A little less than a year ago, when the Bears traded for Jay Cutler, there was talk of playoffs and, yes, even a possible Super Bowl run. The only area where the Bears were lacking talent (quarterback) had just been addressed in spectacular fashion, which could only make the team that much better.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the NFC playoffs: The Bears stopped playing good football after their bye in Week 5. A 3-1 record quickly became 5-9. Upon further review, two of those three early wins could be chalked up to missed field goals by the opposition rather than good play by the Bears, and in both of those games, against the Steelers and Seahawks, the opposition was not nearly as good as the experts thought. Heck, Matt Hasselbeck didn't even play in the Seahawks game – Seneca Wallace did. And the Bears still needed Olindo Mare to miss a field goal to beat a bad Seattle team.
The team lost four of the ugliest games in recent memory. The Bengals beat them up 45-10 in Cincinnati, the game basically over at halftime when the score was 31-3. Same deal two weeks later at Soldier Field against Arizona. Even though the final score was 41-21 in favor of the Cardinals, this game was also done at the half when the defending NFC champs led 31-7. Week 12 at Minnesota was perhaps the ugliest of the bunch, as the Vikings beat the Bears 36-10 and the offense gained all of two yards in the second half. Yes, you read that correctly: two yards. They lost to the Ravens 31-7 in Week 15 thanks to three more picks by Cutler, whose passer rating for the game was a robust 7.9. The Bears defense made Joe Flacco look like the second coming of Johnny Unitas in Baltimore.
Most importantly, it became apparent that the talent level of the team's players was not as high as everyone thought. Basically, the Bears were getting credit for their play in past years, rather than what they were capable of doing in the current season. So much so that general manager Jerry Angelo and coach Lovie Smith were on very hot seats down the stretch, despite long-term contracts.
Both Angelo and Smith ultimately survived Black Monday, although six offensive assistant coaches – most notably coordinator Ron Turner – were jettisoned.
So what happened? How did a blockbuster trade that was supposed to push the team into the playoffs not pay off in 2009? Was Cutler's value overstated? Is he truly the franchise quarterback that the Bears thought they were trading for? Or is there a reason that the Broncos parted with him in that package for Kyle Orton and draft picks?
The analysis here says that while Cutler was a disappointment in Year 1 as a Bear, he is the answer at the quarterback position. But he definitely needs to make better decisions and have better talent surrounding him.
Not exactly the stat line Bears backers were expecting back in April.
Many of Cutler‘s problems can be traced to his own bad decisions, especially trying to force the ball into double and sometimes triple coverage, usually trying to get it to tight end Greg Olsen. Some of the blame, though, falls on other areas of the team, which we will get to later, but upon Cutler's shoulders is where most of the problems begin. Despite the disastrous games mentioned above and some frighteningly bad and inconsistent plays, there were games and moments when Cutler showed why the Bears gave up so much to get him.
In the team's three straight wins from Weeks 2-4 over Pittsburgh, Seattle and Detroit, Cutler had a passer rating over 100 in each game, throwing for seven touchdowns against only one interception. The loss to Arizona wasn't Cutler's fault but that of the defense – No. 6 threw for 369 yards and three scores trying to get the team back into that game. His best outing of the year was in the upset of the Vikings in Week 16, a performance that earned him the NFC Offensive Player of the Week award. Cutler passed for 273 yards and four touchdowns, including the game winner in overtime to Devin Aromashodu.
Cutler was very proud of the performance and hoped it was a turning point for him in his career as a Bear.
"Through all the roller coasters and ups and downs of the season, the turnovers, the way the offense hasn't performed, it's good for the team and for morale to go out there and answer the bell," Cutler said after the game, "especially in the fourth quarter and overtime when you have to do it."
The point to remember with the Cutler experiment is that Bears brass still believes that he is their future, the franchise quarterback they have been looking for since Sid Luckman. They know he made some mistakes this year, but they knew he was a gunslinger just like a young Brett Favre when they got him. Angelo still plans on building a team around Cutler.
"That's our starting point, yes it is," said Angelo. "When we came into this year, we felt like we were going to have the ability to have a pretty good offense. We just didn't have consistency. We just weren't able to get it done week in and week out."
Cutler was the first to agree with Angelo and admitted that the offense hurt itself the most with its silly mistakes.
"We just need to execute, and we haven't," said Cutler. "Turnovers, penalties, just stupid mistakes, and we've hurt ourselves all year long. There have been very few times where a defense has shut us down all throughout a game. We've had our opportunities but just aren't making the most of them."
Cutler's job heading into 2010 is to work on himself first and foremost. His decision-making has to improve. He has to learn that he can't fire a 100 mile per hour fastball into every receiver that he wants to throw to despite the coverage. He needs to learn the magic of throwing the ball away, as it's better to come back and fight another down than throw a pick. He needs to find ways to use his mobility to his advantage. Of course, working with his receivers more can only help, but that's another part of the team's offensive woes.
Receiver has been an area of need for the Bears for a long time now. Marty Booker was the last consistent threat that they lined up out wide. Muhsin Muhammad was signed to be that guy a few years back as a free agent, but he was on the downside of his career. Angelo seemed to roll the dice that Cutler would make the current crop of receivers better, but it hasn't worked out as planned. Bears fans had been hoping Angelo would draft a No. 1 receiver over the past few seasons but have come away disappointed every year.
As of today, the receivers on the Bears roster are Devin Hester, Earl Bennett, Rashied Davis, Johnny Knox, Devin Aromashodu, and Juaquin Iglesias. Iglesias was inactive almost all of his rookie season. Davis is a journeyman special teamer. Bennett, Knox and Aromashodu have shown some flashes, but nothing consistently. Hester has been OK, but not the guy you expected to be your No. 1. Additionally, he hasn't been the same on kick returns, where he was perhaps the best in the history of the NFL his first two seasons. He seemingly would do the team more good going back to that role, but the Bears are paying him big money to play receiver.
Several things about the receivers stand out. First, they are a very young and inexperienced group. Second, they make a lot of mistakes. You can see the frustration on Cutler's face during games when they make an improper adjustment or run the wrong route. Essentially, he has no one to depend on – no security blanket. Third, not one of these guys is the prototypical No. 1 receiver that Cutler needs, nor does it look like one of them can develop into that player.
Intriguingly, Aromashodu came on strong at the end of the season. He caught seven balls for 150 yards and the game-winning touchdown in Week 16 against the Vikings. He is a tall receiver at 6-2 and 200 pounds, and he and Cutler have a good rapport that goes all the way back to training camp in Bourbonnais, where Cutler repeatedly lobbied for D.A. to get more playing time. Aromashodu was on his way to getting that time but a minor injury took him out for Week 1, when Knox stepped in and made it hard for Aromashodu to get back into the rotation.
When he did, he made the most of it.
The question on my mind: If Aromashodu was a favorite of Cutler's, and he obviously was capable of big plays when given the opportunity, why did it take so long for the Bears coaching staff to put him back on the field, especially when the receiving corps isn't exactly loaded with star players? Aromashodu didn't get extensive playing time until Week 14 against Green Bay, and he immediately produced with eight catches for 76 yards.
Perhaps the departed Turner can answer that one for us.
There was a ray of sunshine on the O-line at the end of the year. Williams started the last few games at his natural spot, left tackle, and looked good. He did a great job against All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen in the second Minnesota matchup, and he got more comfortable the more he played there. This can only bode well heading into 2010.
THE FINAL WORD
It should be an interesting offseason.
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Mike Esposito is an update anchor and reporter for WSCR 670AM The Score in Chicago. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Champaign and received a Master's in Journalism from Columbia College in 1998.
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