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Decision on Cutler will determine course of Bears’ future

Updated: December 29, 2013 11:32PM

It’s all over now but the mop-up. Maybe shovel-up is more like it.

And the biggest load sitting there, as the tents are packed up and the elephants are sent down the rails, is free agent-to-be Jay Cutler.

What do you do about him?

Cutler was pretty good in the Bears’ season-ending 33-28 loss to the Packers that reminded us, above all, that Aaron Rodgers is as good as it gets when it counts. And, sadly, he isn’t going anywhere.

Cutler finished with pretty good numbers, good enough ‘‘to win the game,’’ coach Marc Trestman said. But he didn’t win the game. He completed 15 of 24 passes for 226 yards, two touchdowns and a 103.8 passer rating. But he didn’t win
the game.

The Bears had the ball on their own 40-yard line with 38 seconds left, with two timeouts remaining, trailing 33-28. Cutler moved the ball 15 yards, then threw an interception in the end zone on the last play.

Game, season and hope over.

An ending like that wouldn’t have seemed so dispiriting — how many quarterbacks can lead their teams 60 yards to a touchdown in 40 seconds? — had Rodgers not just guided the Packers on a 15-play, 87-yard touchdown drive that featured three fourth-down conversions.

You wouldn’t think what the Packers accomplish should figure in Cutler’s future, but it does because Rodgers and the Packers aren’t going away. Both Cutler and Rodgers are 30, but Cutler is seven months older than his rival.

And Cutler can’t beat the Packers. He’s now 1-9 in his career against them, including the playoffs.

No, it’s not all his fault. Maybe it’s not even a large part his fault. But it’s at least a little bit his fault. And doesn’t football always come down to little things?

Such as picking up a fumble, instead of standing around counting snowflakes, as Packers receiver Jarrett Boykin grabs the ball, drops it, picks it, stops and eventually trots into the end zone for a touchdown?

God, this Bears defense will be the end of us someday.

At any rate, the Bears can put the franchise tag on Cutler, pay him $16 million or thereabouts for 2014, then likely lose him after next season, or they can sign him to a three-, four- or five-year deal for close to $20 million per year and pray that the man who has been in Chicago for five seasons is the answer and that his paycheck won’t destroy them.

But at some important level, the money isn’t even the point. It’s this: Do the Bears think Cutler can overcome whatever the Packers have going on? Because if he can’t, why not use him for one more season, draft somebody young and promising and hope backup Josh McCown can guide them in the interim?

‘‘You’d love to predict the future,’’ Cutler said after the game. ‘‘I’m not gonna get into what’s going to happen. It always works out how it’s supposed to.’’

Sort of.

But to throw in with Cutler might mean the Bears are willing to be second bananas to the Packers for the foreseeable future. Rodgers doesn’t play for more than seven games, returns in a cold-weather game like this, rusty as hell, and somehow wins.

Yes, it’s hard to win when your defense gives up 473 yards and you have the ball 10 minutes less than your opponent. Sorry about that.

But Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and, ahem, Rodgers don’t have perfect teams, either. The Packers have so many guys on injured reserve, it’s silly. So it goes.

So the question is: Do we feel good about Cutler as the on-field leader of the Bears? Can the Bears take the salary-cap whack and juggle things around so they’re not hamstrung if they sign Cutler to a long-term deal?

General manager Phil Emery probably can pull that off. But what if Cutler is — how else can I put this? — the wrong guy?

‘‘I think Jay played very well tonight,’’ Trestman said.

Then he was asked about Rodgers, who rolled out to beat a wild-eyed Bears blitz and threw a game-winning, 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb in the final minute.

‘‘You have to marvel’’ at that, Trestman said. ‘‘He’s great player.’’

Cutler’s good. Which might not be good enough.


Twitter: @ricktelander

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