— The buildup to the Bears-Packers NFC championship game has at times felt like a coronation. The Packers appear poised to be the NFL's "It" team, with Aaron Rodgers ready to take the mantle as new quarterback King.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, drafted one year after Rodgers, was once seen as a potential heir to the QB throne. Five messy, sometimes-enthralling years later, Cutler's shine has dulled nationally. At 27, he's viewed with suspicion. A mistake waiting to happen.
With one game, Cutler can change the narrative. He can write a story that's a little more complicated than Rodgers', but just as compelling. Jay Cutler is in position to crash the party.
Mike Mayock started it all. In the buildup to the 2006 NFL draft, Mayock took an early stand as NFL Network draft guru.
Cutler was thought to be a second-round pick, but Mayock said the floppy-haired kid from Vanderbilt was the best college quarterback prospect in the land. This was seen as heresy, considering the draft had Heisman Trophy winner/national champion Matt Leinart and national champion Vince Young. Mayock, of course, was right on.
It seems ridiculous in retrospect that Leinart was selected No. 10 overall by the Cardinals, one spot ahead of Cutler. There is no comparison between their arm strength and accuracy. Cutler has far more mobility than Leinart and most other pocket passers. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan saw this all and traded up to draft his next John Elway.
Cutler knew pressure. Not the pressure of defending a national title with a collection of all-stars like Leinart — literal pressure. SEC defensive fronts overwhelmed Vanderbilt's small offensive line week after week. Cutler was forced to improvise, take his lumps, and rely on his golden arm.
That experience set the table for Cutler's early pro career. Playing at Vanderbilt gave him bad habits to overcome, and an uncanny ability to create something out of nothing. Cutler's new offensive coordinator in Chicago, Mike Martz, is trying his best to fix Cutler's flaws, especially his footwork.
"You can't go through a lifetime with those kinds of habits and fix them in one season," Martz said Wednesday. "We do the footwork stuff twice a week every week for about 20 minutes with him. As we add new things he has a tendency to drift a little bit, but I’m pleased with his progress. ... He's had a whole career of 'running around and trying to make it happen' kind of mode."
That kind of freewheeling talent usually inspires legions of fans. But Cutler has never been particularly embraced because of an indifferent relationship with the media.
I’ve never understood the animosity directed at Cutler for one simple reason: He's fun to watch. Cutler, Rodgers and Michael Vick are probably the three most physically gifted quarterbacks. Every tool is there.
No quarterback has completed more low-percentage, "how did he do that?" throws over the past five seasons than Cutler. One game from his ultimately failed three-year run in Denver immediately comes to mind.
In 2008, Cutler's Broncos arrived in New York to face the Jets just after Thanksgiving. Brett Favre and Eric Mangini were 8-3, and suddenly were touted as AFC favorites for the Super Bowl.
Favre shriveled on a raw, windy, rainy day. Cutler went wild, throwing for 357 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception in one of the best bad-weather performances I’ve ever seen.
Up 10 points late in the third quarter, Cutler was working out of the shadow of his own end zone. Shanahan called for a play-action then roll out to the right, like he so often did with Cutler. The Jets were in perfect position.
With Jets linebacker Vernon Gholston right in his face, Cutler tried to throw a fake, then out-sprinted Gholston to the outside. Gholston followed, so Cutler didn’t have a chance to set himself before heaving the ball across his body with Gholston right in his face. Cutler threw the ball from the 4-yard line.
“What a crazy throw,” CBS announcer Randy Cross said with the ball in the air.
Broncos tight end Tony Scheffler caught the ball at the 37-yard line, with no fewer than four defenders around him. The Broncos went on to win 34-17.
For good and bad, those “crazy” throws have defined Cutler’s career. I take notes when I re-watch games and took some old Broncos ones out for this column. Here’s a very small sampling of early Cutler:
Cutler makes me break out the caps lock like a 14-year-old girl on instant messenger. He hasn’t always been an easy quarterback to believe in. He can wow you, and drive you crazy in the same series. Perhaps that’s why he still doesn’t inspire a ton of respect, even on a team headed to he NFC championship game.
