Those Chicago Bears fans who harbor the notion that the team might be better off without often petulant quarterback Jay Cutler are soon to find out what life is like for the franchise minus the six-year veteran.
Late word Sunday night, a few hours after the Bears' 31-20 victory here over the San Diego Chargers, was that Cutler suffered a broken right thumb (throwing hand) in a win that lifted Chicago to 7-3 with a fifth straight triumph. The injury, first reported by Chicago-area newspapers and Fox Sports, could be serious and possibly even sideline Cutler for the remainder of the regular season.
Sources close to Cutler confirmed to The Sports Xchange by phone that the Bears' starter suffered an injury to his right thumb but would not elaborate on the nature or extent of the injury.
"There's something there; he's hurting and it might be that he has to have (surgery)," said the source. "It's a shame."
Bears' officials, who are typically cryptic about such matters, did not immediately confirm the Cutler injury.
It is somewhat ironic that it came in Sunday's outing, when he was consistently harassed by the San Diego pass rush and rarely played with what could be characterized as a "clean" pocket. After the game, some teammates talked about Cutler's toughness in avoiding sacks in the game, where he completed 18 of 31 attempts for 286 yards, two touchdowns, an interception, and a passer rating of 97.0. His only interception came on a play on which wide receiver Johnny Knox fell down on a comeback route.
The Bears converted eight of 14 third-down plays, including seven straight at one point in the game, and Cutler hit on eight straight passes in a stretch of three series that all ended in touchdowns.
Coach Lovie Smith did not mention Cutler at all in his postgame remarks during which he reviewed the team's injuries. Cutler appeared after the game at the interview room podium with his right hand wrapped but did not discuss the injury.
It is not known when the injury occurred, although it is suspected that it came in the fourth quarter.
At one point in the game, Cutler appeared to be kneed in the back of the head, but said he was "fine."
Because of the San Diego pressure against a line unit that was without two starters who went onto injured reserve last week, Cutler was forced to run five times. His rushes totaled only 11 yards, but Cutler did have an 11-yard scramble that notched a key first down. He also had a 1-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown in the third quarter and made what appeared to be a touchdown-saving tackle on Chargers' cornerback Antoine Cason after his interception.
The injury may have occurred on the interception play.
"You don't want to be in that position very often, having to run down a defensive back," Cutler said. "I had to do what I had to do."
Cutler, 28, has been criticized during his career for what is perceived as an aloof attitude. In last year's NFC championship game here, he came under considerable fire for leaving the contest with a knee injury. Some players past (Deion Sanders) and present (Maurice Jones-Drew) pilloried Cutler, and openly questioned his toughness. Several teammates, notably middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, came to his defense. It was subsequently confirmed Cutler had sustained a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
A first-round choice of Denver in 2006, and traded to the Bears in 2009, Cutler has been relatively durable during his career. He missed one game last season, after suffering a concussion, but started all 16 games in each of the three preceding seasons. This season, he has started all 10 games and had completed 182 of 314 attempts for 2,319 yards, 13 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 85.7.
In his first two seasons in Chicago, Cutler threw 42 interceptions, including 26 in 2009.
This year, Cutler is the only Chicago quarterback with a pass attempt. Punter Adam Podlesh and tailback Matt Forte each have one attempt.
Neither of the two other quarterbacks on the Bears' roster, fourth-year veteran Caleb Hanie or rookie Nathan Enderle, has ever started an NFL game. Hanie, an undrafted free agent in 2008, has appeared in eight regular-season games in his career, including two this season, but has logged just 14 attempts. He played in the second half of the NFC championship game last season.
A fifth-round pick this season, Enderle has not played in a game.
The source close to Cutler said that, "at least right now," there is no plan to place the quarterback on injured reserve. The hope is that he could return for the playoffs. Hanie is expected to start next Sunday's game at Oakland, and it remains to be seen if the Bears attempt to sign a veteran quarterback from among the lean group of players available as free agents.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.