Bears quarterback Jay Cutler had a pretty strong year statistically in 2010 despite playing behind what had to have been the worst offensive line in the league. (Jamie Squire/Getty)
Bears fans, think back to where you were a year ago with all this Jay Cutler business.
The former first-round pick out of Vanderbilt was billed as the first legitimate difference maker in Chicago at the game's most important position since Sid Luckman, who last played in 1950, despite the fact that Jim McMahon directed the Bears to their one and only Super Bowl championship in 1985. Just three years into a career that had already produced a trip to the Pro Bowl, Cutler gave the organization instant credibility -- remember, the previous summer's training camp featured the war of attrition between Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton for the starting job -- under center.
The Mile High City's loss, even considering what Bears general manager Jerry Angelo had to give up to acquire Cutler, and it was a lot, was supposed to be the Windy City's gain.
However, the one-time Commodore struggled to make the transition from Denver to Chicago, as he led the league in but one statistical category, and it was a dubious one at that: interceptions (26). Sure, he rallied late to throw a career-high 27 touchdown passes, although that was nothing more than a footnote since the Bears finished 7-9 and nowhere near the playoffs, plus they needed to win their final two games against the division-rival Vikings and Lions just to avoid a double-digit loss disaster. Bears coach Lovie Smith has had only one of those since the McCaskey family first tossed him the keys in 2004, when he debuted with a 5-11 mark.
Ron Turner was out and Mike Martz was in at offensive coordinator before the start of 2010, and even if expecting him to immediately morph into Kurt Warner circa 1999 may have been irresponsible, surely Year 2 of the Cutler experience would produce better results than Year 1.
And it did. The Monsters of the Midway overcame rather mediocre expectations -- both locally and nationally -- to capture the NFC North with an 11-5 record. They earned a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed in the conference. Cutler and Co. defeated Seattle 35-24 in the division round at Soldier Field to advance to the NFC Championship Game. And although they ultimately fell to the hated Packers 21-14, the same Packers they bested 20-17 way back in Week 3 along the shores of Lake Michigan, by every reasonable weight and measurement, the Bears were a success this year.
So if that's the case, then why does a sizable percentage of Midway Monster football fans feel no better about the quarterback situation than it did at this time last year?
Statistically, Cutler improved his passer rating from 76.8 to 86.3 and his touchdown-to-interception ratio from 27-to-26 to 23-to-16. The offensive line charged with protecting him was again among the worst in the NFL, and many would say it was the worst in the NFL, yet he kept getting up, hit after hit, sack after sack, coming back for more. Yes, he had a decent cast of skill-position talent at his disposal, with Matt Forte topping the 1,000-yard plateau on the ground for the second time and Johnny Knox nearly hitting quadruple digits himself through the air, but there was no Brandon Marshall-like weapon keeping enemy defensive coordinators awake at night.
The front office spent big bucks in the offseason to land Julius Peppers in free agency, and he instantly injected life into the defense with his presence alone at the end position. But the other two members of Angelo's much-ballyhooed free-agent class, running back Chester Taylor and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, the ones brought in to help make Cutler's job easier, well, didn't. Taylor averaged an embarrassing 2.4 yards per carry, and Manumaleuna wasn't anywhere close to the hole-opening and time-creating extra blocker he was billed to be.
|The other two members of Angelo's much-ballyhooed free-agent class, Taylor and Manumaleuna, the ones brought in to help make Cutler's job easier, well, didn't.|
Cutler endured. He kept handing off to Taylor in short-yardage and goal-line situations, even if the 31-year-old veteran was ill-equipped to thrive in that role. He kept believing Manumaleuna could be that glorified third tackle, even if the only thing tackle-like about the 295-pounder was his body mass index -- the late Patrick Swayze didn't steal that much money in Point Break.
Adequate running game at best. Horrid blocking up front. A bunch of second and third options out wide. His favorite target, Greg Olsen, not getting as many opportunities as he should because Martz's scheme tends to forget about the tight end. No. 6 deserves a medal, right?
But it doesn't feel that way. Not really. Something is askew. The novice eye sees a quarterback with as much natural ability as any in the NFL today. The expert eye, however, sees a QB with just as many questions about him as answers at this point.
Who does he think he is firing four interceptions in the same game to Washington's DeAngelo Hall, only to say afterward he'd go after the Pro Bowl cornerback again? What possesses him in the red zone to throw across his body into double coverage instead of simply chucking the ball out of bounds and taking the field goal? When will he stop acting like a child being forced to eat raw broccoli during his time in front of the media? Where is he to be spotted next by paparazzi cameras while hanging out with reality-star girlfriend Kristin Cavallari? Why do so many experts put together lists of the league's best quarterbacks -- Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw's comes to mind -- and leave his name on the cutting-room floor?
"Knee-gate" in the title game against Green Bay certainly didn't help.
