Former Chicago Bears GM Jerry Angelo did the right thing during the 2008 offseason by trading for Jay Cutler. The list of horrible quarterbacks in Chicago's history is well documented and Angelo realized that, unless he found a franchise signal caller, the club would never reach an elite level.
He paid a pretty penny to get him but those that have watched him the past three seasons know he was worth the hefty price tag.
Yet where Angelo erred – and what played a big part in his firing this offseason – was his inability to place quality pieces around his star quarterback.
Angelo failed to build an offensive line that could pass protect. He also failed to bring in big-play receivers that could win one-on-one matchups with opposing defenders. In essence, since Cutler has been in Chicago, he's been running for his life and throwing to mediocre pass catchers.
Investing so heavily in a passer, yet doing nothing to help him, was the final straw for team president Ted Phillips, thus the firing of Angelo.
In stepped Phil Emery as the club's general manager. His first move was a huge one: trading for receiver Brandon Marshall. He then signed two more wideouts – Eric Weems and Devin Thomas – and spent a second-round pick on a playmaking receiver in Alshon Jeffery.
QB Jay Cutler
Rob Grabowski/US Presswire
In addition, Emery signed guard Chilo Rachal to add competition to the offensive line, and it appears the team is ready to slide Chris Williams back outside to left tackle. With the return of last year's first rounder Gabe Carimi, the offensive line could improve dramatically this year.
Yet even just a slight improvement up front could be enough to bring the offense into the elite category. With one of the most dynamic backfields in the NFL, and a receiving corps that is the best this city has seen in more than a decade, Cutler finally has the tools in place to be reach his potential as an NFL quarterback.
How high does that potential go? All the way to the top: league MVP.
Cutler showed a renewed focus last season that was evident from the first day of training camp. He showed up in great shape, having shed the baby fat he'd carried throughout his career to that point. He was sharp in practices, a vocal leader and even appeared more comfortable with the media.
During the team's five-game win streak last year, Cutler completed 57 percent of his passes for 1,110 yards, 7 TDs and 3 INTs. In three of those five contests he had a passer rating of more than 96. He was sacked just five times during that span, including two games where he was not sacked at all.
When you consider the offense he was playing in, run by an offensive coordinator that did not care to protect his QB, those numbers are fairly remarkable. It showed that, even without elite linemen in front of him and elite receivers to throw to, Cutler could still be one of the best signal callers in the game.
Now he has big, productive receivers, a pair of quality tight ends, an outstanding backfield and an offensive line that should improve. Considering the players surrounding him, Cutler can only go up. With the way he was playing before the thumb injury last year, that next step is MVP.
Many will scoff at the notion, which is understandable. Cutler's maturity issues in the past have limited his ability to perform on the field.
Yet no one has ever questioned his natural talent. When you surround a talented, focused quarterback with playmakers at every position, there's no reason he can't be the most valuable player in the NFL.
And if it doesn't happen this year, or if he regresses at all, he won't have anyone to blame but himself. No more excuses. The pieces are in place. It's put up or shut up for the Bears this year, which means Cutler needs to put together a campaign that will go down in Chicago history.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.