I have never experienced a season quite like this as a Chicago Bears fan. Very few people, if any, have. How often have the Bears looked on the verge of competing for a championship at midseason, scoring points seemingly at will, only to have the ground fall out beneath them? The 7-3 Chicago were one of the best teams in the NFL. The 7-6 Bears are not in the top half of the league due to an anemic offensive output. The reason for the unique situation is a simple one: the Bears have never had a quarterback like Jay Cutler.
In the past, losing the starting QB in Chicago was about as consequential as losing the nickel corner. When Rex Grossman dropped in the 2005 preseason, the Bears settled on Kyle Orton (after a Chad Hutchinson layover) and the difference was negligible. When Jim Miller would get hurt, Shane Matthews would step in and most times you could barely tell the difference. Hell even in the 1985 Super Bowl season the Bears barely missed a beat in Steve Fuller’s five starts for Jim McMahon. (Having the greatest defense and tailback ever helped a bit.) Fuller’s numbers weren’t any good but the Bears won 4 of 5 nevertheless.
Jay Cutler makes the entire team better. The offensive line has less pressure to hold blocks due to his combination of mobility and near-alarming arm strength. The run game prospers because opposing defenses have to to keep a safety deep, knowing Cutler can strike for a touchdown on any play. The defense can play more aggressively because they know allowing a touchdown or two will not cost the Bears a notch in the win column. He does not have the credentials yet of Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger or Eli Manning but he is every bit as important to his team as they are to theirs. Likewise each of those organizations would see a precipitous decline should their signal caller see extended time on the sideline.
These things happen in the NFL. They are sad, disappointing events but they do occur. The Bears had every opportunity the past two weeks to survive this injury by making a play here or a play there. But Urlacher knocked the Hail Mary to Dexter McCluster. Roy Williams dropped the slant. Marion Barber provided arguably the worst five minutes of Bears player tape since David Terrell dropped a pair of wide open TD passes against the Lions on December 2, 2001 and Henry Burris got his Sunday night start against the Tampa Bay Bucs. Caleb Hanie missed Earl Bennett down the sideline, Johnny Knox over the middle, Barber on a screen and just about every other open receiver for 175 of the 180 minutes he’s played. Lovie Smith softened the defensive coverage Tim Tebow, believing the shaky QB would not be able to move the Broncos the length of the field.
If the Bears do not reach the postseason, even with the injury to Cutler, this will not have been a successful season. Not with the losses sustained to Tyler Palko at home and after Barber’s antics in Denver. To call this season successful would be to excuse a series of mistakes over the last eight quarters that are nothing short of inexcusable. And while the postseason seems like a pipe dream now it does not relegate the final three games to the land of the meaningless. The Bears can still have a winning season. The Bears can still stop their rival from perfection. The Bears can build on the success of 7-3 and the set the stage for 2012.
But they cannot win a championship. Not anymore. Not without Cutler.