After a strong stretch run marked by mostly good decision-making, the Chicago Sun-Times wrote Thursday that “All Cutler proved last week was that a mid-sized moment wasn’t too big for him.”
As momentum picks up for Rodgers as the game’s best quarterback, Cutler is often a punchline.
“Cutler, I think if he gets under pressure, he’ll just start slinging that sucker around like free loaves of bread in the 'hood, man,” Fox analyst Michael Strahan said this week.
“I feel like the guy’s color-blind,” Terrell Owens said on his television show. “He’s just going to be tossing it and slinging it everywhere. At some point, he’s going to be the Jay Cutler that we all know.”
When did raw, unharnessed talent become so unlikable? I don’t care what Cutler is like off the field. On the field, he’s fascinating to watch in victory and defeat.
If Cutler was a basketball player, he might be Allen Iverson: Worth the price of admission, but sometimes too aggressive for his own good.
Perhaps a quarterback comparison would be Randall Cunningham. Cutler doesn’t have the same scrambling ability, but both players know how to make highlights while freelancing with their physical gifts. Cunningham was very popular in his day, while Cutler was recently called one of the most hated men in the NFL (by one of the most hated writers in the country).
Well, there’s one surefire way to make America love you. Just win baby.
Finally, a winner
Quarterbacks are given too much credit when their team wins. They get too much blame when their team loses. It’s a team game, and Cutler was saddled with ridiculously terrible defenses in his two seasons as a starter in Denver.
Numbers were never the problem. Cutler ranked in the top 10 in yards-per-attempt in his first two full seasons as a starter. He finished third in the NFL in passing yards in 2008 and has thrown 106 TDs to 79 interceptions in his career.
Cutler’s reputation took a beating when he was traded from Denver after the '08 season. He came off like a diva in Denver, then couldn’t deliver in his first season in Chicago. He was 24-29 in his first four seasons of starts.
Given a competent running game and quality defense, the 2010 Bears helped Cutler experience his first winning season since high school in Santa Claus, Indiana. Really.
The Bears offense improved in the second half of the season for many reasons, starting with the offensive line. During the team’s bye week, coach Lovie Smith shuffled the guys up front and the team focused on the running game. Cutler has thrown 18 touchdowns to only nine interceptions in eight games since.
Cutler trusts his protection more, and he’s more judicious breaking out of the pocket and making plays outside Martz’s rigid system. Still, it’s tough to take the freestyle out of Cutler’s arsenal.
“We don’t coach the impromptu at all,” Martz said. “We would just as soon he not do that to be honest with you. If he doesn’t run that means things are going great, everything is coming out clean — boom — you complete the ball. We don’t talk about it a whole lot. We don’t discourage him, but we don’t encourage him either. It’s just kind of a fine line there. I would just stay away from it. He’s very smart about it.”
Cutler walked that fine line this season without tripping as often. He threw the ball 123 times fewer than last season, but proved far more efficient. Only five quarterbacks threw for more yards-per-attempt.
Martz’s precision offense mixed with Cutler’s creative, physical skills is a dangerous mix. Chicago balances a conservative run-first approach with a quarterback that can make any throw. That potent combination is why no one should take the home underdog Bears lightly this week. Aaron Rodgers certainly won’t after Chicago’s defense held the Packers to 10 points the last time they met.
Rodgers and Cutler are friends, a bond strengthened because Rodgers’ younger brother Jordan now attends Vanderbilt. It’s a friendship that has reached a fork in the road, with conventional wisdom saying Rodgers has taken his next step this week.
“If [Rodgers] is very successful, I am probably not going to be quite as successful and vice versa,” Cutler said Wednesday. “It’s a tough situation and I wish him the best except whenever we have to play them.”
Sometime Sunday afternoon, Cutler will be on the move with a Packers defender bearing down on him. Cutler will have a choice to make, and he’s not going to take the safe option. He’ll try for the impossible throw.
That is the scenario which keeps Martz and all Bears fans up at night. It should scare the hell out of Packers fans, too.