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Read Options: Jay Cutler needs to be patient with his return

Jay Cutler is out with a sprained right thumb. (Getty Images)

Adam L. Jahns’ “Read Options” column appears in Pro Football Weekly, which is available Thursday or Friday in the Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Herald, Rockford Register Star, Northwest Herald, Kankakee Daily Journal, Peoria Journal Star and on ProFootballWeekly.com.

John Fox is full of coach-isms, clichés and clever sayings. But every now and then the Bears coach, who protects players’ injuries as if they were nuclear codes, gives you a little something that might be significant.

It happened earlier this week when Fox was asked about quarterback Jay Cutler and whether he’ll be the starter once he returns from his sprained right throwing thumb.

“I don’t think there are any givens,” Fox said.

Then he said more. But those were the seven most important words of his first press conference this week. And it was a peculiar choice of words.

It was not so much a message to Cutler, but a challenge. These are desperate times. The Bears need wins, and every player needs to perform better, regardless of position, contract or status. All the goodwill that Cutler built up last season when he was the Bears’ best player only goes so far. The Bears need results today.

Cutler, though, shouldn’t take Fox’s words as motivation to rush his return. He’s already proven to be a quick healer. His Bears teammates also don’t doubt his toughness regardless of what all the misinformed talking heads say on national networks. Cutler’s toughness is his most endearing quality.

But again, it’s in Cutler’s best interests to be patient with his recovery. No one is saying that Brian Hoyer is a better quarterback than him. But the one distinct advantage Hoyer has right now is that he’s healthy. Hoyer can firmly grip the football and throw at full strength. Cutler couldn’t do that against the Eagles.

But Fox’s comments do open the door for the idea of sticking with Hoyer if he plays well. Fox was pleased with Hoyer’s performance against the Cowboys, even though he produced his big stats while playing catch-up.

With his own record to worry about, Fox likely won’t do what former coach Marc Trestman did (or was forced to do) during the 2013 season, when Trestman took the ball away from a red-hot Josh McCown and gave it back to Cutler, who returned early from a groin injury.

It’s a predicament that might force Cutler to rush his return. But he needs to be mindful of what he’s doing. Fox said he doesn’t want any setbacks, either, but his medical staff did clear Cutler to return from a hamstring ailment after he missed one game at the same point last season.

Cutler is smart. He knows the guaranteed portion of his contract is up after this season. He should know that he’s playing for more than this year. Fox may like him, but he’s not bound to him.

John Fernandez, a hand, wrist and elbow orthopedic surgeon at Rush University Medical Center, told the Chicago Sun-Times last week that thumb ligaments are “super, super important” for quarterbacks.

“This is the ‘Tommy John’ of the football quarterback, basically,” Fernandez said. “You do not want this injury. … For one, it puts you out. Two, it’s very unpredictable in terms of how it’s going to recover.”

An early return could turn into a lengthy absence. Cutler is one bad sack or bad-luck break where his hand strikes an opponent’s helmet away from serious trouble.

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Rookie running back Jordan Howard’s production against the Cowboys was deceiving. He had long runs of 36 and 14 yards, but finished with 45 yards on nine carries. So let’s do the math. That means Howard’s other seven carries went for minus-five yards. He’s a talented young runner, but consistency matters.

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The Bears’ offensive line desperately needed a good game together, and they had one against the Cowboys, who didn’t sack Hoyer. In fact, press-box statisticians had the Cowboys down for one quarterback hit. The Cowboys lack playmakers on defense, but Hoyer did attempt 49 passes. The question now is whether the line can build off that performance against the Lions.