You don't need a Las Vegas bookmaker to compute the Bears' odds for success without Jay Cutler.
Cutler is the irreplaceable part for the 2013 Bears. You'd have a slot loose to think the Bears are going to put together a winning team without him, just as the Packers are unlikely to contend without Aaron Rodgers or the Patriots without Tom Brady. All are among the 14 NFL teams with just two quarterbacks on the active roster. Cutler has journeyman Josh McCown behind him, while 33-year-old Seneca Wallace backs up Rodgers and third-year man Ryan Mallet is behind Brady.
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You suspect the Bears could cut McCown if they wanted and he would be available to return any time they needed him. It wouldn't be a great idea to go into a season with just one quarterback, but metaphorically that's kind of what the Bears are doing.
The good news is Cutler has been amazingly durable with the Bears. He has started 56 of a possible 64 games since joining the team despite being sacked 148 times. The next time Cutler is sacked will mark the 200th of his career, counting his first three years with the Broncos. Nonetheless, if Cutler can be the primary starter for the Bears this season, he will become the first quarterback to do so in five consecutive years since Ed Brown's six straight years from 1955-60.
The Bears, of course, traditionally have been a team of great running backs and middle linebackers with the quarterback a true boogeyman position. Only four times in the last 31 years have the Bears had a single player start every game at quarterback, including just twice in the last 17 years. Scary stuff when you consider the Bears have needed three starters in eight of those 17 years, including four starters in 2004.
But quarterbacks are healthier than ever in the NFL. A whopping 20 teams started the same quarterback all season in 2012. Cutler missed just one game — at San Francisco because of a concussion. Four other quarterbacks missed only a single game too.
According to research by footballperspective.com, the 20 quarterbacks starting every game is an NFL record dating to 1953. On average, 13 quarterbacks started every game for their teams over the 10 previous years. Nobody seems quite certain if healthy quarterbacks are a new trend in the NFL or simply an aberration. Theories abound as to why signal callers have been able to withstand the pressure in a pass-happy league.
Part of the reason might be attributed to rules changes and points of emphasis among referees. The so-called "Brady Rule" instituted before the 2010 season prohibits a defender on the ground lunging at a quarterback. That presumably has prevented some season-ending knee injuries. Concussion awareness has led to an outlawing of helmet-to-helmet contact and the use of the crown of the helmet.
A league source said "it feels like they call roughing the passer more often,'' an observation backed up by the numbers. NFL teams have been penalized an average of 2.97 times per season for roughing the passer over the last two years. In the previous four years combined it was an average of just over two times. And the league hasn't been afraid to hit defenders with big fines for hits on quarterbacks. Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins was fined $30,000 for the hit that caused Cutler's concussion.
Another league source said the new concussion protocol is a double-edged sword in terms of keeping quarterbacks healthy. Concussion awareness and baseline testing presumably means players not allowed back on the field one week will have to sit out the next, a vast change from the way things were done five or 10 years ago.
The Bears have made some strides to protect their quarterback better this year, bringing in four new starting offensive linemen, three new tight ends and a new offensive philosophy. Cutler has been encouraged to get the ball out quickly, hopefully to the point where he feels it is irresponsible to hang onto it. The Bears open their season Sunday against a Bengals defense that ranked sixth in the NFL a year ago, thanks in large part to a ferocious defensive line that produced 51 sacks, one off the league best and 10 more than the Bears managed. That's an average of 3.25 sacks a game and a frightening prospect even for a tough guy like Cutler.
He's durable but hardly shatterproof. And far too important to for any game of chance.
Special contributor Mike Mulligan co-hosts "The Mully and Hanley Show" weekdays from 5 a.m. to; 9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.