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Now who has Jay Cutler’s back?

Updated: March 14, 2014 11:03AM

Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith smiled knowingly, as if he’d stolen something valuable and gotten away with it.

The victims?

His former team and starting quarterback Jay Cutler.

And that probably made it feel sweeter for Smith, who beamed when first asked about the Bucs’ addition of quarterback Josh McCown at a news conference Wednesday.

The news of McCown’s two-year, $10 million deal, which could reach $15 million with incentives, broke just minutes before the Bears introduced new defensive end Lamarr Houston and safety Ryan Mundy at Halas Hall.

It was a loss the Bears were prepared for with quarterback Jordan Palmer already re-signed. But it’s a loss that could have ramifications for a team committed to Cutler.

Coach Marc Trestman might be able to work magic with any quarterback — let’s not forget there were serious doubts about McCown before last season — but Trestman and anyone in the Bears’ locker room will tell you that McCown became much more than the typical backup.

The Bears are Cutler’s team more than ever. And Cutler just lost one of his closest friends on the team.

Cutler lost an intelligent, determined student of the game who helped him prepare in ways unlike previous backups. He lost a teammate who humbly accepted his backup role and was a calming presence.

The Bears lost a unifying leader in what could’ve been an overwhelmingly divisive locker room in 2013.

“We all want to congratulate Josh,” general manager Phil Emery said.

“He has been provided with a great opportunity to be a starter down there in Tampa. We’re very happy for him and very proud.”

Tampa Bay’s offense might not be as loaded as the Bears’, but the chance to start and the massive deal offered put McCown out of the team’s reach.

So what’s next?

Cutler hasn’t played a full season since 2009, and Palmer, who last took a regular-season snap in 2010, is the backup.

Emery pointed to Palmer’s strong performance in their last preseason game against the Browns, saying he “fit in incredibly quick” while being “a good influence in the room” with “good intelligence.”

But competition is coming.

Emery said the Bears would look at quarterbacks in the draft and also bring in a bunch of veterans after free agency settles down.

The quarterbacks available in free agency don’t seem too appealing, but there are some big names and some Bears connections. Mark Sanchez is expected to be cut by the Jets, and ex-Bears Jason Campbell and Rex Grossman are out there for the taking. Brandon Weeden was just cut by the Browns and has experience with Trestman.

“We’ll take a look at who’s still looking for an opportunity,” Emery said. “We’ll bring them in and try them out, and we may sign another one.”

But can anyone connect with Cutler like McCown did?

That’s the great unknown with an offense that will be under pressure to lead the way after a record-setting 2013 season and with a defense in major flux.

Perhaps Cutler deserves more credit going forward here.

He’s more of a leader than many give him credit for. He was one of the first players to reach out to Houston after he was signed, and, by all accounts, he has happily embraced everything about his new situation under Trestman and Emery.

Cutler also is liked by his teammates more than some believe.

On Wednesday, left tackle Jermon Bushrod posted a photo on Instagram — a massive “selfie” on a boat in Florida with offensive linemen Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Marquess Wilson, defensive backs Tim Jennings and Isaiah Frey and running back Michael Ford. Right in the middle sat a cool-looking Cutler in sunglasses.

Consider it a message that the Bears already are rallying around their franchise quarterback.


Twitter: @adamjahns

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