Bears' QB call wasn't a toss-up

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- With a protective winter stubble and a camouflage hat pulled low over his face, Jay Cutler met with his good friends in the media Thursday to discuss his return to the job of starting quarterback of the Chicago Bears.

"I forgot how cheerful and uplifting this room is," he said at Halas Hall.

Yes, Chicago -- media included -- is just bursting with joy that Cutler Claus is back to doling out fastballs and droll wit.

Just kidding. Josh McCown is Chicago's Sweetheart now. He's Oprah in cleats. He's like popular restaurant Girl & The Goat because reservations are hard to find.

Sorry, Jay. You've been replaced.

I'm being a little facetious here, but the real story was that the Bears' offense has been humming along under McCown.

Cutler wasn't playing badly before he suffered the high-ankle sprain -- pretty, pretty well, actually -- but he's never put together a string of games to make Chicago implicitly trust him.

Cutler's shaky relationship with Chicago has certainly sparked the debate of his viability as the short-term and long-term starter. He's got the tools, from arm to makeup, to be one of the best in the league. He just hasn't realized it yet.

In the past, his Chicago backups were a forgettable lot. Talentless ( Caleb Hanie) to useless ( Todd Collins). But this time, Cutler got to watch his replacement shine. Perhaps it made him think a little bit about his own professional mortality.

"You also see how much you miss it," Cutler said. "How much you miss being out there and sometimes how you take it for granted."

Is Chicago taking Cutler for granted? Probably. Familiarity with Cutler breeds contempt.

And after McCown had the best game of his career Monday night against a bum Cowboys defense, the debate about McCown, with his 109.8 quarterback rating and three straight 300-yard games, and his worthiness as a starter has heated up.

Imagine that. Even Brian Urlacher weighed in. He's pro-McCown, of course.

Cutler, of course, said he didn't hear about it.

"There's not a debate in this building, so that's kind of where my concern lies," Cutler said.

Cutler said he's been buoyed by his teammates' support. None of his offensive teammates has even deigned to suggest he'd rather have McCown out there.

"It means a lot," Cutler said. "I think all the guys on offense have been behind me the entire time. The coaches have kept me involved. I've been involved in the whole process each and every week."

Cutler versus McCown, two good friends pitted against each other in the public forum, was a fun storyline, and maybe a legitimate debate about the short-term moreso than the long-term viability of re-signing Cutler.

It's not risky to start Cutler. It just might be safer to start McCown.

But that's coach Marc Trestman's decision to make. Not that there was one to make. This is Cutler's job.

"I don't think risk was part of this decision," Trestman said. "This decision was made a long time ago and that was when Jay was ready to play, he would play."

If there is a contingency plan for if, say, Cutler comes up limping as he did in his game against Detroit, Trestman won't announce it.

"I have no concerns," he said. "I expect he'll go out and play effectively and efficiently. I'm not going there with any reservation that he'll do anything else."

As for Cutler's future with the team, which involves money in his bank account -- well, Cutler did hear about general manager Phil Emery's reluctance to use the franchise tag next year.

"I know Phil has a plan," Cutler said. "You guys might not know Phil's plan, but he has a plan."

With three games left and the 7-6 Bears' playoff hopes essentially requiring them to run the table and hope Detroit -- which hasn't won two in a row in a month -- loses at least one game, there is no time for Cutler to get into the groove.

"I don't think we have a lot of room for me to be rusty out there," he said.

Is he worried about these last three games affecting his next contract offer? Or even his status with the team?

"I can't worry about it," he said. "We're trying to win football games. Whatever it takes to win that game, that's my mindset. It'll take care of itself. It always does."

Typically, starts against the Cleveland Browns aren't defined as important.

Easy, perhaps. Worry-free, sometimes. But career-defining? Rarely.

Still, there hasn't been a Bears game with this much riding on it in years.

With the playoffs on the line, it's commensurate in importance with that train wreck against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game that unfairly poisoned Cutler's national reputation for years.

And if the Bears win Sunday at Cleveland, then his next start in Philadelphia is his biggest. And if the Bears somehow slow down the Eagles' offense and Cutler plays well enough for the Bears to win two in a row, then the season finale against Green Bay is Cutler's next biggest game of his life.

This is why we watch, right? Well, that and the fantasy leagues. I guess it's time for me to bench McCown.

Because he couldn't finish his past two games, and because he's been out a month, it's easy to forget that Cutler was playing pretty well this season.

In Cutler's last three games before the groin injury, suffered Oct. 20 against the Redskins, he threw for 937 yards, 6 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. All three picks came in the same game, a loss at Detroit on Sept. 29.

In those three games, he completed 57.4 percent of his passes (Detroit), 66.7 percent (New York) and 72.7 (New Orleans).

Then he started two and finished none with a torn groin and a high ankle sprain, respectively. That led to McCown's ascendance.

McCown has thrown for 1,809 yards, 13 touchdowns and just one interception while subbing for Cutler this season. He accounted for five touchdowns in the 45-28 win over Dallas. Cutler is one of his biggest fans.

"He's played well, he's played really well," Cutler said. "I'm happy for him. If there's anybody who deserves it, it's him."

The 34-year-old McCown, out of football just last year, has all but guaranteed himself a couple million dollars in future contracts.

And Cutler, looking to make tens of millions in guaranteed money, comes back to a streaking offense and an injury-ravaged defense. The Bears are totally reliant on the offense to not only show up, but dominate. While McCown was very good, the Bears' offense hasn't been overpowering, especially in the red zone.

Cutler should be the missing piece of the puzzle. He needs to be efficient and deadly from the opening series.

"There's pressure to make the playoffs every game," he said. "This is my eighth year. I've been down this road before."

That's kind of what we're afraid of.