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Emma: If This Is Indeed The End, Jay Cutler Leaves A Complicated Bears Legacy

By Chris Emma--

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) -- The legacy of Jay Cutler's tenure with the Bears, for all the twists and turns over these eight years, will ultimately be a struggle of balancing the perceptions against the realities.

It seems the end of Cutler's complicated Bears career is here, with the team placing him on injured reserve Thursday, finishing his 2016 season and perhaps his time as Chicago's starting quarterback. Cutler will have surgery Saturday to repair a torn labrum, coach John Fox announced.

Fittingly, Cutler wanted to return and play through his torn labrum. It was ultimately decided that surgery would be the best course of action.

"Jay's a tough guy," Fox said in conceding surgery was required for Cutler.

Should the Bears opt to part ways with Cutler this offseason, as is widely expected, his career as the team's quarterback will end with a record of 51-51. Acquired from Denver in 2009 -- in a deal that shipped the Broncos two first-round picks and Kyle Orton -- the Bears believed their future at quarterback was set.

Cutler led the Bears to some great wins and gut-wrenching losses. The water leveled after eight seasons.

Given that Cutler has been paid in full the $54 million guaranteed of his seven-year, $126.7-million deal inked in early 2014, the Bears can cut him at no further cost. They can also retain him at a team-friendly $12.5 million, though that doesn't seem likely given the franchise's present state.

With their 2016 record at 2-9 and a high draft pick coming, the Bears have spent this fall scouting their future at quarterback. DeShone Kizer, Mitch Trubisky and Deshaun Watson are the first-round options; Brad Kaaya, Luke Falk, Mason Rudolph and Patrick Mahomes are among second- and third-round possibilities.

General manager Ryan Pace and his Bears brass have been busy looking at the possibilities. They're preparing for the next quarterback.

Cutler's time in a Bears uniform appears to be over.


Erik Kramer. Rick Mirer. Shane Matthews. Cade McNown. Bears fans know these names well -- for all the wrong reasons. Jim Miller. Chris Chandler. Oh, man, Henry Burris.

These names were so often listed and referenced, notably with seemingly every national broadcast in which the Bears faced the Packers.

Craig Krenzel. Chad Hutchinson. Jonathan Quinn.

While the Packers enjoyed Super Bowl success up the road, led by Hall of Fame quarterback, the Bears searched so desperately for their own Brett Favre. For such a storied franchise, the Bears' record books featured Sid Luckman's name next to darn near every passing record.

Defense defined Lovie Smith's teams from 2004-'12 that enjoyed some success, but the Bears never had a quarterback to spearhead them. It's what inspired general manager Jerry Angelo to send those two first-round picks to Denver for the disgruntled Cutler, then a 25-year-old Pro Bowl player.

"They gave up a lot," star linebacker Brian Urlacher said after the trade. "Cutler must be pretty good."

"I guess we got better as a team."

Urlacher was among those Bears mainstays who never quite accepted their new quarterback. Cutler's reputation from Denver preceded him with that veteran Chicago team.

In his second season, Cutler led the Bears to an 11-5 record and a trip to the NFC Championship game. However, he suffered an MCL tear during the contest, and the Bears would lose 21-14 to the Packers, who would go on to win the Super Bowl.

Criticism for Cutler truly began after that game, which saw him on the sidelines as Caleb Hanie attempted to lead his team to the Super Bowl. Cutler and the Bears haven't played a playoff game since.


The toughness of Cutler first came into question during the offseason of 2011, which offered those lingering questions as to what happened during the NFC Championship. The Packers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, and the Bears watched from home.

Five years later, it's still a hot topic of conversation with each Cutler injury -- and there have been many. Cutler played just one full 16-game season in Chicago, his first year with the team back in 2009. This season, he's played in five games, managing both a thumb sprain and now this torn labrum.

Cutler has been voted a team captain each season with the Bears. Though he wasn't initially embraced by all teammates, that changed over time. Players have praised Cutler's passion for the game and willingness to play through injuries. Those outside perceptions of Cutler's toughness anger teammates.

Zach Miller offered a sigh in September when answering to Cutler's critics.

