From broken thumb to broken dreams?
Bears' playoff push could be derailed if Jay Cutler's injury is as bad as it appears
CHICAGO -- The attitude, the anger, the athletic ability that sometimes defies proper fundamentals; when it's good, it's great for Jay Cutler. If we've learned anything about the Chicago Bears quarterback, it is that.
When he has an extra second to throw and a decent game plan; when his receivers don't drop the ball more often than pull it in; when he remains poised and focused, the Bears are a very good football team. A playoff team.
And without Cutler, the 7-3 Bears are in deep trouble.
Soon after Cutler left Soldier Field, multiple reports circulated (and were later confirmed by ESPNChicago.com's sources) that he fractured the thumb on his throwing hand. The injury might require surgery, throwing into question not just the immediate availability of the Bears quarterback, but his availability for the rest of the season.
The Bears had no information and no comment on the reports or Cutler's status on Sunday night.
After delaying his postgame press conference for about 15 minutes longer than usual, Cutler, who led the Bears' fifth consecutive victory having thrown for two touchdowns and run for another, spoke to the media without attracting any attention to the injury.
While the Bears' defense carried the day last week and was opportune in its playmaking against Philip Rivers and the Chargers, it was the offense that stood out on Sunday.
And it was Cutler, aided by a Bears special teams effort that gave them field position on their own 46-yard line or better three times (not counting following turnovers), who said, "I did what I had to do."
He was referring to the defensive play he made following an interception he threw to Antoine Cason with 10:03 remaining in the fourth quarter. After chasing Cason downfield, Cutler pushed him off stride and Matt Forte was credited with the tackle.
Cutler was slow getting up. But there is no telling when he may have injured the thumb. He threw two more passes after that, completing both, one for 13 yards and the other for 11.
Cutler was also shaken up a bit after completing an 11-yard pass to Roy Williams to the Bears' 34 midway through the third quarter. Cutler was kneed in the head by a Chargers' player after the play but stayed in the game, completing three more passes -- 12 and 11 yards to Williams and a 42-yarder to Johnny Knox -- before scoring on a 1-yard plunge to give the Bears a 24-17 lead.
The focus immediately turns to Bears backup quarterback Caleb Hanie, who has not thrown a pass this season but has made appearances in two games, playing against Minnesota and Detroit and compiling no statistics in either.
In the preseason, Hanie threw for 388 yards on 36 of 63 completions with one touchdown and two interceptions.
Hanie's biggest -- and arguably only -- moment of note as a Bear came in last season's NFC Championship loss to the Green Bay Packers in which the then-third-stringer entered the game late in the third quarter after Cutler was injured and with the Packers leading 14-0.
Having not so much as had a single rep in practice the previous week and almost none in the previous two months, Hanie led the Bears on two touchdown drives. But he followed with an interception returned for a touchdown by Green Bay's B.J. Raji.
The Bears had one last opportunity from their own 29 with less than three minutes remaining in regulation, and Hanie drove the team to the Green Bay 29 with 47 seconds left. But another interception into double coverage provided the final blow.
At least twice this season, in a 30-13 loss to New Orleans and in last week's 37-13 victory over the Lions, the question was raised over why Cutler stayed in the entire game. But either way, Hanie, who played in four regular-season games over the 2009 and 2010 seasons and threw seven passes in each season, would be in for the challenge of his career.
Cutler was close to his best against the Chargers on Sunday, completing 18-of-31 attempts for 286 yards and finishing with a quarterback rating of 97, his fourth-highest of the season. He utilized Williams, Knox and Earl Bennett on Sunday, throwing to the trio for a combined 234 yards.
"He deserves to play well with all the time he puts into his craft," said Bears coach Lovie Smith. "He's got a long ways to go. They're buying in and really feel good about what we're doing."
It would be a horrendous blow for the Bears if Cutler misses more than a few games. Cutler said after the game that his improved comfort level in the system compared to last season was simply due to experience.
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"You look at all the really good quarterbacks in this league and, for the most part, they're going to be in the same system for many years and have the same guys around them and everyone is going to grow offensively and get better and better," Cutler said. "To blow it up in Year 1 or Year 2 is hard.
"It just takes reps and seeing plays and messing up and seeing them again and looking at them on film over and over. It's like anything else. To be good at something, you're going to take your lumps but eventually, if you keep at it, something good is going to happen." Perhaps it is a positive sign that as Cutler was speaking these words, he was aware of his injury, if not the prognosis. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford played, albeit throwing four interceptions, last week against the Bears with a broken right index finger. And Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a fractured right thumb injured at some point during Pittsburgh's 24-17 victory over Cincinnati last week.
Roethlisberger, who also played with a broken thumb in 2005 while leading the Steelers to their fifth Super Bowl title, didn't miss a snap. Cutler could conceivably return for the playoffs if the Bears earn a wild card, but after six games missed, it certainly wouldn't be an ideal situation.
Talking about Cutler's anger after the interception at Knox, who was the intended receiver but slipped on the play, Williams praised the Bears quarterback.
"He's a perfectionist," Williams said. "I've never been around a guy who gets fired up for mistakes [like Jay does]. But he praises you at the same time so it's not like he's just a b--- hole. He does what he's supposed to do and he expects everybody to play at his level."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.