Lovie Smith: Cutler expected back before end of regular season

November 21, 2011

By The Associated Press

A close-up photo of Jay Cutler's throwing hand after yesterday's game (Associated Press)

Updated at: 2:12pm on 11/21/2111

Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has a broken thumb on his right throwing hand and will undergo surgery, a major blow for a team contending for a playoff spot in the NFC.

Coach Lovie Smith said Cutler will be out "for an extended time" but expects to get him back this season. He would not say when the surgery would take place, just "hopefully fairly quick" and provided few details about the specific nature of the injury.

He did make one thing clear, though.

"Is it a season-ending injury? No," Smith said Monday. "From what I've been told right now, we can expect him back at the end of the regular season."

The regular-season finale is Jan. 1 at Minnesota.

With Cutler out, the Bears will turn to backup Caleb Hanie against Oakland this weekend. They'll also look to bring in a veteran quarterback.

Hanie has thrown just 14 regular-season passes in four years. He made some plays in the NFC championship game against Green Bay last season after Cutler was injured and Todd Collins struggled, helping keep the Bears in it, but Chicago ultimately lost to the Packers.

Cutler was injured trying to help tackle Antoine Cason on an interception return in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 31-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers, and Smith was unaware of the extent of the injury until after the game.

Cutler stayed in and finished with 286 yards passing. He threw for two touchdowns and ran for another while leading the Bears (7-3) to their fifth straight win, but his injury is a big blow for a team that made a big leap into contention in the NFC.

"It's devastating," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "It's horrible, and I felt worse for him than I did for us. It stinks for us because he's having such a great year. He's our leader. He's the guy we turn to for pretty much everything."

The Bears also lost long snapper Patrick Mannelly to a season-ending torn anterior-cruciate ligament in his knee, but the big news, obviously, was Cutler's injury.

"We're going to miss a great player for a period of time," Smith said.

With an 11-point lead and the ball on the San Diego 30, Cutler was trying to hit Johnny Knox, but the receiver slipped. Cason picked the ball off at the 20 and returned it 64 yards before being pushed out of bounds by Matt Forte at the Bears 16.

Cutler helped prevent a touchdown on the return, but paid a heavy price. He raced over and he got knocked to the ground by linebacker Donald Butler as he pushed Cason with his right hand, which smacked the turf as he fell.

Major Wright intercepted Philip Rivers in the end zone three plays later, and the Bears ran 7 1/2 minutes off the clock on the next possession, with Cutler completing two passes on the drive, to Matt Spaeth and Forte.

"That's a huge play in the game," Urlacher said. "Probably a 10-point swing right there, with him making that play. I wish he wouldn't have made it, I'll tell you that much. I'd take it back right now, let the guy score, because we still got the lead. It was 31-27 if he scores. It was a great play by him to keep him out of the end zone and the effort he made on the play, but like I said, we'd trade it for a touchdown right now."

The news about Cutler clearly overshadowed everything else on a day when Chicago (7-3) handed the Chargers (4-6) their fifth straight loss, their longest slide since an 0-5 start in 2003. But it wasn't easy.

Rivers threw for 280 yards. For most of the game, he looked more like a Pro Bowl quarterback than the guy who had been turning it over at an alarming rate. But two late interceptions helped preserve the win for Chicago.

"I played against Philip and San Diego many times, and they've always had a high-powered offense and they're not going to give up," said Cutler, who lost four of five against the Chargers when he was with Denver. "They're going to come back and fight. Philip is a smart quarterback. He knows where weaknesses are in defenses, especially in the third and fourth quarter, so we knew we were going to be in a battle even though we kept scoring."

The Bears were leading 31-20 when Cason returned his interception 64 yards to the Chicago 16 before being pushed out of bounds by Matt Forte, with help from Cutler.

"Maybe Jay's biggest play on the game might have been on that interception, buying time for Matt Forte," Smith said. "Who would have thought we'd be talking about Matt Forte and Jay Cutler on a defensive play that they made."

That might be talked about for a while in Chicago, given the news about Cutler.

After that interception, Rivers basically sealed the loss when he tried to squeeze a pass to Vincent Jackson in the end zone but got picked off by Major Wright.

Rivers also had a pass intercepted by Chicago's Corey Graham in the closing minutes, giving the quarterback a league-leading 17 INTs, on a ball that he was trying to throw away.

Rivers said in hindsight he never should have thrown the ball that Wright intercepted, "but once it leaves your hand you can't bring it back."

Can the Chargers bounce back? They've been known to make late surges under Norv Turner, and they'll need another one if they're going to save this season.

But time may be running out.

"Absolutely," Jackson said. "We only play 16 regular-season games. We're not like NBA, we're not like hockey, so each and every one is precious."

Playing the first of four straight games against AFC West opponents, Chicago got strong performances from Cutler and Johnny Knox to remain tied with Detroit for second place in the NFC North.

Cutler was 18 of 31 with the interception and did not get sacked, even though there was more shuffling on the line. Edwin Williams replaced the injured Chris Williams at left guard.

Knox had three catches for 97 yards, including a twisting touchdown reception in the third quarter that made it a 14-point game, although he did slip on Cason's interception. Earl Bennett came up big, too, with 75 yards receiving, and Roy Williams chipped in with 62 yards.

Devin Hester had a 37-yard punt return and a 22-yarder that set up a second-quarter TD run by Marion Barber. And along with his contributions on offense, Knox returned a kickoff 53 yards, leading to a TD catch by Kellen Davis late in the first half.

Charles Tillman had a key strip and fumble recovery.

For the Chargers, Rivers completed 21 of 31 passes, with Jackson catching seven for 165 yards.