"That's how I react," Miller responded, exhaling once more. "That guy's one of the toughest guys I've ever played on a football team with. If you look at the amount of shots he takes — what, do (critics) question his toughness because he has an injury and he can't play through it?

"For me, he's one of the toughest guys I've ever played football with."

If this is the end for Cutler in Chicago, as it seems to be, it came earlier than he could've hoped. His future has been in question all season, but Cutler must hate that his final pass in a Bears uniform could be a fourth-quarter interception against the Giants on Nov. 20.

Cutler played through his torn labrum in that game and was prepared to do it again this season. He wanted to fight through the pain and hold off on surgery -- even knowing well that free agency or a prove-yourself situation elsewhere could be looming.

Opinions of Cutler vary outside Halas Hall. Inside, though, the Bears know him well.

"How tough he is," offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said Thursday. "How much he cares. How much the team means to him. That's been incredible to watch. There's a perception and there's a reality. It's been really fun the last two years being able to coach him. I've enjoyed every minute of it."


Growing up in nearby Berwyn, second-year receiver Cameron Meredith was a Bears fan before joining the team as an undrafted free agent back in 2015. He had posters of those vaunted Chicago defenses hanging in his room.

But as a quarterback at St. Joseph High School and Illinois State, Meredith could understand Cutler. He watched the wins and losses Chicago endured, then watched quietly as a rookie looking to find his place with the team.

When Kevin White suffered a season-ending injury back in October, the Bears turned to Meredith. It was Cutler -- who had developed a close relationship with White -- who soon embraced Meredith.

"It's always different looking from the outside in," Meredith said. "To have the opportunity to get to know him personally, see his work ethic and stuff like that, it's definitely been a great experience so far."

Meredith was part of this young Bears team that embraced Cutler, playing his eighth season here and working as the team's longest-tenured player. When Cutler returned from his thumb sprain for a Monday night contest with the Vikings at Soldier Field on Oct. 31, the Bears were ecstatic. They united around Cutler and knocked off the Vikings.

"Those guys played some inspired football, and it was fun to be a part of," Cutler said after the victory.

The influence of Cutler with this team has been unique since Fox and Pace took over in early 2015. The Bears rid a veteran roster with young pieces, entirely reshaping the locker room. Still, Cutler was locked into a lucrative deal, and replacing him wasn't simple.

Cutler marveled during training camp this past summer at his youthful team. Pro Bowl offensive lineman Kyle Long would play video games on camera, using an app to connect with fans as they watched. Cutler is a 33-year-old father of three. Many teammates used him in Madden before relying on him as a teammate.

Cutler earned the respect of young teammates, who relied on his lead. In time these past eight years, Cutler learned to embrace that role.

The Bears have never gone in the right direction with Cutler. They certainly tried, going through three head coaches and six offensive coordinators in the time.

These eight years haven't gone according to plan, but he's been willing to help make it right.

"He's extremely competitive," Fox said. "I think he's been very tough-minded when he's had to deal with things, even in our tenure here, different surgeries, the hamstring, the thumb and now the shoulder. I think he's handled that as well as most guys I've ever been associated with."


If this is indeed the end for Cutler and the Bears, that 51-51 mark seems about right.

Cutler brought many cheers to Soldier Field and just as many moans and groans. He served as Mr. Fourth Quarter and threw fourth-quarter interceptions. Many fans love Cutler, and many love to hate him.

Cutler arrived in Chicago with such high hopes -- a first-round pick with the Broncos and Pro Bowl player arriving to a franchise that had long sought its next quarterback. He has more yards, touchdowns and victories than any other quarterback in Bears franchise history.

If this is actually over, Cutler will go down as the best quarterback in Bears history, at least statistically. Sure, this is a different era of football -- a passing league that so greatly differs from those days of Gale Sayers and Walter Payton running their way to the record books.

But the Bears brought in Cutler to be much more -- a franchise quarterback who posts those Nintendo numbers and could lead his team to the playoffs. The Bears mortgaged much of their future for Cutler, who they envisioned winning a Super Bowl for Chicago. That never came to fruition.

If this is all for Cutler and the Bears, it's quite the complicated legacy.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago's sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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