By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) It’s not a movie, it’s a football game. And it’s one between two mediocre teams.
The cinematic storylines are there, I understand completely, but that doesn’t give us license to lose our collective marbles over the regular-season finale to crown the best of this limp NFC North. It feels like it should be really important, so there’s some inflation at work regarding the stakes.
Yes, every spot-break on the station currently includes a recorded promo with one of us intoning turgidly about Sunday’s upcoming cataclysm, so the urge to point that out is completely warranted. We read what’s on the sheet, as part of our job. But you’re right.
So far, however, this game is building wildly into not only the final-act showdown between ancient rivals, but Jay Cutler against everything. It’s Cutler against Green Bay, the team that has beaten him seven times in eight tries and intercepted 17 of his passes, enough for Charles Woodson to once trash-talk “We don’t need luck. Jay will throw us the ball.” They are the team that helped ignite the unfortunate, misguided national conversation about his toughness.
It’s Cutler versus the idealized alternative that is Josh McCown. Anything that happens will be measured against some fantasy of what could have been, assuming only positive scenarios had the surprisingly-effective un-Cutler performed in his place.
Cutler goes up against his future, staring at free agency with one last chance to validate his Big Game credentials and shore up trust that this single stamp of legitimacy would pave the way to deserved riches.
Cutler against himself – can his competitive instinct to embrace risk ever be curtailed enough for him to flourish? Cutler against Chicago – will this polarizing enigma ever do enough to be embraced, despite being the best ever at his position in franchise history?
Will a victory mean Marc Trestman’s first year is a success? Does a loss mean he’s embarked on a long slide to failure? Is this the last stand for Mel Tucker? Can Batman and Robin escape from the net that holds them over the vat of bubbling acid in time to thwart The Riddler’s nefarious plan to destroy Gotham City?
Chill out for a second.
First, the Cutler stuff is far more complicated than a single outcome deciding his fate. Phil Emery is examining not only an entire body of work to this point, but projecting the growth that would come by his continuation in a proven system. He is evaluating age and injury frequency when formulating options for contract structure, and still leaving open the fallback possibility of the franchise tag. If we know one thing for sure about Emery, it’s that he’s deliberate – a firm believer in process. The process of appraising Cutler’s future at the position began some time ago and is ongoing. His performance Sunday is part of it, but not its entirety.
Moreover, even a spectacular turn will do little to alter the entrenched feelings that surround him. You can hear it now: Clay Matthews didn’t play, it was a home game, etc. And then what about the next week? If Cutler lays an egg in that first playoff game, would it then utterly invalidate the previous performance? It’s all a bit silly.
Trestman should be judged by whether or not the Bears are closer to winning a championship, regardless of how the ball bounces against the Packers. 9-7 or 8-8 is merely arbitrary, far less significant than the actual proximity to a title.
Most importantly, this game does not instantly turn the winner into a good NFL team. It merely determines the winner of a bad division. The Bears’ historically-inept defense precludes hope of accomplishing much more than ending their season quietly a week or two later.
Perhaps it’s that awareness that has turned week 17 into something that feels strangely like a college bowl game, puffed up to be something more than it is.
Like two heritage programs with years of history between them meeting for something less than a national title to close out a decent season, fans celebrate what they have while trying to ignore what they don’t.