Show time: Jay Cutler enters most critical stretch of his career

Bears coach John Fox can say whatever he wants. He can be honest or flat-out lie. He can tell half-truths. He can play coy, or play dumb. He can use more clichés than you knew existed.

It’s just what football coaches do — par for the course in most NFL cities.

Making sense of what’s real and what isn’t becomes not only toilsome but tiresome. Often, it’s not worth the time and effort.

Take what Fox said Monday at Halas Hall about his quarterback situation, with Jay Cutler now cleared of a sprained right thumb.

Jay Cutler. (Getty)

“Some things that I say go somewhere that I wasn’t really intending,” Fox said. “At the end of the day, obviously, Jay’s our starter. He was injured, not permitted to play medically. And now that he’s healed, he’s back to being our starter.

“That’s really the facts and kind of what happened and where we’re at now. So I don’t know that there was a competition to speak of.”

Fox’s words came three weeks after he said the Bears’ quarterback situation was “performance-based” — one of his go-to phrases — after Brian Hoyer played well in a victory against the Detroit Lions.

Confused? Don’t fret. There are more important matters ahead with Cutler coming back and Hoyer out with a broken left arm. And they’ll play out on the field.

Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings starts arguably the most critical nine-game stretch of Cutler’s career. He’ll play out the rest of this season for himself, for his future, whether it’s in Chicago or somewhere else.

Some facts:

* The Bears aren’t bound to Cutler’s contract in 2017. The bulk of the guaranteed portion of his seven-year, $126.7 million deal is off the books next season. The money that’s left isn’t prohibitive.

* The Bears have aggressively overhauled their roster, going from one of the oldest teams in the league to one of the youngest in two offseasons. Cutler is the only leftover from the Jerry Angelo era.

* The Bears still don’t have a quarterback to replace Cutler on their roster. General manager Ryan Pace didn’t draft one in his first two years. That might come in next year’s draft, but that quarterback, whoever he is, isn’t here yet.

These circumstances have fueled speculation by the NFL’s talking heads that Cutler’s time in Chicago is nearing an end, even though he has shown to be resilient through regime changes. Hoyer’s decent play only added to the chatter.

“Obviously, as a coach and a staff, you’re always trying to help your players through stuff like that,” Fox said. “But one thing I’ve found in Jay in the time I’ve been here is that he’s very tough-minded and resilient. He went through a stretch where it’s tough not being able to play. Watching somebody else play your position is never easy for any competitor at any position. [But] I think he’s handled it great, and he’ll handle it great moving forward.”

It’s whether Cutler plays great that matters most over the final nine games. He doesn’t have to win Fox and the coaches over, but he has to win. It’s too late for him to save the season, but he certainly makes the 1-6 Bears more competitive. Beatable teams — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Giants, Tennessee Titans, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins — are ahead on the schedule.

Hoyer played better than a typical backup. He was extremely efficient, and he didn’t turn the ball over. Even so, Cutler was missed. A healthy Cutler wouldn’t have prevented all the Bears’ woes in the first seven games — a turnover or two by him would have enhanced some of them — but his strong arm might have been the difference in winnable games against the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars.

There’s a vast difference between 3-4 and 1-6.

“Jay Cutler, being one of the reasons why I signed [with] the Chicago Bears, knowing that he has a winning personality and a great arm to back it up, I look forward to him being back on the field,” defensive end Akiem Hicks said.

The Bears can’t be afraid to part with Cutler in their pursuit of something better. But they also need to know what they’d be parting with.

The next nine games will help them make that decision, knowing there’s no guarantee their next quarterback will be any better.