Jay Cutler and his Chicago Bears teammates walked off the grass at Soldier Field on Nov. 20 with what seemed to be the whole world in front of them ... or, at least, the whole NFC. Chicago had just finished off the San Diego Chargers for its fifth victory in a row, giving the Bears a 7-3 record and command of a playoff spot. Everyone was all smiles, particularly head coach Lovie Smith.
Well, everyone except Cutler. Unlike the rest of America, he knew something was wrong. Fans and football hacks were already starting to look forward to Week 16, when the Green Bay Packers figured to present the red-hot Bears with their next serious challenge. However, by the time that late-December showdown rolled around, Chicago was all but out of the playoff race.
What could have been ...
A broken finger might not sound like much, but when it's on your throwing hand and you're an NFL quarterback, forget it. It's more of a deal-breaker than a gal telling you she used to date Mario Lopez.
Throwing the ball with a broken digit is hard enough. Taking the snap from under center is another matter. A pinky injury derailed Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys in 2008. Ditto for Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams in 2002 and 2003, when pinky and thumb fractures helped bring down the curtain on "The Greatest Show on Turf." Warner's "small" injuries also, incidentally, helped lead to his ultimate departure and Marc Bulger's emergence in St. Louis.
So while that November trouncing of San Diego initially seemed to mark a high point of the Bears' season, the news that Cutler had broken his right thumb in the fourth quarter spelled doom for Chicago.
Cutler's injury meant the Bears would be going down the stretch -- or, as it turned out, just plain going down -- with Caleb Hanie at quarterback. The Bears needed their starter, just as the Cowboys and Rams needed Romo and Warner, respectively.
Chicago had been playing lights-out before an MRI turned the lights out on Cutler's 2011 campaign. Consider these numbers from the Bears' five-game winning streak:
» The Bears outscored their opponents, 161-85.
» Cutler threw just three picks, while the club's turnover differential was a stout plus-eight.
» Chicago averaged nearly 32 minutes in time of possession.
» Opposing quarterbacks posted a 62.7 passer rating.
» Cutler was sacked just once per game.
The last stat might be the most telling. Much of Cutler's early-season mediocrity could be blamed on the fact that he had been running for his life. When Mike Martz, Chicago's offensive coordinator at the time, finally decided to start protecting Cutler, the quarterback started making big plays -- completing 10 passes of 25-plus yards during the five-game winning streak -- and cutting down on his mistakes.
The lost MVP?
Cutler was finally free to play ball, and the Bears' defense, buoyed by a couple of new starters at safety, was more than doing its part. Chicago was poised to seriously challenge Green Bay. (Despite Aaron Rodgers and his Tecmo Bowl numbers, the Packers' defense couldn't stop anybody.)
Stats aren't everything, and in Cutler's case, winning out or going 12-4 might have netted him an MVP award and resulted in an Offensive Player of the Year nod for Rodgers. (As it turned out, Rodgers nabbed the MVP, while Drew Brees took home Offensive POY.) Moreover, he could have pushed the Bears to make noise in the postseason. Remember, the 9-7 New York Giants went on to win it all; the Bears, who were a much stronger defensive team, certainly could have pulled off a similar feat if Cutler had been healthy.
Cutler's value is made even clearer by the fact that he was able to put his team in control of a postseason berth despite missing offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and Chris Williams, and despite a lack of playmakers on the outside. (If you considered Roy Williams a playmaker, then you might have actually thought Gigli was going to be awesome when it was released.)
What wasn't awesome is what happened after Cutler went down for the count. Hanie put together a string of turnover fests, first in Oakland (three picks and a loss), then against Kansas City (three picks, a fumble and a loss), and finally against Seattle (three picks and a loss). Even Josh McCown got into the act, adding an interception of his own -- on just two attempts -- during the 38-14 shellacking by Seattle.
Here's a look at how Hanie and McCown performed over the final six games of the Bears' season:
With Cutler, the Bears had been out-producing their opponents by a healthy margin. In their first five games without him, they were killed, 121-68. Chicago went from 7-3 and screaming toward a Christmas showdown with the Packers to 7-8 and sputtering out of Wisconsin -- and the playoffs.
Yes, an injury to running back Matt Forte hurt badly (although he likely could have returned in time for the postseason). And yes, there are other positions on the field besides quarterback. But there is no mistaking the 180-degree turn the Bears took the moment No. 6 went down.
So what does all this mean for 2012? Chicago has as good a shot as any squad to come out on top in the NFC. Cutler is healthy. So is Forte. Young safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte, pressed into duty last year, are now full-time starters. Receiver Brandon Marshall has bolstered the weakest position group on the club, and running back Michael Bush gives Chicago a great complement to Forte.
And yet, as good as the improved Bears figure to be, remember that they might have won it all a year ago, if not for a little thumb injury.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL.