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Sunday, January 1, 2012
Yes, Jay Cutler is that good

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jay Cutler's Most Valuable Player campaign ended here, on the frozen carpet of Whatever You Want to Call It Field, in a game that should've been sponsored by a blindfold and a bottle of Old Grand Dad.

The Bears mercifully won their season-ender, 17-13, over the hapless Minnesota Vikings to end their season at 8-8. It was their first win without Cutler in six tries. It meant absolutely nothing except avoiding a losing record. It was nearly impossible to watch.

All I got out of it was closure and another reminder how much this team misses Cutler, who didn't make the trip.

Josh McCown
Josh McCown completed 15 of 25 passes for 160 yards with a touchdown and an interception against the Vikings on Sunday.

He wasn't terrible, but Sunday's starter Josh McCown is only the answer to the question: "What quarterback on the Bears roster is better than Caleb Hanie?" Is McCown the backup of the future? Maybe in some kind of dystopian future.

It's not as though I had an epiphany about Cutler's value as I daydreamed about sneaking out of the New Year's Day din and back into a warm bed.

Cutler was having a very good season, personally and as the leader of a much-improved offense, before we found out he broke his thumb in Week 11 against San Diego. His absence turned an intriguing offense into a hideous one. You thought Peyton Manning was the MVP by absence? The post-Cutler Bears were worse, even with a better defense.

Forget the strawman arguments about his toughness, the real Cutler critics wondered, with empirical evidence, if Cutler could ever be the winning franchise quarterback he's billed as, and I think the answer is, "Yes! For this franchise, anyway."

Cutler's current worth is one of two things we can all agree on when discussing the philosophical logic puzzle that is the Chicago Bears' offense.

"Did I see it?" Devin Hester said, with a chuckle, when I asked about Cutler's importance. "Did y'all see how valuable he was?

"Cutler is the heart and soul of our offense," he continued. "He's the head guy, he runs the machine. The other guys came in and held their ground, but at the same time Jay Cutler is a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback. It's kind of hard to replace a guy like that."

The other absolute is that left-for-dead tackle J'Marcus Webb should never, ever guard a hungry Jared Allen one-on-one again. Allen disagrees: "He gets paid," he said after the game. "He should have gotten less help." I dig his attitude, and that's why I don't think we should make excuses for Hanie or anyone else. These guys get paid for a reason.

That's why there was no silver lining to this win. Defensive tackle Henry Melton nicely stifled his laughter when I asked if it was nice to get a W to end the season. He knows better. He's just glad the season is over. He's not alone.

Hester, a shell of himself recently due mostly to injuries, accurately explained how most of the Bears probably felt after their season ended.

"I'm not even looking forward to a vacation right now," he said. "I'm fitting to go home, lay around and relax for three or four weeks."

Football is a damaging, barbaric sport and the only payoff is making the playoffs, because there you have a slight chance of achieving some kind of immortality. This has been a nightmare six weeks for a group of guys who deserve better. At least Brian Urlacher's knee injury, suffered trying to break up a pass in the end zone, isn't believed to be serious. That would've been poetic injustice.

Jay Cutler, Caleb Hanie
Jay Cutler can hide a lot of the Bears' shortcomings, such as left tackle.

"We don't want to tear this team down and start over," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "This is a good football team, and we are going to win a lot of games with this core remaining the same."

Smith has a point. After all the Bears were 7-3 and looking dangerous when Cutler's thumb injury decimated the season. But on the other hand, maybe this team needs a shake-up earlier rather than later.

I can't fault general manager Jerry Angelo for going into the season with Hanie as his backup, even though that plan failed spectacularly. The league is rampant with lousy backup quarterbacks, so why should we expect any better from the franchise that has set the standard on quarterback malfeasance?

After Hanie, the all-world nice guy, all but insured himself a future as a high school coach with his play, McCown's relative success -- one win, didn't make anyone want to jump in Lake Minnetonka -- didn't do anything to prove that he should be next in line in 2012. Conversely, I know some had their boxers in a bunch over the Bears' decision not to play rookie Nathan Enderle, but I don't really agree. At this point in the season, I can only feel nihilism toward this team and this season. Enderle isn't the answer either. The Bears need to go outside the organization to find Cutler's understudy.

The Bears missed injured running back Matt Forte too, but they can survive with Kahlil Bell and Cutler. Forte and Hanie didn't work.

As expected, there was no celebrating after the win, and most of the questions related to wrap-up summations of the season and hazarded guesses about whether or not the Bears bring back controversial offensive coordinator Mike Martz, whose contract is up.

Personally, I'm all for change, regardless of the downside it could have on the offense's continuity. Offensively, the Bears have Cutler, Forte, Earl Bennett and ... that's about it. Johnny Knox, I suppose. Yes, the offense was doing well when Cutler went down, but if the Bears don't think Martz is the offensive coordinator for the next three to four years, it might be time to look elsewhere. Well, that's in theory. In reality, this is a short-shelf life business and people make decisions for the now. In that case, you have to keep Martz.

I'm a little bit of a slash-and-burn guy. I'd be fine if the Bears found a new general manager, too. Change isn't a four-letter word to me.

We can all agree the Bears have to surround Cutler with better talent up front and on the edges. Webb got abused by Allen, who picked up 3.5 sacks, giving him the franchise single-season record, just a half-sack short of tying the NFL record. This simply can't do.

And if Angelo isn't convinced the Bears need to spend for a better receiver or two, then he should be fired. Frankly, I'd be concerned that he can recognize talent at his two need positions.

His three receiver additions this year, Dane Sanzenbacher, Sam Hurd and Roy Williams, were, um, less than impressive.

Sanzenbacher was given way too much love early for being "plucky" when he was really just "dropsy." While I must give credit to Hurd for being a three-phase guy: receiver, special teams and trap game, I think it's clear a guy was a bad signing when he ends the season waiting for a federal court appearance.

Williams is a magnet for criticism, but alas, not one for footballs. He had his moments, just ask him.

"I think I played well this year," he said after catching four passes for 60 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown catch against broken coverage. "You can look at all the negatives if you want to, but I think I had way more positive than I had negative."

Williams is one of my favorite quotes, but he's clearly not the answer for the Bears. The time for talking has just begun. But now is the time for action as well. At least they have Cutler.

He was missed Sunday.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.