Assume today you just returned from your six-month research mission in Siberia. You’ve been locked away without television or Internet since February and you’re curious how your beloved Chicago Bears have fared during your absence.
After getting over your initial disappointment at the team’s 3-5 record, you immediately scour the stat sheets to figure out what has gone wrong. That begins with quarterback Jay Cutler.
On the surface, you’re confused. By the numbers, Cutler is having the best season of his career. He has the highest completion percentage (67.2) and QB rating (95.8) of his nine-year career. He’s on pace for 34 touchdowns, which would be seven more than his previous single-season best (27 in 2009), and 4,186 passing yards, second most in his career.
You stare at the stat page puzzled … and then you see the turnovers.
Cutler currently has a league-high 12 turnovers – eight interceptions, four lost fumbles – which pretty much sums up his season to this point.
In each of Chicago’s five losses, Cutler has turned the ball over twice. In the team’s three wins, he has zero total interceptions and one combined turnover – a lost fumble Week 3 against the New York Jets.
Other factors – inconsistent defense, non-existent special teams – have played a role in Chicago’s record but Cutler’s disparity in turnovers between the club’s wins and losses is the main reason the Bears are two games under .500.
Realistically, eight interceptions from Cutler should not surprise anyone. He’s played five NFL seasons of 15 games or more and has thrown 14 or more interceptions in each of them. He’s on pace for 16 picks this year, which is par for the course.
Yet it’s when and where he’s turning the ball over that truly tells the story. Of Cutler’s eight interceptions, six have come when the Bears had the ball in enemy territory – which includes picks thrown from the Green Bay 24- and 25-yard line in Week 4 – with the other two coming at the Chicago 43- and 46-yard line.
In addition Cutler and the offense have turned the ball over on consecutive drives in each of the team’s five losses. As Bears fans are all too aware, those types of momentum shifts are often impossible to overcome.
“We’re a 3-5 team and he’s a 3-5 quarterback right now,” GM Phil Emery said this week. “There are a lot of things he has got to get better at in terms of protecting the football, in the fumbles. He had the one against San Francisco, had the one this past week and had the one the previous week against Miami. Some of them are just situations, a guy coming from a blind side, but obviously you have to keep the ball up and away. We’ve got to get better at that. He knows that. He holds himself accountable for it.”
Statistically, Cutler has put forth a stellar campaign. In the NFC, he’s fourth in passing yards and second in touchdowns only to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. If he stays at his current pace, he could very easily make his second career Pro Bowl appearance.
Yet numbers can be deceiving and anyone who has watched the Bears lose four of their past five contests knows that Cutler is not playing at the level his stats indicate.
The perfect example came last week against New England. Chicago’s first eight drives produced just one score, with the other seven resulting in punt, punt, punt, punt, fumble, interception, turnover on downs. Yet Cutler finished the game with 227 passing yards, three touchdowns and a 108.6 passer rating.
A lot of folks deserve blame for the team’s 3-5 record. The coaching staff has been out-coached most weeks, the special teams have been anything but special and the defense gave up a franchise-high 38 points in the first half to the Patriots last week.
Yet for my money, Cutler’s inconsistencies are the main reason the offense can’t find a rhythm. This team is built to win through scoring points. The Bears have twice as much money invested in offensive players as they do defensive players. If the quarterback isn’t getting the job done when games are on the line, offensive-minded teams will go nowhere.
Which is what we have in Chicago. Cutler makes plenty of plays, he just doesn’t make them on a regular basis, which is what’s holding back one of the most talented offenses in the NFL.
That said, Cutler isn’t going anywhere. The team made him the highest-paid player in the league this year and are on the hook for $19.5 million next season as well. If the ship is going down, Cutler is going to be the one behind the wheel, through 2015 at least.
In addition, he still has the support of Emery and his head coach, Marc Trestman.
“I think that there’s things that Jay is doing very well,” said Trestman. “I think he’s handling himself exceptionally well on a play-by-play basis, in terms of he’s calm and relaxed, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. There’s no doubt about it. He’s functioning very well play-by-play.
“His leadership has been at a premium through all of this on a consistent basis throughout the season. We’ve got to help him more in terms of playing complementary football, giving him more of a run game, and that goes to complementary football. Again, that means everybody working together to get that done. But I think there’s a lot of positives here, and we’re going to work to try to negate some of the negatives that we do see, that we want him to get better at.”
A lot of folks believe the Bears are done this year. Right now, things look very bleak.
But here’s the thing, Cutler is an amazing athlete who, when he’s played at a high level – think of the team’s 7-2 stretch in 2011 before he broke his finger – he’s borderline unstoppable. With the talent he has around him, Cutler can absolutely carry the offense into the playoffs. But that will only happen if he catches fire and quits turning the ball over at critical points in games.
With five divisional games still on the docket, a hot run by Cutler could propel the Bears into the postseason. Quarterback is by far the most important position on the field and Cutler can backpack this team, no matter how the defense and special teams play, if Trestman can somehow coax Cutler to his potential.
In my mind, this season isn’t over, because Cutler is capable of far more than what he’s put forth through the first eight weeks.
The bye week came at the perfect time, as it gives Trestman time to pick up the pieces and put Cutler back together. That’s why he was brought to Chicago, to max out Jay Cutler. If he pulls it off, the second half of the season will be amazing for Bears fans. If he doesn’t, and fails at the one job he was brought in to do, he could be looking for work next year.
Strap in. This could get interesting, as it always is when Cutler is running the show.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.