TELANDER: Bears’ season takes leap into unknown with Jay Cutler’s injury
BY RICK TELANDER firstname.lastname@example.org
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on the bench after throwing an interception late in the first half of the Chicago Bears-Houston Texans game Sunday November 11, 2012 in Chicago. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
When Jay Cutler was hit in the head full-tilt by Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins last Sunday, the Bears’ season changed for certain.
There was the guaranteed loss against the Texans — what a strategic thing it is to cheap-shot the opposing quarterback out of a game! Even for a fine of 30 grand! — and worry for the next seven games.
What it’s called is head trauma. Concussion.
Cutler is concussed and because his wound is also known, appropriately, as ‘‘the unseen injury,’’ and it’s never quite certain when a concussion has healed, nobody can say for sure what the outcome will be.
‘‘When a guy has a concussion, whether it’s the first or whatever, it’s a concern for you,’’ Bears coach Lovie Smith said Wednesday at Halas Hall. ‘‘We will do everything possible to get him back. But it’ll all take care of itself.’’
But it’s not that simple.
Concussions aren’t sprained ankles, and they don’t always take care of themselves.
Whether it’s a shambling, demented Hall of Famer like the deceased John Mackey or a suicide like Andre Waters or an early death from ALS like with Wally Hilgenberg or simply the Sports Illustrated cover shot of former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, a 53-year-old who doesn’t know where he’s going without Post-it notes, the reminders of too many blows to the head are out there.
Thus, the Bears’ main plan for success, Cutler as a capable starter, is tattering.
‘‘He’s not going to go back practicing until he’s completely well and ready to go,’’ Smith said. ‘‘He won’t play until there’s no issues with that.”
Maybe Cutler will be healed by the Monday night game against the 49ers. But that seems ludicrous. If a boxer is knocked out or battered to his knees, would anyone let him fight again a week later?
Backup quarterback Jason Campbell is a decent replacement. But that’s all he is — a replacement. If Campbell had starter qualities, he’d be a starter. The 30-year-old from Auburn peaked in 2009, when he threw for 3,618 yards and 20 touchdowns for the Raiders. And even if the Bears paid him $3.5 million to join the team this year, it matters not. Cutler is the hope, the future for the Bears.
Now this ugly concussion phenomenon has hit the Bears in the face. It hit others, too, on Sunday, including 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (who might or might not play Monday), Eagles quarterback Michael Vick and even Bears defensive end Shea McClellin.
If the Bears were to lose two players a week to concussions regularly, we’d see McDonald’s burger-flippers and flag-football dudes wearing the orange and blue.
Oh, it was much easier in the old days, when guys merely got ‘‘dinged’’ and their ‘‘bells rung,’’ when they went back into games if they could tell the trainer if he was holding up two fingers or three. But we have seen where nonchalance leads. To thousands of brain-injured former NFL players suing the league, for one place.
Quarterbacks are already protected by a number of rules, but the game would have to be changed dramatically — say, no hits above the sternum, no lowering of heads by anybody, no violent slams to the ground — for matters to evolve.
Smith doesn’t seem to be wired in to radical new thinking, perhaps out of an inability to be able to conceive of a gentler form of football, or from nostalgia.
‘‘If it’s to a point where every big hit you take a guy out of a football game, then it could change the game,’’ he said. But he added, ‘‘I don’t see it affecting an awful lot.’’
Cutler has had concussions before, including back at Vanderbilt, and piling them on can lead to a tipping point — where brain damage is progressive and permanent.
Back in 1969, Vikings linebacker Hilgenberg lowered his head on a tackle and tried to destroy Cowboys wide receiver Pete Gent after a completed pass. Hilgenberg blew up Gent and knocked himself out cold in the process. The concussion no doubt abetted the brain atrophy that would kill Hilgenberg in 2008 at 66.
Gent died last year at 69. The author of North Dallas Forty, Gent said in 2001, ‘‘There was something about pro football. It was violent. It was cruel. There was a part of the game that was literally insane. And I loved it.’’