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Jay Cutler's return could be problematic for the Chicago Bears

If Jay Cutler plays well down the stretch, where will that leave the Chicago Bears when it comes time to decide how to proceed at quarterback going forward?

The Chicago Bears will likely be without QB Brian Hoyer - who had surgery Sunday to repair his broken left arm - for the rest of the season.

The team placed Hoyer on IR yesterday and also announced that Jay Cutler, who has been out since Week 3 due to a thumb injury, has been medically cleared to return to action. 

In the short-term, narrow view, the timing of Cutler's return is fortuitous. As one starting quarterback goes down, another heals up just in time to take his place. As a result, the Bears don't have to rely on Matt Barkley, who looked overwhelmed in place of Hoyer last Thursday. 

Yet for a 1-6 football team, is Cutler's return actually a good thing? 

First, no one is under any illusions about this year's Bears squad. They are not a good team and have consistently found ways to lose games. The playoffs are essentially out of reach, so winning a bunch of contests down the stretch will affect the team negatively. 

If Cutler lights it up in the second half of the season and the Bears go 6-3 down the stretch, they'll finish 7-9 and still won't make the playoffs. Those wins will then push them out of the Top 10 in next year's draft, into the 10-15 range, leaving them little chance of drafting an elite player at any position, not to mention an elite quarterback. 

And that's the issue here: The Bears do not have a franchise quarterback on the roster, unless they convince themselves they do. 

Second, if Cutler plays like a Pro Bowler over the next nine games, head coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace might start believing Cutler is still the answer for the Bears going forward. They'll get starry-eyed over his majestic downfield balls and his cannon of an arm, which allows him to fit passes into tight windows. 

Just like Phil Emery and Marc Tretsman before them, they could fall under the spell of Cutler and then pass on every opportunity to draft his long-term replacement early in next year's draft, as the Bears have done in every selection process since 2003. 

While some may disagree, retaining Cutler beyond this season would be suicide for Fox and Pace, whose seats get hotter with each mounting loss. 

Finding franchise passers in a quarterback-starved league is not like shooting fish in a barrel. Even for the so-called "elite" collegiate quarterbacks, the success rate is 50/50 at best, and that percentage drops dramatically the longer teams wait to draft a passer. 

The Bears know this first-hand, having wasted multiple late-round picks since 2010 on "developmental" quarterbacks like Dan Lefevour, Nathan Enderle and David Fales.

Yes, Tom Brady was selected in the sixth round, we all know that. We also all know that is an exception to the rule, not the norm. Teams using sixth-round picks on quarterbacks are hoping to land a competent backup, at best, not a starter. If you want a starter in today's NFL, where a premium is put on QB play, then you have to invest in the position. The cheap "Brady" route is going to get you nowhere. 

So if Cutler tears it up over the next 10 weeks, Pace may again forego drafting a quarterback next year, which would further delay a process that should have started years ago: the process of moving on without Cutler.

With Hoyer setting franchise records during his four full games as a starter, that process had begun. Now, with Cutler healthy, the team could end up taking two steps backward. 

Cutler is signed through the 2020 season but the guaranteed money in his contract all but runs out after this season. The Bears could waive Cutler with almost no repercussions next off-season. For a club that has just one playoff win since Cutler arrived in 2009, a change at the most important position on the field is necessary for a team in rebuild mode. Pinning your hopes on a 34-year-old passer whose career has been one long disappointment is not a recipe for long-term success. The Bears have to move forward and put the Cutler era behind them. 

Some might find that scenario unbelievable, that there's no way Pace and Fox will commit to Cutler next year. Yet others look at the mistakes Pace has made the past season and a half -- trading up into the Top 10 to draft an undersized pass rusher, using a Top 10 pick on a one-and-done receiver, making Bobby Massie the highest paid offensive lineman in franchise history -- and wouldn't be surprised if Cutler is in Chicago beyond this season. 

At the end of the day, the jury is still out on Pace. There's a very good chance he could be swayed to retain Cutler if the Bears start winning games. 

It's an even more plausible scenario when you consider the Bears have no real Plan B in place. If Pace doesn't like the quarterbacks in this year's draft, then what are his options? Franchise signal callers almost never hit the open market, so in that scenario, Cutler would likely be the best option. And then we're back to square one. 

As horrible as it sounds, the best thing for the Bears this year is to continue down their current path, losing game after game until the No. 1 pick in next year's draft is a reality. If that happens, and the Bears are able to land their long-term quarterback of the future, then the rebuild can begin in earnest. 


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