Four Downs: Cutler future more uncertain?

Will the Bears opt to use the franchise tag on Jay Cutler after this season? AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Life without Jay Cutler -- at least for several weeks -- begins for the Bears on No. 4 at Green Bay when Josh McCown takes over for the injured starter.

With Cutler's contract up at the end of the season and the prospect of getting him back for just a few more games, have the Bears seen enough from him to commit to a long-term deal? Our panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: Cutler's future in Chicago is much more uncertain now that he is expected to miss most of the rest of the season.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. On one hand, Cutler has likely shown the Bears enough this season (91.7 quarterback rating) to merit the franchise tag designation in the offseason, keeping him in Chicago at a minimum through 2014. But on the other hand, it probably will be difficult for Cutler to secure a long-term extension because of the recent groin injury. Are seven games under Marc Trestman really enough to convince the Bears that Cutler is the right guy for the new regime? That's tough to say. But I don't buy the whole argument that Trestman's system is the star and not the players in it. Cutler is talented. He looked to be much more comfortable running this offense -- a better supporting cast no doubt played a role -- than he had in four previous seasons with the Bears. But the franchise tag allows the Bears the opportunity to take one more look at Cutler in 2014 before ultimately deciding whether to break the bank. There is a possibility that Cutler lights it up when he returns and leads the Bears to the playoffs, although the defense is still a major concern. But if that were to happen, I can envision the Bears and Cutler still getting a new deal done in the offseason. However, the odds seem better that Cutler is franchised in 2014.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. If you want evidence that Cutler's future is in Chicago, just look around the league. Mike Glennon? Christian Ponder? The Cleveland Browns' tire fire under center? For a country where seemingly every athletic kid wants to be a quarterback, there aren't a lot who can play this game, well anyway, in the NFL. Cutler isn't going to be Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, not even the mid-to-late 30s versions. But he's a much better alternative than what's out there and the Bears know this. All he needed to prove this season was that he could get along with Trestman. That's worked out fine. The Bears loaded up on offense since Phil Emery took over general manager to complement Cutler. Why dump him now? They won't.

Second Down

Fact or Fiction: Lance Briggs is a bigger loss to the Bears than Cutler.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Both players are vital to the Bears' success and will be missed, badly. But at least the Bears still have Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett and a decent offensive line around new starting quarterback Josh McCown. I doubt McCown can run the offense with the same efficiency as Cutler, but at least he has a fighting chance to do so. On defense, the outlook is bleak. The Bears couldn't stop anybody with Briggs. What's going to happen without him? There is still Pro Bowl talent on the defense, but Charles Tillman is banged up. Tim Jennings, like all cornerbacks, isn't nearly as effective without a pass rush. And Julius Peppers has one sack in seven games. This could get ugly.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I was wobbling on this fence this week, but I'm coming down on Cutler's side, if just barely. I just can't argue against a guy who has the ball on every play against a guy who might make 10 tackles a game. The defense is already horrible with Briggs, and they won't get better without their best performer. They'll miss more than his tackles -- leadership, play recognition, etc. -- but a defense can cover up for one player through schemes. You can't cover up for a quarterback. We have no idea how McCown will do as Cutler's replacement. Maybe he'll be great, and I'll be proven wrong as running backs and tight ends attack Briggs' replacement. But I'm sticking with the quarterback.

Third Down

Fact or Fiction: Brian Urlacher is right, Shea McClellin is miscast as a defensive end.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. The conspiracy theorists will say that Urlacher only made those comments because he dislikes Emery, the man responsible for drafting McClellin at No. 19 overall in 2012, but I'm not on board with that idea. Sure, Urlacher has issues with Emery (that's their business), but it doesn't change the fact that Urlacher was a master of this defense and knows exactly the types of players it needs to succeed. I believe Urlacher when he says that McClellin is miscast as a defensive end. We all see it every week. McClellin is a good athlete and works hard. He has value. But he looks overmatched at defensive end. Emery has drafted two studs on offense the past two years (Jeffery and Kyle Long), but I just don't understand the McClellin selection. Chandler Jones already has 6.5 sacks in seven games for the Patriots, bringing his career total to 12.5. McClellin has 3.0 career sacks. Both were available at No. 19.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. McClellin gets shoved around by tackles and tight ends. He's not strong enough, maybe not confident enough, to play defensive end on an every-down basis. He's got moves and he's got speed, so it's not like the guy is a bust. But he couldn't gain the weight necessary to play the position while keeping his speed. Emery tried his best to defend him this week, noting his run defense has improved. He's an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense or a situational pass-rusher. Not much debate here.

Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears will still make the playoffs.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. As it currently stands, the Bears look like the third-best team in the NFC North. And how is this for a cruel twist of fate: The Bears' first two games without Cutler are against the two teams they're chasing in the division, Green Bay and Detroit. I just don't see how the Bears are going to stop anybody on defense without a decent defensive line. There will be games where the Bears can outscore the opponent. I still expect this team to win around eight games despite the injuries to key players. But it doesn't feel like a playoff team. And it certainly doesn't look like a playoff team on the defensive side. I realize this is a league based on offense, but teams need to at least have a respectable defense. The Bears' defense was anything but respectable in the Washington game, and I don't' believe that's about to change anytime soon.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction, but just barely. Look at the competition. Throw out the NFC East teams, they're no good. Carolina, now 4-3, isn't for real. San Francisco and Seattle will both make the playoffs out of the West. That basically leaves Detroit as the Bears' sole competition for a wild card, if you believe Green Bay wins the division. Detroit has the edge with one win over the Bears and the second game coming with Cutler presumably still out in two weeks. Looking at their schedules, I see each going 5-4 down the stretch, with the optimistic thought Cutler comes back after four games. That means if the Lions win at Soldier Field and my guesses are correct, they'll get in with the head-to-head tiebreaker. So that game could define the season.