Game changer: Jay Cutler’s return, play inspire teammates in win

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Bears QB Jay Cutler celebrates a touchdown against the Vikings. (Getty)

Quarterback Jay Cutler’s connection with receiver Alshon Jeffery went viral before the Bears’ game Monday against the Vikings reached halftime. And it wasn’t because of a leaping catch.

It was because Cutler drilled Jeffery in the back of the helmet on his first pass of the second quarter. ‘‘Doink’’ was the caption ESPN, which broadcast the game, used on social media.

It was a moment of levity in a tough season for the Bears, but it should have been a moment of clarity, too. Cutler was getting back into the swing of things.

‘‘It was accuracy,’’ Cutler said with a laugh after the Bears stunned the Vikings 20-10. ‘‘It was just one of those things where you’re trying to get him vertical, trying to take a shot.

‘‘When [the ball] hit him in the helmet, I was like: ‘Oh, shoot. This is going to get picked. We’re going to get a bad bounce here.’ But we had a few of those tonight, and luckily they all fell to the ground. Sometimes you’ve got to get some lucky bounces.’’

And sometimes your starting quarterback is the difference-maker you need him to be.

From rookie running back Jordan Howard’s big day to the defense’s five sacks, there was plenty to like about the Bears’ upset. But coach John Fox did the right thing in handing the game ball to Cutler. His return after missing five weeks with a sprained right thumb mattered.

On the field, Cutler made plays backup Brian Hoyer can’t. But players also pointed to the speeches he made before the game and at halftime.

‘‘It was about inspiration,’’ said Cutler, who was 20-for-31 for 252 yards and a touchdown for a 100.5 passer rating. ‘‘Everyone in there is from different backgrounds and different cultures and societies and family life and schools. [It’s] whatever it takes to find that inspiration because motivation wears off at some point during the game. Those guys played inspired football.’’

What’s Cutler’s inspiration?

‘‘It’s very personal,’’ he said. ‘‘A lot of different things. My teammates. My family. My children. My wife. Eleven years of this, and to be a part of a locker room like that and a game like that is always fun.’’

Cutler, of course, could have pointed to some of Fox’s mixed messages in the media, reports about his future or the incessant, unwarranted ridicule he endures. But he didn’t.

‘‘Jay’s been a great teammate,’’ Jeffery said.

Win or lose, Cutler was going to be center of attention. His future hangs in the balance of a Bears season that went off the deep end while he was on the sidelines with a brace on his thumb.

Overall, the general discussion about the Bears has turned to the long term. It’s about what the Bears should do with Fox and at quarterback.

But the better Cutler plays, the more difficult it will be for the Bears to say goodbye to him, regardless if nearly everything — including his own contract — seems to signal his departure.

‘‘To get Jay back inspired all of us,’’ Fox said.

The offensive line was exceptional, and Howard went off for 202 total yards, including a 69-yard run in the first quarter and a two-yard touchdown run in the second.

But Cutler also effectively ran a brilliant game plan by offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, who got him on the move often.

The Bears were efficient but also decisive. They struck for points. Cutler’s play stood out, including his 11-yard touchdown strike to Jeffery in the third quarter and the first play after he hit Jeffery in the helmet.

On third-and-eight, Cutler eluded safety Harrison Smith’s rush from his blindside and flipped the ball to Howard, who took off for a 34-yard gain. It was the moment that officially kicked off Cutler’s return.

‘‘We told him we had his back,’’ linebacker Pernell McPhee said. ‘‘And he [rose] up to the challenge.’’

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