THE MORNING AFTER: Realizing the end of the Jay Cutler era

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 13:  Defensive end Noah Spence #57 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sacks quarterback Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears leading to the turnover during the second quarter of an NFL game on November 13, 2016 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 13: Defensive end Noah Spence #57 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sacks quarterback Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears leading to the turnover during the second quarter of an NFL game on November 13, 2016 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

TAMPA – Can you imagine what must have been going through his head when the ball was floating to his right?

The cameras couldn’t zoom in fast enough to see his eyes, but they were probably wide open. You couldn’t see his mouth, but there might have been a smile like a Cheshire cat.

Could you blame Chris Conte?

He didn’t exactly have the smoothest ride in Chicago from 2011-2014 when he was often chided by the fanbase for missed plays – especially on the Randall Cobb touchdown in the 2013 finale against Green Bay. That led to a defeat that cost the Bears a playoff spot when he missed a changed coverage call at the line that forever made him a villain to Bears fans.

So when a pass floated towards the safety in the first quarter of Sunday’s game against the Bears, Conte didn’t hesitate. The Buccaneers safety corralled the pass and run straight to the endzone uncontested for his first career touchdown.

It signaled the start to a long day for the Bears and some redemption for Conte while perhaps spelling the figurative end to a Bears season lost to injuries and inconsistencies. Don’t think the safety is going to feel bad.

“I hate to make it personal, but for me it is personal,” said Conte to Chicago Tribune reporter Rich Campbell. “It feels great. I don’t want to say, ‘(Expletive) you, Chicago.’ But, I want to say, ‘(Expletive) you, Chicago.'”

That moment signaled Conte putting what happened with the Bears behind him. Perhaps it did the same for the guy that set the significant score in motion.

For the first time, to me, it seems as if the Jay Cutler era is finally in its closing act.

A little late your might say? Fair enough. Acquired in 2009 in a trade with the Broncos, Cutler has done some things to earn some rightful criticism from fans. He’s been generally inconsistent with a knack for turning the ball over too much, throwing 106 interceptions while fumbling the ball away 45 times.

Just one time has he led the Bears to the playoffs in eight years with the team and that was six years ago. Barring an incredible turnaround, the 2-7 Bears are likely going to miss the playoffs and finish under .500 for the fourth time in Cutler’s tenure.

Yet at the same time the quarterback hasn’t gotten dealt a totally fair hand. Cutler’s offensive lines in front of him has been as suspect since he arrived, allowing him to be sacked 243 times since 2009. Injuries zapped parts of promising 2011 and 2013 seasons while the quarterback has gotten an unfair reputation of not being “tough” by the fans.”

When you get hit as many times as Cutler has since stepping behind a Bears’ offensive line for the first time seven years ago, you’ve got to have some guts. Yet every year he’s come back for more, a testament to his fortitude for nearly a decade in the Windy City.

But hasn’t this story become tired? On Sunday, in my opinion, it finally run its course.

After a nice, calm and consistent performance in a return from injury Cutler made two ill-advised throws to ruin the goodwill built the week before. His first interception was thrown short and to the inside of Alshon Jeffery and was easily picked off by Brent Grimes. Conte’s redeeming “Pick 6” was off the back foot under pressure and underthrown, giving Logan Paulsen little chance for a catch.

Then there was a fumble inside the ten-yard line not long after that interception that ruined a chance, despite the previous two interceptions, of the Bears grabbing a lead. Another fumble in the fourth quarter in the endzone – officially ruled a “team fumble” since it went out of the end zone – sealed a miserable 36-10 loss to a struggling Buccaneers squad.

Good week, then bad week. Some are his fault more than others – like Sunday – while others (opening day loss to the Texans where he was hit over a dozen times) were a collective effort. But this back-and-forth narrative, which has grown tired through the years, seemed to have finally reached the end.

Already reports are out there that John Fox is “done” with Cutler and his fate at the end of the season is sealed. With a sub-par record, the opportunity to draft a quarterback with a high pick looks more than likely come this spring and the guaranteed money on the contract he signed at the end of the 2013 season runs out this year. Plus when is Cutler finally done with all of this himself, hoping to get a chance for a fresh start in the twilight years of his career.

Hope has always been there that Cutler will come around, just like with all of the change of offensive coordinators, regimes or even a great performance as he had against the Vikings on Monday night. Yet always it’s followed by a letdown, like Sunday in Tampa Bay, and now finally its run it’s course.

As Conte ran away with the interception, so began the likely countdown to the end of the Jay Cutler era. The time has come, for his sake and the franchise.