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Bears aren’t missing that much without Jay Cutler

Since going down with broken thumb Jay Cutler is being remembered as much better than he actually is. | Andy

Since going down with a broken thumb, Jay Cutler is being remembered as much better than he actually is. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media

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OAKLAND, Calif. — When ESPN’s Michael Wilbon — a fellow South Sider who, like myself, obviously has been scarred by a childhood of Jack Concannon, Bobby Douglass and Bob Avellini — called Jay Cutler the third-best quarterback in the NFL today, it was clear that while we know our football, we are way out of our league when it comes to quarterbacks.

Who are we to say how good any quarterback is? We’ve seen fewer good quarterbacks in our lifetimes than even Jerry Angelo has — and he’s still figuring it out on the fly, and he does this for a living.

By Tuesday, two days after Cutler broke the thumb on his throwing hand against the San Diego Chargers, it seemed like the Bears had lost Aaron Rodgers. By Wednesday, it seemed like Caleb Hanie was replacing Johnny Unitas. Yes, Cutler was playing well when he was hurt. But he was playing better than Jay Cutler had ever played. And he was playing as well as Jay Cutler had ever played for the Bears. Everything’s relative. The best quarterback in Bears history is still a guy who threw 137 touchdowns and 132 interceptions in his career.

The Bears are going to miss Cutler. But we’re going to miss Cutler more in our minds than the Bears will on the field. In the Bears’ five-game winning streak, Cutler completed 57 percent of his passes for 222 yards per game, seven touchdowns and three interceptions and an 89.1 passer rating. Even that five-game sample would only be tied for 10th in the NFL today. Cutler’s best rating in that span — 115.9 against the Minnesota Vikings (21-for-31, 267 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) — would be Rodgers’ 10th best of the season.

No doubt, Cutler was playing well and getting better. And good for him. The Bears are better with him than without him. But it’s not like he was carrying the offense on his shoulders. On the contrary, it wasn’t until the rest of the offense edged closer to Cutler’s level that he started to blossom. It wasn’t until Roy Williams ‘‘got his burst back’’ that Cutler finally seemed to find that quarterback-receiver groove that can drive an offense to an elite level.

The point is that not only was Cutler playing well when he was injured, the Bears’ offense was playing well when he was injured. It’s not like Matt Cassel taking over the 2008 Patriots. But it’s not like Todd Collins taking over the 2010 Bears, either. It’s somewhere in between. And that gives Hanie a fighting chance.

Eventually, anyway. All bets are off at Oakland on Sunday. It’s not that the Raiders’ 25th-ranked defense is that formidable. But when filled by Raider Nation, Oakland-Alameda County Stadium is a bizarre place where strange things happen. The Chargers had back-to-back punts blocked at Oakland last year. The Denver Broncos were called for 11 penalties three weeks ago. When the Bears played there in 1999, they were called for 17 penalties, the most in one game in the last 67 years.

The last time a quarterback made his NFL starting debut at Oakland, he had a 100.5 passer rating and scored on a 40-yard run and became the talk of the NFL. It’s no coincidence that Tim Tebow has played well in both of his games at Oakland (262 yards passing, 196 rushing, three touchdowns, no interceptions). Say what you want about him, but he’s as mentally tough as they come.

That will be the challenge for Hanie in his first NFL start. But even if he falls flat today, the shoes he’s filling aren’t as massive as they might appear. Dare I submit that by the end of the season, the debate will be whether the Bears should stick with a hot Caleb Hanie or go back to a rusty Cutler in the playoffs. Don’t discount the possibility. Caleb Hanie is no Cutler. But might be closer than you think.

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