The Tipping Point

Will today's critical matchup against the Green Bay Packers, one in which a trip to the playoffs is on the line, decide Jay Cutler's fate as the future quarterback of the Chicago Bears?

Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman doesn't like to dwell on the past, nor look too far into the future. He's focused on the now, which today will be coaching the biggest game of his young career as an NFL head coach – and the stage couldn't be any bigger.

The Bears will square off this afternoon against the Green Bay Packers – in the oldest and most-storied rivalry in the NFL – in a winner-take-all contest to decide the NFC North. The victor goes to the playoffs; the loser goes home. That is Trestman's focus.

"We're getting ready to play a game," he said this week. "We're trying to make corrections in practice and try to continue to improve ourselves on Sunday. I don't look at this moment to be a time to be talking about things that are really not relevant to the moment.

"Let's keep it all in perspective here. Perspective is the present."

Be that as it may, it's hard to ignore the potential impact of this contest, particularly in regard to Jay Cutler's future in the Windy City. Heading into his contract year, the talk this season – even from the first day of training camp when GM Phil Emery said he would not be extending anyone during the regular season, only to extend two players this week – has revolved around Cutler being in the last year of his contract, and whether or not he'll be back next year.

Every pass Cutler has thrown this year, every touchdown, every interception, every correct read, every ball slung into double coverage, has been analyzed incessantly in an effort to peg him as one of two things: the Bears' franchise quarterback who will lead the team into the future, or an extremely talented passer whose flaws will never allow him to reach his immense potential.

If he's the former, then he deserves the big multi-year deal. If he's the latter, then the Bears should let someone else break the bank on him.

When it comes down to it, could there be a better stage than today for Cutler to show he's the team's long-term signal caller? He's 1-8 in his career against Green Bay, including two elimination contests, a fact his detractors are rightful to point out. And if he can't get past the Packers, then what's the point of keeping Cutler around?

Yet if he comes out and outplays Aaron Rodgers, propelling the Bears into the playoffs despite the team's historically bad defense, it should give Emery the confidence to pony up on a long-term contract.

Like Trestman, Cutler said he's not worried about his future.

"I haven't really thought about it. Not going to think about it," Cutler said this week. "I've got enough on my plate thinking about Green Bay."

He may not want to talk about it publicly but Cutler is a human being. He knows the importance of today's contest, both in the short and long term.

"I think that the quarterback is the focal point of the football team," Trestman said. "He's the guy who really flies the plane. It's not on autopilot. He's got to fly it in all different kinds of weather. That's what the quarterback has to do, so it's extremely important that he plays efficiently from a standpoint of all 11, 10 other guys. He's got to put those guys in position to succeed, and they've got to help him to do that as well. It's a team game, but it is a quarterback-run game. The quarterback is always going to be the focal point, and that's because he has more to do and more responsibility on his shoulders because of all that's involved in the position."

Trestman has consistently espoused the importance of quarterback play, which is why the decision on Cutler can't be made lightly. And to truly understand Cutler's mettle, we have to see how he performs with all the marbles on the line.

"I don't know that you can define how it was, how it's going to be," said Trestman. "We'll know more about that at 7 o'clock Sunday night."

On the other hand, are Emery and Trestman really going to predicate the future of the team from just one contest? This is an exceptionally important game, one that will tell us a lot about Cutler, but is everything he's done up to this point to be thrown out the window?

Cutler has grown dramatically under Trestman this season, with numbers as good or better than those he posted during his Pro Bowl season in 2008. He has his flaws but you can't deny his talent. So if Trestman can methodically wipe away those inconsistencies and continue to bring out the best in him, how good can Cutler be in the third, fourth and fifth years in Trestman's offense?

The present may be this game but Bears brass is surely thinking beyond just this season.

As much as we want to place the weight of the world on the outcome of today's matchup, the reality is that Emery and Trestman are too pragmatic to use a single game as the sole factor in deciding Cutler's future with the club. Most likely, they've already made that decision.

A win by Cutler today should give the fans confidence he can eventually lead their team to the Promised Land but it's unlikely this is a make-or-break game for him, as so many are suggesting.

Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.

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