How Will Bears Cope Without Cutler?

Can the Bears actually survive the loss of Cutler for at least four weeks?

The Chicago Bears suffered a huge blow to their playoff chances on Monday afternoon when the team announced that quarterback Jay Cutler has a torn muscle in his groin. The team said he will miss at least four weeks with the injury. 

Obviously, the first question that has to be asked is where do the Bears go from here? According to various reporters, including ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Bears have already decided to bring back in Jordan Palmer, who started the team’s final preseason game. That move makes a good deal of sense, since Palmer has already worked with the Bears’ system and would be a quick study in terms of the nuances of Trestman’s offense.

Beyond just doing that, there really isn’t a lot the team can do. They could conceivably bring back Jerrod Johnson, who spent a chunk of this season on the practice squad but was jettisoned amid a string of moves designed to make up for the losses of defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins, but odds are the Bears wouldn’t want to add him to the 53-man roster anyway, so he might end up with a practice squad spot out of the deal.

Sticking short-term, the Bears aren’t going to have to do a lot to their system in order to make it more accessible to McCown. The team has already made it a point to adopt a West Coast offense-style system, which means that the quarterback generally gets rid of the ball quickly and doesn’t sling it downfield every chance he gets. While McCown did display a decent arm during Sunday’s game, he definitely does not have Cutler’s ability to throw the deep ball, so there will be a slight drop off in terms of ability to extend plays and stretch defenses too far down the field.

The good thing about McCown is that he took a very proactive approach to learning the offense despite barely getting any practice reps with the first team. During practices, McCown would stand behind Cutler as he was running the offense, and would take mental notes about the blocking assignments of the line, the hot route adjustments by the receivers, and a general view of which audibles could be called in which spots. These types of nuances are lost on many quarterbacks when they come into games in relief of starters, but McCown didn’t seem to miss a beat on Sunday, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him continue to show a big command of the offense moving forward either.

Adding to the positives for the Bears, they have plenty of offensive weapons for McCown to choose from. When Cutler broke his thumb in 2011 and missed the last month of the season, Caleb Hanie was forced to deal with a receiving corps that included Roy Williams, Max Komar, Kellen Davis and Devin Hester. Needless to say, this Bears group is much better, and safety blankets like Martellus Bennett and Brandon Marshall will ease the transition to McCown.

Unfortunately for Chicago, there still will be a bit of a performance drop-off, and that could affect their playoff chances. The team is currently sitting at 4-3 heading into the bye week, a half game behind the Green Bay Packers for the top spot in the NFC North. As it stands right now, the Bears would finish just out of the playoffs, and the Detroit Lions would grab the final wild card spot thanks to their Week 4 victory over the Bears.

Despite that, the Bears could still be in playoff contention even with the Cutler injury. That’s because teams like the Atlanta Falcons, who are 2-4 but have sustained some huge injuries on offense, are the ones in pursuit of the Bears at this point. There’s no guarantee that they will be able to mount enough of a charge to catch up.

The Carolina Panthers are also close to the Bears, and the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals figure into that mix too. In a tough division with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, though, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to manage those dangerous waters to grab that other wild card spot.

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