, accuracy and leadership, all characteristics previously criticized by fans and media from coast-to-coast throughout his career.
Something was finally clicking.
“I think he has a mindset,” head coach Lovie Smith said after Sunday’s win, failing to mention anything about a devastating injury to his quarterback. “It’s his second year in a system. I can’t tell you all the reasons why. I just know he deserves to play well – the amount of time he puts into his craft.”
A quick glance at Cutler’s career stats doesn’t do his transformation justice. His quarterback rating of 84.4 coming into Sunday’s game was right in line with his career average, but spend five minutes watching him actually play the game this season and you can tell he was blossoming as the quarterback of the Chicago Bears. He’s more confident, he’s more demonstrative and more importantly, he has clearly become the unquestioned leader of an offense that finally has an identity under Mike Martz.
And now Hanie might have to be that guy?
Cutler’s leadership was shown clearly on television monitors Sunday night when, after calling a timeout at the line of scrimmage, he walked towards the sideline and yelled, “That’s two on you.” He appeared to be directing the comment at quarterbacks coach Shane Day who relays the play calls from Martz to Cutler and it was hardly out of line. Instead, it represented some much needed accountability every good team has and it showed that like most great quarterbacks, Cutler is in charge.
Hanie, most certainly, won’t be “in charge”.
All-in-all, Cutler completed 18-of-31 passes Sunday for 286 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for a score on a quarterback sneak.
But Cutler’s biggest play actually came on an interception — his first since Week 7 against the Buccaneers — when Johnny Knox slipped and Antoine Cason picked off the pass and appeared to be headed for the end zone to cut into the Bears’ 31-20 lead. Cason made it 60 yards downfield, but Cutler never gave up on the play and fought off a block to slow Cason down, allowing Forte to get there in time and push the Chargers’ defensive back out of bounds at the 16-yard line. Three plays later, Bears safety Major Wright intercepted Philip Rivers in the end zone, preserving the lead for good.
“That might have been the biggest play of the game,” Smith said. “We don’t want Jay to make a lot of tackles, but sometimes you have to.”
As it turns out, that was the play Cutler broke his thumb. And it may end up being the biggest play of the season for all the wrong reasons.
“You don’t want to be in that position too often, having to run down a DB, but you have to do what you have to do,” Cutler said.
Ironically, the play that might put him on the sidelines is also the perfect example of the new, much improved Jay Cutler. In the past, mistakes could often lead to more blunders, but Sunday, the Bears’ quarterback turned his only mistake into his biggest play of the game.
And if there are any remaining questions about his toughness, those have been answered, considering he finished the game with the broken thumb. And not only that, but he also took a knee to the back of the head in the third quarter and shook it off by completing four straight passes before scoring himself on a quarterback sneak. Cutler was shaking his head trying to clear the cobwebs throughout the drive, but all of his throws were sharp and on the money.
This is the Cutler Bears fans thought they were getting when he was traded over from Denver in 2009 and it’s easy to forget that he was coming off a Pro Bowl season when the trade was made. But, after a slow start to the season, Cutler was finally looking more and more like one of the league’s better quarterbacks again.
And now it might be over.
In the on-going saga that is Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears, the latest chapter is quite simply, brutal.
Adam is the Sports Content Producer for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.