A bittersweet goodbye if Jay Cutler is done in Chicago

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(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

If this is the end for Jay Cutler with the Bears, and I won’t be convinced of it until I see the exhaust smoke from his conversion van, I’d like him to know I’ll miss him. A lot.

That might be surprising to him and to those of you who see me as a Jay hater. I’m not. Not even close. The football observer in me doesn’t think the quarterback is anywhere in the vicinity of exceptional. That’s all. That’s all it ever was. The columnist in me can’t thank him enough for the loads of material he supplied in his eight seasons with the Bears. No athlete in Chicago has been so up and down for so long, no one has had highs and lows as breathtakingly descriptive as his were and no one has mumbled his way through more press conferences than he has. He’s the father of all mutterers.

Cutler’s season is done, thanks to a shoulder injury he suffered in the Bears’ loss to the Giants on Nov. 20. He finished the game, but the damage was apparently worse than he knew. The Bears announced Thursday that he’ll have surgery to repair a torn right labrum.

It means he won’t play in the last five games of the season, depriving his supporters and critics of five more chances to engage in hand-to-hand combat over his abilities. It means Cutler’s career in Chicago is probably over. A divorce is the right thing for the Bears, who need to go in a different direction than south. And it’s the right thing for Cutler, who, if he isn’t the most polarizing athlete in Chicago history, is near the top.

But let’s remember that these are the Bears. They held on to him for about five more years than they should have, and it would be so like them to be unable to loosen their grip. They could rationalize bringing him back next season by saying there isn’t a replacement out there who’s better. This is what banging your head against the wall feels like.

If Cutler is indeed done here, his final record as a Bears starter will be 51-51. If there’s a more telling stat, I don’t know what it would be. In the end, after all the seductive passes and all the ruinous interceptions, he was perfectly average in terms of victories and defeats. No matter how strenuously we debate his strengths and weaknesses, there’s no escaping his record as a starter.

A parting of ways is best for all involved. He can get healthy for wherever his career takes him next, and the Bears can find a quarterback through the draft, free agency, a trade or some combination of those routes. Someone else, anyone else. Please.

And, yet, don’t go, Jay!

Every year, it was something else. Cutler storming away from offensive coordinator Mike Tice during a game. Cutler being benched by touchy-feely Marc Trestman, of all people. Cutler putting up with Martellus Bennett and Brandon Marshall. Athletes like to say they let the game come to them. Columnists let Jay come to them, knowing he would, eventually. He was spectacular that way.

Only he could get injured in an NFC Championship Game and it lead to tweets from other NFL players questioning his heart and toughness. Those tweets were off base. Cutler was a lot of things, but soft wasn’t one of them.

No one has done more pouting, and no one has gone through coaches the way this guy has. Few have been as dismissive of the media. He went out of his way to not call reporters by their names. You have to work at that kind of disconnectedness. Then he would surprise you with clear, analytical answers. He could be borderline charming.

His teammates almost always said good things about him, though a cynic would point out that no teammate in his right mind would criticize a quarterback with the biggest contract on the roster.

Cutler’s performance this season was similar to his performances in all those other seasons. One or two good games would be followed by a bad game, or vice versa. When he was healthy this year, he wasn’t nearly as successful as he was last season, when he thrived under offensive coordinator Adam Gase.

Matt Barkley will start Sunday for the second week in a row. He seems like a decent guy. He answers questions politely, speaks in clichés and is very, very earnest. In other words, I have no idea what to do with him or myself.

Cutler, I knew. I knew that his friends and foes would break down whatever he said and whatever I wrote like game film. I’ll miss that.

Farewell to a columnist’s dream. You are leaving, Jay, right? Right?


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