By Chris Emma–

(CBS) It’s the end of an era in Chicago.

The Bears have granted quarterback Jay Cutler his release,  a move a long time coming made official Thursday afternoon. Cutler becomes a free agent, marking the end of a run in which Cutler was the team’s starting quarterback for the past eight years, posting a 51-51 record in that time (52-52 with the playoffs included).

“I appreciate Jay’s professionalism throughout this process and throughout my two years with him here in Chicago,” Bears general manager Ryan Pace said in a statement. “I will always appreciate his toughness and respect his accomplishments on the field with the Bears. He leaves here holding nearly every passing record with this storied franchise, and I wish him nothing but the best going forward.”

Cuter is first in Bears franchise history in touchdowns (154), passing yards (23,443) and completions (2,020).

“We are grateful to Jay for all he did as a Bear,” chairman George McCaskey added. “His ability, toughness, and intelligence were on daily display at Halas Hall and Soldier Field. He had an extraordinary impact off the field, doing things for people — especially kids — without expecting or wanting any recognition. I was and am a big fan of his. We wish Jay, Kristin and their three kids all the best.”

In early January, the Bears reportedly informed Cutler of their intent to seek trade partners, but they never found a team willing to part with an asset for him.

“Jay was always one of the biggest competitors on our roster,” coach John Fox said. “He battled every day to get better, both himself and his teammates. He was a team guy who would offer anything he could to help the Bears. Wherever his career may take him next, I wish him nothing but success.”

Cutler, who turns 34 in April, posted 154 touchdowns, 109 interceptions and an 85.2 quarterback rating while making 102 starts as a Bear. He played just one full 16-game season in Chicago, his first in 2009.

Then disgruntled in Denver, Cutler was acquired in April 2009 in a blockbuster deal with the Broncos. The Bears sent quarterback Kyle Orton, two first-round picks and a third-round pick to get Cutler and a fifth-rounder back. They viewed him as the piece to take them to the next level, but Chicago made just one playoff appearance in his eight seasons. The Bears reached the NFC Championship Game in January 2011, when they fell to the rival Packers as Cutler watched from the sidelines after suffering a knee injury early in the contest.

[graphiq id=”l2B84oHHU7X” title=”Jay Cutler Career TD and INT Percentages” width=”600″ height=”523″ url=”” link=”” link_text=”PointAfter | Graphiq” ]

The writing had been on the wall for some time that the Bears would part ways with Cutler, as Pace was open in his assessment in early January.

“Trust me, I understand the magnitude of that decision going forward,” Pace said then. “That’s a critical, critical decision for me and this whole building.

“Everything’s on the table right now. Really, that’s what it is. It’s free agency. It’s trades. It’s the draft. It’s current players on our team. Everything’s on the table.”

After his release became official, Cutler released a thank you to the Bears organization and to fans through the Sun-Times.

“Our family will leave Chicago with great memories and relationships on and off the field,” Cutler’s note read in part. “We look forward to the next chapter in our lives and wish the best to Bear fans everywhere.”

Cutler signed a seven-year, $126.7-million extension with the Bears in January 2014. That deal included $54 million in guaranteed money, which has come off the books after the 2016 season.

Cutler played a marginal role in his final season with the Bears, starting just five games. He battled a broken thumb in the second game of the season, then suffered a torn labrum in late November against the Giants.

The final pass of Cutler’s career was an interception on a comeback attempt to beat the Giants. He was injured in that game, which would bring his career record as Bears quarterback to .500.

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

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