For the 12th time in the last 35 games Monday night, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler will miss a start because of injury.
Alas, the condition of the sod hasn't been the only thing to warrant constant worry at Soldier Field the past few seasons.
To nobody's surprise, Bears coach Marc Trestman did Thursday what the Bears really should have done at halftime four weeks ago against the Lions. He determined Cutler's high ankle sprain was too bad for him to play at game speed. Who knows, had the team been as cautious after Cutler hurt himself in the second quarter in the Lions loss rather than let him labor through 33 more snaps, maybe the quarterback might have healed quicker and the Bears would have another victory?
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All we know now, as a result: Ignore any progress Cutler made in coach Trestman's offense or the rare arm talent that forgives so many football sins. Forget Cutler's bad mechanics and worse moods. Gradually as one missed start has led to another, durability has emerged as the biggest factor determining the 30-year-old quarterback's future.
That isn't picking on Cutler. That is practically quoting him.
"In this business, availability is the No. 1 priority,'' Cutler said last week on his WMVP-AM 1000 show, his chosen method of communication since Nov. 10 — the last time he faced reporters. He declined the Tribune's latest request Thursday, leaving his radio analysis to stand on its own merit.
Cutler never has been more accurate in the pocket than he was on the airwaves.
"You can be a good player, you can have all these attributes, but if you're not available each Sunday for (the coaches) to put you in, it doesn't matter,'' Cutler said. "That'll get you kicked out of this league faster than getting in trouble off the field."
Suffice to say that Cutler missing another game likely raises more issues for him long-term than it does for the Bears short-term.
Short-term, if backup quarterback Josh McCown plays as well against the Cowboys as he did against the Packers in his first prime-time start, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden will dub him "Monday Night McCown'' by halftime. McCown, 2-2 as a starter, has developed a chemistry with Pro Bowl-bound wide receiver Alshon Jeffery that rivals the connection between Cutler and Brandon Marshall. More game manager than gate attraction, McCown has a 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a passer rating of 103.6. Execution in the red zone needs improvement but, overall, an efficient offense rests in the hands of a steady veteran.
Long-term, general manager Phil Emery created a stir this week during an online Q-and-A with fans by sounding reluctant to use the franchise tag on Cutler that would eat up around $16 million of salary-cap space in 2014. Emery didn't make reference to Cutler's health or mention what his alternative might be at quarterback — probably because he has little idea.
I couldn't help but wonder if Emery would have been so forthcoming with his cap concerns if Cutler had started all 12 games, continued to show growth in Trestman's scheme and the Bears were in first place in the NFC North. Cutler's recent injury history — a high ankle sprain followed a torn groin this year; a concussion and broken thumb sidelined him the last two seasons — gives Emery pause but also negotiating strength.
He still should use the tag but only as a means to buy time in the offseason to negotiate a contract more favorable to the Bears. Cutler's availability problems will lower the overall cost in terms of dollars and years. But the Bears still would be wise to find a way to lock Cutler up at a price both sides can live with rather than gamble losing him for nothing. No self-respecting GM lets a player his team spent two first-round draft picks to acquire walk for nothing. Or should.
That represents the risk Emery runs by avoiding the franchise tag and letting Cutler test the free-agent market, where surely at least one team desperate for a starter would express interest based on his experience and ability. Eventually if free agency plays out, Cutler and the Bears should come to the same conclusion: Both are better together so let's make a deal. Does either party really want to risk seeing what's behind Door No. 2?
Where else would Cutler go and find play-making wide receivers this big, strong and capable or a creative offense as potent … all in a major market? What other available quarterback would give the Bears a chance to score 30 points per game the next couple of seasons and get closer to the Super Bowl?
McCown revived his career this season substituting for Cutler and would be worth re-signing to be Cutler's backup in '14. Something tells me he would stay busy.