Emma: Bears Have Called Jay Cutler’s Future Into Doubt

By Chris Emma–

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — You can be sure that John Fox knows well what he’s doing.

Because of the head coach’s words, the Bears now have an apparent quarterback controversy. When Jay Cutler is healthy enough to return from his thumb sprain, he could remain on the sidelines and Brian Hoyer may become the Bears’ starting quarterback.

“It’s performance-based,” Fox said on Monday at Halas Hall. “So anybody that’s performing well, I don’t think we’re going to be likely to change.”

And so it begins. Fox likes the gamesmanship, despite how it’s perceived outside of Halas Hall. Fox could just be playing coy — it wouldn’t be the first time — though he’s slighting Cutler in doing so.

Regardless of Fox’s sincerity in creating this quarterback conundrum, the lack of commitment to Cutler speaks volumes, even with just those few words. He’s now been pressed multiple times to whether Culter would return as the starter and refused to commit.

Cutler is playing his third season of a seven-year deal worth up to $126.7 million, of which $54 million in guarantees will be entirely paid after this 2016 season. He can be released without cap repercussions this offseason, though a trade would obviously be the preferred route.

Bears general manager Ryan Pace has built this roster as his own, clearing out Phil Emery’s leftovers and refreshing the kitchen cupboards. Through the overhaul, Cutler has remained as the starting quarterback simply because the Bears haven’t been in position for a better alternative. Their needs across the board were far greater, and franchise quarterbacks are mostly found at the top of the draft, not in free agency.

Now, Cutler is 33 years old and playing his eighth season as the Bears’ starting quarterback. He’s been surrounded with playmakers and prioritized with his play-caller, Dowell Loggains. The Bears positioned Cutler for a potential career year.

Despite the circumstances, it stands possible that the Bears could stay with Hoyer, who in Sunday’s victory over the Lions went 28-of-36 for 302 yards and two touchdowns. Of more importance, he has managed his two starts well and hasn’t turned the football over.

The Bears may have their defense ready to sustain, as evidenced by shutting down the league’s fourth-ranked offense from Detroit. Moving forward, they could ask Hoyer to simply manage the game by controlling the clock and look to win with complementary football.

Fox has a history with such a maneuver. In his first season with the Broncos back in 2011, he benched starter Kyle Orton — traded to Denver in the deal that sent Cutler to Chicago — after a 1-4 start and trusted Tim Tebow to manage the game at quarterback. Denver averaged just 18.5 points per game but finished the regular season 7-4 with Tebow and reached the playoffs.

Don’t compare Hoyer to Tebow, who’s now a baseball player, but it stands possible that Fox could have something similar in mind.

Perhaps Fox is genuine in his consideration of benching Cutler for Hoyer and the Bears will ask him to simply put them in position to win — hand it off to Jordan Howard, spread the ball around the field and don’t give it away. Cutler has the big arm but is prone to the turnover.

However, Hoyer isn’t Chicago’s future at quarterback. If Fox sides with the 30-year-old career backup to start, it’s what he believes gives the Bears their best chance to win. Hoyer would become a bridge to the next quarterback.

Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson are widely considered to be the top quarterbacks available in the 2017 draft. Miami’s Brad Kaaya and Mississippi’s Chad Kelly are considered options for the second or third rounds. How Pace evaluates quarterbacks remains unknown after he’s passed on drafting a developmental prospect through two drafts.

Finally, the Bears will be in proper position to find their next franchise quarterback — and with Cutler’s contract paid in guarantees. We may be watching the beginning of the end for Cutler in Chicago.

For now, the spotlight is on the quarterback controversy Fox is fine creating. The Bears could be Hoyer’s team for the near future.

Even in few words, Fox’s disregard to Cutler says a lot.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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