Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Before you start talking about how life would have been different had Jay Cutler not hurt his knee Sunday, bear in mind that when he left early in the third quarter, he had completed 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards, had a passer rating of 31.8 and hadn’t led the Bears to a single point.
There wasn’t the slightest suggestion he could heal his lack of accuracy, let alone his knee.
And before you start raving about the wonderful job Caleb Hanie did in emergency quarterback duty, please remember that Bears coach Lovie Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Martz had trotted out Todd Collins first Sunday. That would be the Todd Collins who threw four interceptions against lowly Carolina earlier in the season.
Even as the Packers ran out the clock in their 21-14 NFC Championship Game victory, you could feel the nostalgia about the Bears’ season starting to seep in — and once that happened, you knew the fiction about what happened Sunday wasn’t far behind.
No, the season wasn’t a mirage. The Bears were for real. But Sunday was real, too, and if you want to turn what happened at Soldier Field into a celebration of the grit of Hanie, the third-stringer, go ahead.
But it sure looked like the Packers got bored after jumping to a 14-0 lead. It sure looked like the Packers were much more worthy of going to the Super Bowl, no matter whom the Bears had shoved out there to play quarterback.
An indictment from Matthews
Afterward, the discussion was about whether Cutler was tough enough when it should have been about whether he was good enough. Who in his right mind believes an NFL quarterback would choose not to return to the biggest game of his life, given the chance to play again?
Cutler’s biggest problem Sunday was that he wasn’t very good and that he had given no indication he was capable of moving his team. The rest of it is noise. Don’t question his heart. Don’t question his pain threshold. Question why he couldn’t put the ball on the money when he was healthy.
“I kind of wish we had Jay in there the whole game the way things were going,’’ said Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, a statement the legal community would call an “indictment.’’
Cutler got hurt toward the end of the second quarter. He played one series at the start of the second half and was done for the day. When Collins jogged out, it was proof of the stubbornness of Smith and Martz. Filling in for a concussed Cutler in Week 5, Collins proved he had no business being on an NFL field.
That he played two series in the third quarter Sunday and failed to complete a pass in four attempts shouldn’t have come as a surprise, not if you saw that Panthers game.
The surprise was that he was the No. 2 quarterback after that. How did that happen? Old-fashioned Chicago graft?
“We thought Todd was the next guy that should be up ready to go,’’ Smith said.
Two words: Good. Lord.
Cutler vs. Rodgers: No contest
The way Aaron Rodgers came out Sunday, it looked as if the game was going to be a blowout. Of the Packers’ first 25 plays, 12 were for 10 yards or more and two were short touchdown runs. Rodgers worked the middle of the field as if it were a career opponent’s flabby belly. The Bears held him scoreless in the second half. Give them credit for keeping the game close.
But if Sunday was supposed to be a competition between Rodgers and Cutler, there was no competition — and Rodgers had a subpar day. A healthy Cutler has a long way to go, and now he knows it for sure.
Hanie is a talented kid. He can throw and he can run, but he hardly played this season. He led the Bears to two scores Sunday. He also threw two interceptions, one of which Green Bay nose tackle B.J. Raji returned for a touchdown.
There’s no way to prove that the Packers let up when Hanie came in, but that’s the way it looked.
Would Cutler have done any better? There was nothing in his work Sunday that says he would have.
“I knew it was probably better that I didn’t [go back in],’’ he said.“I knew my knee. I know my body.’’
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said his team was “right there at the end’’ Sunday. Literally, yes. Realistically? Only if you believed the Bears’ seasonlong luck was still on duty. It wasn’t. Packers safety Sam Shields picked off a deep Hanie pass in the final minute. That was that.
Good fortune had finally averted its gaze.
Packers simply better — period
Afterward, there was a mix of sadness, pride and resolve from the Bears, as there should have been. They had a surprisingly good season and couldn’t be blamed for expecting more. They said all the right things. That they’ll be back. That it’s not a truly successful season because they didn’t get to hoist the George Halas Trophy for winning the NFC or the Vince Lombardi Trophy for winning the Super Bowl.
“No one expected us to be here; we know that,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘It doesn’t make it any easier for us to lose this game. We expected to win this game.’’
The Packers were the better team. They were the better team whether Cutler played or not.