Phil Emery may be planning on keeping Jay Cutler as his quarterback for at least one more season -- or many seasons -- through attempting to sign him to a multi-year contract in the coming months.
Those are, at least, the hints the Bears general manager has dropped publicly, without necessarily coming out and saying it. He's also not the type to publicly cast doubt on his players, especially during a season. Marc Trestman's the same way. Why create more "noise" for them to deal with when there's enough already?
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If we're to believe the trail of tea leaves in Emery's wake since the season began, Cutler's performance late Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field will, at the very least, etch the strongest framework yet of his contract worth. Moreso than the nine-and-a-half games he's played so far in Trestman's system. He will begin the game with all his weapons (with the possible exception of Earl Bennett), and have the best offensive line he's played behind in his five years here. Cutler himself indicated as much with his terse response to Thursday's question on his previous, ugly career struggles against the franchise's biggest rival (while sucking on a candy or lozenge throughout his press conference):
"We weren't as good on offense."
True. We all know the numbers by now, so I won't rehash them. But the comment also smacks of throwing four years of teammates and coordinators and Lovie Smith under a bus - pointing the index finger elsewhere and not noticing the three others pointing back at him. Heck, Bears fans had to sit through those frustrations, too, and the blame elsewhere can be justified. It smacks of hearing "The Noise" around him again this week. He managed his way through it in his return two weeks ago in Cleveland. But this isn't a Browns team out of the playoff picture he'll be facing. It won't be Jason Campbell consistently missing targets when the Bears defense is on the field. And this offense that's undeniably better than the ones Cutler operated within the past four years did absolutely nothing to stay competitive last Sunday night in Philadelphia.
If Cutler's referring to the sacks he's absorbed, the Packers allowed an average of 45 sacks a year from 2009-2012 compared to the 46 per year Cutler's "bodyguards" gave him. Aaron Rodgers did not have Matt Forte, but he did work with an offensive-minded head coach and better receivers.
[MORE: Cutler must out-manage Rodgers]
When a passionate sports town can see how a journeyman backup quarterback can effectively produce within an offense they've never come close to witnessing before, the interest meter in how a much more gifted quarterback handles this stage pushes the needle about as far as it can go. Let's say half the town believes in Cutler now as the long-term answer who deserves a big payday, and the other half of Chicago remains skeptical, at best. Sunday should help provide an answer as to whether this 30-year-old -- who should be in the prime of his career -- is anything more than the best statistical signal-caller in franchise history.
Among recently-signed QBs, can he reach the levels of Rodgers, Drew Brees and Joe Flacco? Or is he Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo or Matt Ryan? And if we think he's one of the latter trio, does that make the money, the commitment and the salary cap space worth it?
"(The quarterback) is the guy who really flies the plane," even Trestman admitted Thursday in following Cutler to the podium. "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 do that as well. It's a team game, but it is a quarterback-run game."
Spoken like a true "quarterback whisperer." Rodgers, who was an MVP two years ago, has learned to do it so well with his system and weapons. Can Jay start doing that against the NFL's 26th-ranked defense, without its best player (Clay Matthews)?
I know this isn't the Super Bowl. And even if the Bears win Sunday, a miraculous path to New York this February is extremely remote. But if not now, when Jay Cutler needs to answer those questions with his performance, against the team's biggest rival, at home, with a playoff spot on the line...then when? Many of us are wondering that, probably even a good share of the Cutler believers.
Cutler went into Thursday's press conference with an attitude, a chip on a shoulder and a swagger. The first Bears quarterback I covered, Jim McMahon, had that, too. But when he was healthy, at least for one glorious season, he put that to good use on the field. Let's see if Jay can do that, now that the "rust" should be off from his injuries and he has this offense around him. That demeanor is a whole lot easier to take when the on-field results follow.
Sunday's game isn't all about Cutler. But there's no doubt he's in the epicenter, along with the quarterback on the other side. The Bears could end up losing this game because of that other quarterback and this Bears defense. But now's the time, against the Packers, that Cutler can't be a big reason if their season does end. An ending like that - combined with a rich extension to keep him here - might end up spreading -- and increasing -- "The Noise" about where this franchise is headed in the future.
**Join Jim Miller, Dan Jiggetts and me for "Bears Pregame Live," Sunday from 2-3 p.m. on Comcast Sportsnet for one final preview leading you up to the NFC North Championship. Jim and I will break down the first half on "Halftime Live" here on CSNChicago.com. Then, as soon as the game ends, switch back to Comcast SportsNet for 90 minutes of analysis, live press conferences and locker room reaction on "Bears Postgame Live, Presented by Nissan."**