LAKE FOREST – Maybe it’s too harsh to declare this as a lost season for Jay Cutler.
Perhaps it’s premature to pull the curtain on the Bears’ playoff chances with four games to go.
It might be too early to start debating which college quarterback is the best fit for the Bears.
I’m doing it anyway.
Because when the Bears host the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night at Soldier Field, Cutler will return to his familiar spot on the sideline to watch Josh McCown play quarterback. It will mark Cutler’s fifth missed start of the season and the seventh game out of 13 that he will not have finished.
This does not mean Cutler is a wimp.
It does, however, mean Cutler is injury prone.
That’s an important point to remember as the clock dwindles toward 0:00 on Cutler’s contract. Tough decisions await general manager Phil Emery, who has three options when it comes to addressing the most important position on his team.
Door No. 1: Let Cutler hit free agency.
Door No. 2: Place a franchise tag on Cutler, securing him for next season for north of $16 million.
Door No. 3: Sign Cutler to a long-term deal, thereby likely decreasing the annual salary-cap hit.
This was supposed to be the season that provided clarity to Emery’s decision.
For the first time, Cutler would have an offensive guru leading the team. He would have a real-life tight end and an improved offensive line. He would be surrounded by more talent than ever before, including two big, strong wide receivers and a versatile running back among the best in the game.
And what new insight have we gleaned into No. 6?
When he’s standing on the sideline, he prefers to wear a winter hat with a fuzzy ball on top?
For a few hours Thursday, it seemed as if Cutler would earn a chance to return against the Cowboys. He practiced alongside fellow quarterbacks McCown and Jordan Palmer, stretching his muscles before firing 10- to 20-yard spirals during the portion of practice that was open to media members.
But soon after the end of practice, coach Marc Trestman ruled Cutler out for Monday. He said Cutler did well with limited work in practice, but doctors had not yet cleared him for a full return.
“It was good to see him out there working today,” Trestman said. “He made some throws.”
Hey, did you hear that? He made some throws. That’s great.
Did they look like $30 million throws? Or $50 million throws? Or perhaps $75 million throws?
Snarky, I know.
But it’s hard not to be frustrated by yet another season in which Cutler’s grade is “incomplete.” Including Monday, injuries will have prevented him from finishing 15 of his past 45 games.
Considering that, would you commit to Cutler for the next four or five seasons?
That sounds like too big of a risk to me.
During a question-and-answer session this week on the Bears’ official website, Emery hinted that placing a franchise tag on Cutler would require too much single-season cap space, which would affect the team’s ability to make other roster moves. By that reasoning, the Bears still could use the franchise tag on Cutler, but more so as a means of buying time to negotiate a long-term deal.
If not one season, then offer Cutler more guaranteed money and spread it out over two seasons. Regardless, use the franchise tag so he knows that free agency is not an option in 2014.
If Cutler signs a two-year deal, it’s great for both sides. The Bears retain their starting quarterback at ages 31 and 32, and Cutler has two more opportunities to stay healthy and reach the playoffs.
If Cutler declines, then you let him play under the franchise tag. Maybe that will make him grumpy (well, grumpier), but his only other alternative would be to sit out and earn $0.
Meanwhile, the Bears should spend an early pick this spring to draft and develop a quarterback.
Maybe that player will be Aaron Murray of Georgia or A.J. McCarron of Alabama or Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois. Maybe it will be someone else. The draft class is loaded with quarterbacks, according to people who closely monitor such things.
As for Cutler’s latest campaign, what have we found?
A lost season.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.