Cutler suffered a second-degree sprain of his MCL some time in the second quarter in the loss to the Packers. He headed to the locker room shortly before halftime, got evaluated by medical personnel -- he got a pain-killing shot, too -- and tried to give it a go in the third quarter. Following a quick three-and-out, when he went from fleet-footed in the pocket to slightly less mobile than the lion statues standing guard outside the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue, Cutler got the hook. Veteran backup Todd Collins entered the huddle and promptly stunk up the joint for two series, forcing the coaching staff to call on No. 3 Caleb Hanie. While Hanie did lead a pair of scoring drives and made things interesting in the fourth quarter, he turned back into the proverbial pumpkin when the clock struck midnight -- in this case, all zeroes on the JumboTron.
And there was Cutler, wearing a full-length coat for warmth, not showing any immediate signs of his injury. No limp. No achy grinding of his teeth. No tears for failing to finish his biggest game as a professional to date. As long as he's been in Chicago, it's impossible to tell if he just threw three TDs in a win or three picks in a loss.
Did he quit? Is he Charmin soft? Should his toughness be questioned? Luckman probably would have rubbed some dirt on it. McMahon, too. Players may be able to get away with falling on their swords in Jacksonville or Arizona. But in Chicago, a quarterback is expected to keep throwing until his right arm gets amputated -- and then he's asked to sling it left-handed.
Once the smoke cleared and Bears fans were talked off the ledge, first literally and then figuratively, it was discovered that Cutler's injury was no doubt legitimate and there was no way he could have continued. Finishing a round of golf would likely have been unbearable, let alone side-stepping an untouched Charles Woodson coming on a corner blitz. Even the Chicago media, the same print, radio and TV personalities that have had so much trouble dealing with Cutler during his ornery Wednesday Q&As at Halas Hall, came rushing to his defense.
He didn't quit. He's one tough SOB. Had he been able to play, he would have played.
|In Chicago, a quarterback is expected to keep throwing until his right arm gets amputated -- and then he's asked to sling it left-handed.|
But that didn't stop Twitter nation from blowing up Blackberrys almost immediately after Cutler exited the title game versus the Packers and Collins first buckled up his chinstrap.
Jaguars tailback Maurice Jones-Drew took a shot at Cutler. As did Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. Dockett's Arizona teammate, safety Kerry Rhodes, expressed his 140-character dissatisfaction, too. Players in the National Football League tend to be a fairly close-knit fraternity, especially with labor strife on the horizon and the future of their collective bargaining agreement with the owners up for grabs, but here were three recognizable veterans saying Cutler punked out on his team.
And they all did so from the comfort of their living rooms, by the way, watching championship weekend from home like every other Tom, Dick and Harry coast to coast.
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher jumped in front of a few bullets intended for Cutler in the postgame press conference. Not only did he say he had his fellow team captain's back, but that the likes of Jones-Drew, Dockett and Rhodes were simply jealous and wished they were in the position Chicago was in that Sunday. Jones-Drew in particular tried some post-tweet backtracking in the aftermath of it all, claiming he was just joking, but that was an exercise in futility.
As an aside, Jones-Drew sat out the final two games of Jacksonville's season with -- you guessed it -- a knee injury of his own. The Jags lost both of them and blew a chance to win the AFC South. Yet no national stink was raised about him being a softie.
The difference, you ask? Jones-Drew is considered fan- and media-friendly. Cutler, is, well, neither. Not that smiling from ear to ear in front of the cameras makes Jones-Drew a better ball carrier, but it's sure harder to pile on him when things aren't going his way. As for Cutler, naturally, everyday Joes periodically take pleasure in the reportedly arrogant being publicly humbled.
Cutler, of course, was unfazed. A day or so after the Bears' season ended, he was spotted by TMZ-types in Los Angeles -- again, sans limp -- with Cavallari, riding in her wake at a mall, quite comfortable behind his aviators.
A lot of professional athletes say they don't read the papers, don't listen to the radio, don't watch television, don't care what the public thinks of them. And 99 percent of them are liars. When a sports writer praises a player for something he did right, not a word is said about it in the locker room the next day. "See? I told you I don't read the papers." But should that same sports writer chastise that same player for something he did wrong, all of a sudden said player can quote the story verbatim – and he's not pleased.
But Cutler is that rare breed: He doesn't read the papers, doesn't listen to the radio, doesn't watch television, and he legitimately doesn't care what anyone thinks of him.
It's not that he doesn't care about winning, though. He wants to win, wants to be great, wants to be the one to bring the franchise he grew up cheering for as a kid in Santa Claus, Indiana, its second Vince Lombardi Trophy. Perhaps nothing would give him greater pleasure.
He's just not going to wear a headband that reads GOODELL for shits and giggles while trying to do it.
In layman's terms, he hasn't been, isn't now and probably will never be very likable.
Bears fans don't mind so long as Cutler is winning games, throwing touchdown passes and making a habit of beating the Packers. But when he's losing, getting picked off and posting passer ratings down in the 40s at Lambeau Field, expect the Chicagoland sports talk radio waves to be simply dripping with mercilessness.
When he's going good, he's an easy guy to root for because he can be special. But when he's going bad, it's even easier to want to punch that smartass smirk right off his face.
Right now, Cutler is going less good and more bad.
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|John Crist is an NFL Analyst for Scout.com, a voter for the Heisman Trophy and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America.|