Bears banking on Cutler

Sunday, September 20, 2009
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For a guy who is either the solution to a problem as chronic in Chicago as political cronyism or is the most villainous gunslinger in the Windy City since Al Capone, Jay Cutler couldn't have picked a worse time to set a dubious personal record.

It came last Sunday night when the new Chicago quarterback threw a career-high four interceptions in the Bears' 21-15 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

Cutler's performance triggered criticism -- two former NFL head coaches ripped him for not taking more of the blame following the loss -- and it may have made Bears fans nostalgic for the Vince Evans and Mike Phipps years.

But as the Steelers watched film of Cutler's first game for the Bears last week, they weren't exactly salivating at the prospect of facing him.

"He had an off game," said Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, whose team visits Chicago today for a 4:15 p.m. game. "I don't expect him to go out there and throw four picks to us. No way in hell."

Indeed, that Cutler was so uncharacteristically bad against the Packers shows in some way why the Bears were widely hailed for pulling off a coup last April when they traded for the player who is only 26 and is already considered a franchise quarterback.

The rejoicing that took place in Chicago is also a reflection of the kind of quarterback play Bears fans have endured over the years.

A franchise that has produced immortal names such as Sayers, Butkus, Ditka, Singletary and Payton has come up woefully short when it comes to the most important position on the field. The Bears have had Sid Luckman and Jim McMahon but not much else in the way of star quarterbacks. Their career leader in quarterback passer rating is Erik Kramer (80.7), and they have had a string of forgettable signal callers.

Some of Chicago's problems in the quarterback department have been self-inflicted. This is, after all, a team that traded a first-round pick in 1997 for Rick Mirer after he had washed out in Seattle. Two years later, the Bears used a first-round pick on Cade McNown, a colossal bust who lasted just two seasons in Chicago.

The Bears finally appeared to get it right when they dealt for Cutler, who got to 50 touchdown passes faster than any player in Broncos history.

They gave up starting quarterback Kyle Orton as well as two first-round draft picks and as a third-round selection to land Cutler. Yet, the deal came off to many as one-sided.

"I think it was a great move for Chicago," NFL Network analyst Rod Woodson said. "I don't know if it was a good move for Denver. I just don't think you get rid of a Pro Bowl quarterback that is that young. It's hard to find a guy like that."

A falling out in Denver

Cutler's career in Denver ended as sourly as it did abruptly - in part because he didn't give the Broncos much of a choice.

Incensed that new Denver coach Josh McDaniels inquired about trading for quarterback Matt Cassel during the offseason - the two had been together in New England - Cutler all but forced his way out of Denver.

Cutler cited a breach of trust but others saw the petulant side that had surfaced even as the 6-3, 233-pound flamethrower played his way to the Pro Bowl in 2008.

"I know anytime something like that happens, 99 percent of the time the player is going to be portrayed as the bad guy," Cutler said. "That's fine. I and everyone that helped me with the decision knew that was going to happen."

Criticism of Cutler started anew last week, and not just because of his play against the Packers.

Former NFL head coach Mike Martz criticized Cutler for not taking more responsibility for the loss.

"He just doesn't get it," Martz said on the NFL Network. "He doesn't understand that he represents a great head coach and the rest of those players on that team. Somebody needs to talk to him."

One person who didn't is Bears coach Lovie Smith.

"I love him being our quarterback," Smith said. "We were down Sunday night, and he put us in the position to win. Even after all the adversity, he followed through."

Cutler threw for 277 yards and a touchdown in Green Bay. But he also made a rash of head-scratching decisions and violated one of the tenets of solid quarterback play several times by throwing across his body and into the middle of the field.

Contributing to his four-interception clunker: Cutler is still developing a rapport with a largely unproven receiving unit, and he may have been trying to do too much in his Bears debut.

"It's a fine line of trying to make a play and whether or not you throw it away or if you give your guys a chance," said Cutler, who set a single-season record in Denver in 2008 with eight 300-yard passing games. "I just need to do a better job of walking that line, knowing when to let it go or maybe when to just run and slide down and move on to the next play."

A familiar style

Cutler plays the position with the same mentality as a certain quarterback in Pittsburgh who is loathe to give up on a play and wears No. 7 in homage to John Elway, the player to whom Cutler had once been considered the rightful heir in Denver.

Cutler and Roethlisberger were taken with the No. 11 overall pick in the NFL Draft two years apart. And the similarities don't end there.

"You watch (Cutler) in the second half (vs. Green Bay), and he makes some throws that probably only five quarterback in this league can make," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. "It's almost one of those things like Kobe Bryant. You don't stop him, he just misses. I think that's the way it is with Jay."

Cutler did not miss much two seasons ago, when he played the Steelers and made just his 11th career start.

He completed 22 of 29 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-28 win over the Steelers. He threw a pair of interceptions, but Cutler also showed enough moxie to lead the Broncos on a late drive that resulted in Jason Elam's game-winning field goal.

"The man's a good quarterback, and he can throw any pass you need to throw," Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith said. "He's played well too many times to think something's wrong with him."

The Bears are banking on it.