The disappointment of once again falling short of the postseason should not cloud the decision-making process that lies ahead of the Chicago Bears on soon-to-be free agent quarterback Jay Cutler.
While the Bears were unable to beat Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Week 17, Cutler played well enough to win the game and get Chicago into the postseason. Even in a losing effort, his career-best performance against the Packers should give Marc Trestman and the Bears the final bit of confidence needed to keep Cutler in Chicago, at least for another season.
Trestman wasn't ready to discuss long-term questions following the 33-28 defeat Sunday, but he liked the way his quarterback played.
"I'm not in the outside world," Trestman said, via the Bears' official site. "A rivalry game, a championship game, the speculation is, 'let's see how he does on this kind of stage.' Jay played well enough for us to win tonight."
In almost every big win or loss, the quarterback receives too much of the credit or too much of the blame. In this case, Cutler deserves very little of the blame for the failure in Sunday's de facto NFC North title game.
Trestman called only 25 pass plays, smartly choosing to rely on an effective running game to power an offense that, at times, moved the football at will against the Packers. But when Cutler was called upon, he delivered.
He completed 15 of his 24 attempts and took only one sack. He finished with 226 passing yards, good for 9.4 yards per attempt. And his two touchdowns and one interception—which came on a last-ditch Hail Mary to end the game—gave Cutler a passer rating of 103.8, nearly twice his career average against the Packers.
For most of the game, Cutler outdueled Rodgers, who threw two first-half interceptions and labored through obvious periods of rust.
On Chicago's second series, Cutler found Brandon Marshall for a 37-yard gain that set up a Matt Forte touchdown. The Bears' third touchdown was thanks solely to Cutler, who found Alshon Jeffery in stride for 67 yards on third down. Forte scored on a one-yard touchdown run, even though it appeared Jeffery made it to the end zone on the long connection a play earlier.
It appeared the Bears were on their way to a division title when Cutler lofted a perfect fade to Marshall in the end zone to start the fourth quarter. The 6'4" receiver got around the coverage of Tramon Williams and Cutler's throw landed right in his arms for a 28-20 lead.
However, mistakes happening all around Cutler sent the Bears home following another loss to the Packers.
Chicago's defense failed to react to a live ball during the second quarter that resulted in a fumble return for a Green Bay touchdown. A series later, Jeffery fumbled after a completion and gave Green Bay an easy three points.
In the second half, Jeffery couldn't come down with a well thrown deep ball on 3rd-and-17 that could have iced the game under five minutes. It was a tough catch, but one that Jeffery has made nine out of 10 times this season. And Marshall let another sure completion—which would have given the Bears a chance to run a less desperate play than a Hail Mary—fall to the turf on the final drive with less than 15 seconds left.
Cutler's passer rating before Sam Shields intercepted his Hail Mary try was a rock-solid 126.4.
The narrative will still tie this loss to Cutler, who is now 1-8 lifetime against the Packers. It might even be enough to shift public opinion on his future. Cutler is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this coming spring.
But this latest defeat was much more about the aforementioned mistakes on offense and a defense that failed in the biggest spots.
The Packers finished with 160 yards on the ground, 473 total yards and 33 points—adding to new single-season franchise-worst numbers for the Bears in all three defensive categories.
Green Bay also scored 20 points in the second half, including two touchdowns during a 13-0 run in the fourth quarter after the Bears went up 28-20. The comeback was capped off when Rodgers beat a jailhouse blitz and connected with a wide open Randall Cobb on 4th-and-8 from the Bears' 48-yard line with less than a minute remaining.
Before the winning touchdown, the Bears had two other chances to turn the Packers over on downs during the final drive and failed. It was a fitting end to a disastrous season for coordinator Mel Tucker's defense.
In fact, it's probably a blessing that Cutler and the Bears even had something to play for in Week 17, given how poor the defense played on Sunday and for most of 2013.
Now, Trestman and general manager Phil Emery must decide if Cutler is their guy in 2014 and beyond. Even Cutler admits he doesn't know what will happen.
"You can't predict the future," Cutler said, via Tony Andracki of CSN Chicago. "It always works out how it's supposed to."
It's a difficult decision. And it's a choice fraught with several moving parts—money, the rookie class of quarterbacks and Josh McCown's performance as the backup this season will all be factors in whether Cutler comes back.
But Sunday should help provide the evidence needed for the Bears to keep Cutler as their franchise quarterback.
A good majority of NFL teams would line up to sign Cutler, a big-armed quarterback who can make all the throws and who remains underrated as an athlete. In a high-stress environment against the Packers, those positive attributes were on display.
And there's the continued hope that the tutelage of Trestman, a noted quarterbacks coach with extensive experience playing and coaching the position, will continue to marginalize all the bad that has historically come with Cutler. He made only one risky throw against Green Bay before the Hail Mary on the game's final play.
Trestman called a well-designed game for Cutler. There were aggressive plays downfield, and a number of more conservative throws which called on Cutler to just get the ball into the hands of his playmakers. Overall, the Bears had safe, efficient and productive play from the quarterback position. It was winning football on offense.
"I thought Jay played very well tonight," Trestman said. "He threw the long ball well. He gave guys a chance to make plays. He was in total command of what was going on out there."
Remember, Trestman has already invested a full season into connecting with Cutler and polishing some of the QB's rougher edges. There would be a certain feeling of both failure and restarting if Cutler were left to walk this spring.
Chicago's decision on Cutler won't hinge on one single game, nor should it. But Sunday was the kind of performance the oft-maligned quarterback needed to help his case to stay in the Windy City.
Trestman and the Bears now owe it to themselves to give Cutler at least one more season before pressing the restart button at the game's most important position.
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