UPDATE: Lovie Smith just stated during his Monday press conference that the Bears expect Cutler to return prior to the end of the regular season.
There is no way to positively spin losing Jay Cutler for the next six-to-eight weeks, should that turn out to be the result of his broken thumb. The Chicago Bears have become one of the best teams in football and recently, as opposing defenses have ganged up to stop Matt Forte, the primary reason has been Cutler. He has learned to maneuver around shaky pass protection and found a rhythm with his receiving corps, even including Roy Williams in the mix against the Chargers Sunday. Quite simply he is playing the position as well as anyone ever has for this organization.
And now he’s gone. The difference between six and eight weeks is drastic, however. Six weeks means he could return that second weekend in January for the wildcard round of the postseason. Eight weeks means the Bears would have to win two road games with Caleb Hanie for Cutler to return and face his buddy Aaron up at Lambeau. (And if Hanie wins two road playoff games, there will surely be those clamoring for him to keep his job.)
This injury changes the season. It changes the expectations. The 7-3 Chicago Bears are in the thick of the NFC playoff picture but getting to play a 17th game will be an uphill battle without their offensive leader and one of the best quarterbacks in the sport. Is it a long shot that Hanie can win four of the Bears remaining six games and cement them a postseason spot? Not in the slightest. The way the schedule finishes, one can easily conclude Hanie will be the best QB on the field for four of the final six games. He is better than Palko. Better than Tebow. Better than Tarvaris. Better than Ponder.
The expectations change and so does the pressure. Mike Martz has to reform the offensive system, simplify things and make protection the number one goal. The offensive line has to win the one-on-one battles inside and give Matt Forte holes to dash through. And the defense. Oh, the defense. They must become the core of this team once again. They must dominate opponents like they did last week against Detroit. They can no longer expect the offensive output they’ve been receiving and must treat every drive like they’re protecting a six-point lead with a minute to play.
Caleb Hanie will be the focus but it is incumbent upon every member of this roster to fill the void left by Cutler’s absence. If you believed this team was capable of winning the Super Bowl, and I certainly did, put those thoughts on hold for the moment. The goal now is the postseason. And that road starts Sunday in Oakland.