If Jay Cutler is anything less than superb Sunday in his return to the starting lineup for the first time in five weeks, the Bears' simmering quarterback controversy will begin to boil.
And Cutler knows it.
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"I don't think we really have a lot of room for me to be rusty out there," Cutler said after his first full practice since he suffered a high left ankle sprain against the Lions on Nov. 10. "So we've got to hit it running. We've got to play well. Cleveland's a really good defense. It's going to be a challenge."
Cutler needs to play well to keep the 7-6 Bears in the playoff hunt and to silence critics who believe backup Josh McCown should remain in the starting lineup based on his 109.8 passer rating, which is third best in the NFL.
McCown's passer rating in Monday's victory over the Cowboys was a career-best 141.9, and he has been over 90 in each of the seven games he played in place of Cutler, including two relief appearances.
The Bears were 3-2 in McCown's five starts and 4-4 in Cutler's starts. But the plan all along has been for the starter to return to the lineup as soon as he was healthy, and now he is.
"I expect Jay to play efficiently and play well on Sunday," coach Marc Trestman said. "That's why he's going to be up."
Cutler returned to practice on a limited basis last week and, on Thursday, completed a full practice, taking all the first-team reps. He went through a rigorous workout Wednesday, although the Bears did not practice as a team after playing Monday night.
"He did it very effectively Wednesday," Trestman said. "He came up (Thursday) morning, and there were no residual issues, no swelling, nothing there at all. So we practiced him, and he had a very efficient, very good practice. Good start."
In his last appearance, Cutler started off playing well but tapered off after injuring the ankle in the second quarter, although he wasn't relieved until late in the fourth quarter in the team's 21-19 loss to Detroit. Cutler's 88.4 passer rating this year would be his best for a full season, but it pales in comparison to McCown's.
Cutler was asked what he's made about the quarterback debate. His response: "I haven't."
"I've been worried about Cleveland," he said. "That has kind of been where my mindset has been since Monday night, after I got cleared. I can't get involved in that (debate)."
Asked if the fact that there is a debate bothered him, Cutler said: "There is not a debate in this building, so that's kind of where my concern lies."
According to Trestman there was never any debate among coaches, either, regardless of how well McCown played.
"There was never any doubt that this was the direction we were going to go," Trestman said. "We said that from the beginning. Josh did a tremendous job as a backup. (But) Jay's healthy and ready to go, and he'll play on Sunday."
Cutler will face arguably the toughest defense the Bears have encountered this season. The Browns are No. 4 in rushing yards, No. 7 in total yards and tied for No. 8 in passing yards allowed.
Although the Bears have the same record as the NFC North-leading Lions, they need to finish with a better record to make the playoffs because Detroit swept the season series.
"There's pressure to make the playoffs every game," Cutler said. "This is my eighth year. I've been down this road before."
There's also the matter of Cutler's contract expiring after this season, with a potentially mega-million dollar, multi-year deal hanging in the balance. The Bears could also slap the franchise tag on Cutler, keeping him for 2014 for somewhere around $16 million and buying themselves a year to decide if they want to invest the really big money in him after next season.
"I can't worry about it," Cutler said. "We're trying to win football games, so whatever it takes to win that game, that's kind of my mindset, and it will take care of itself.
"It always does."
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