By Dan Bernstein- Senior Columnist

(CBS) I guess we have the most practical definition yet of Franchise Quarterback.

When he breaks his thumb, the franchise falls apart.

It’s easy to include the injury to Matt Forte in this disaster – and the Bears are better with him than without him, certainly – but let’s be real about what’s going on here. Jay Cutler’s injury has thrown the Bears into a death spiral.

He goes out and everything bad gets exposed at every level. Three excruciating losses to beatable teams have created a toxic mess that is only beginning to intensify, imperiling the respective futures of coaches and executives.

Who knew a metacarpal bone could bear so much weight?

Cutler’s timing, accuracy, athleticism and guts made bad wide receivers look decent and a misfit offensive line appear competent. In a bizarre way, he even made us think Caleb Hanie was better than he is, since he made us overrate everything else: we assumed the kid would be OK when plugged into the offense, not quite fully understanding how many deficiencies were being disguised.

Now, the lack of talent on the roster appears obvious, the offensive system is too arcane to function properly or include others who could possibly help, defense and special teams are asked to do too much, and Halas Hall is abuzz with gossip, whispers and agendas.

Mike Martz started floating rumors about himself when college jobs opened, then expressed sour indignation about it when nobody wanted to hire him. Lovie Smith insisted he’d know about anything going on with his offensive coordinator, even as the general manager was hinting that the offense was part of the problem.

Meantime, someone is reigniting the retirement rumors for Jerry Angelo. Is this coming from above, sending the message that he can exit with dignity if he chooses, or is Angelo navigating his own exit, trying to find a way to promote his friend Tim Ruskell into a job he probably doesn’t deserve?

The last three weeks have been brutal, with fans whipsawed from genuine expectations to existential dread. Each outcome worse than the last, fraying nerves and eroding hope.

The loss to the Broncos, specifically, was a season-breaker. Smith’s message in the lead-up was clear all week in the angry tone of his defensive veterans before the game, and in Brian Urlacher’s bitterness after the fact. It was supposed to be a reclamation of identity and renewal of purpose, then it shattered into something cold and ugly, calling both into question.

At least the Colts and their fans could get their misery out of the way early, never envisioning anything this season with Peyton Manning sidelined. They were afforded ample time to recalibrate their emotions, rationalize and move on.

For the Bears, it’s just torture.

The injury totals are striking, particularly when contrasted with those of last season, with six players already on injured reserve. But this is not about Gabe Carimi, Patrick Mannelly or Chris Williams, and it’s not really even about Forte.

It’s clear, now, how good Jay Cutler is, and how bad the Bears are without him, even as the other phases remain solid. They likely beat the Raiders with him, clobber the Chiefs, and even prevent the embarrassing beatification of Tim Tebow and the accompanying national god-gasm that’s currently giving voice to the primitive bumpkins and emboldening the wild-eyed kooks.

It’s tempting to keep rewinding events. Johnny Knox doesn’t slip, the interception never happens, Cutler’s not hurt, so many things change.

It’s also a pointless, loser’s game to do that.

Unfortunately, that also describes the remainder of the Bears’ season.

Dan Bernstein

Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of ‚ÄúBoers and Bernstein‚Äù since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.

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