When the Chicago Bears traded quarterback Kyle Orton and multiple high draft picks to the Denver Broncos for quarterback Jay Cutler, I was pretty damn ecstatic. I anticipated touchdown throws, tight spirals, and rockets over the middle. All from Cutler, a then 26 year-old, strong-armed Vanderbilt product. Those would lead to wins, division titles, conference titles and Super Bowl titles. In addition, Cutler would finally be free of John Elway and his quarterbacking legend in Denver. It was true that he wouldn’t enjoy the benefit of playing for offensive mastermind Mike Shanahan, and also in a stadium that gives the home team about as unique of an advantage as a team could receive. That top-notch running game and flock of talented receivers and tight ends? They weren’t coming with him to Chicago. Honestly, though, Bears fans didn’t care all that much. We didn’t really care all that much that Cutler had a legit play caller and even more legitimate offensive weapons in Denver, from the offensive line to his backs and ends. We were just happy to finally have a competent quarterback wearing a Bears uni for a change.
Let the division begin.
When Cutler arrived, the offensive line was beyond terrible, running back Matt Forte was coming off of a rookie year in which he probably did more than should have been asked of him, and the wide receivers and tight ends–outside of TE Greg Olsen–were collectively less than average, and that’s being generous. Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox were Cutler’s top two wide receivers that season. Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox were the top two wide receiver options. On an actual NFL team. Don’t pin the 2009 team’s 7-9 record on Cutler.
But, some did. It was easy to see that on roughly one-quarter of his dropbacks, Cutler simply ran for his life. No time to go through your progressions; just start running, Jay. It was even easier to see that freakin’ Joe Montana himself wouldn’t have been able to do much with receivers like Bennett, Knox, Devin Hester and Rashied Davis. It still infuriates me to no end that Cutler went through much of his prime trying to target Hester, by the way. Plenty of fans ignored the pedestrian play-calling on offense. Instead, they subscribed to the NFL logic that states quarterbacks should receive the lion’s share of the blame, win or lose. So even when the Bears were completely outclassed in every facet of the game, a certain contingent of fans directed their ire towards the player the franchise had given up so much for. After all, this wasn’t a team that was “one piece away” when they traded for Cutler. There were multiple holes to fill, especially on offense. It’s almost as if the Bears front office and Chicago sports media wanted us to believe that Cutler would fix all that ailed the Bears’ sickly offensive unit.
To an extent, those incredibly critical fans of Cutler were right. It’s a little hypocritical to damn near hail a guy as a savior, and then when there is colossal failure, you don’t even begin to lay any of the blame at his feet. There were certainly times when I felt for Cutler because he simply wasn’t put in a very good position to win early in his time with the Bears, but there were also the forced throws, terrible footwork, even more terrible throwing mechanics and the “I’m getting paid to not give a fuck” facial expressions that seemed to come aplenty, especially when things weren’t going his way. I wasn’t completely on the side of the fans who wanted Cutler to lead the offense, defense, special teams and our military, but he just wasn’t very good for the Bears early on, porous offensive line and crappy receivers or not.
On the other side were the Bears fans who have been watching inept Bears quarterbacks for their entire lives, and wanted to protect and coddle the first good thing to happen to that position since Sid Luckman. No, seriously. Sid Luckman. They saw an offensive line that struggled to block wind and pointed to that unit as the main reason why Cutler has never lived up to expectations. When the coaching staff tries to force Hester, Kellen Davis and Devin Aromashodu on you, just how are you supposed to lead that team to any sort of title? Once again, the Chicago Bears tried to turn one of the greatest punt/kick returners of all-time into a receiver and not only did the experiment fail magnificently, Hester’s return production took a significant hit as well, which meant the Bears screwed themselves on both offense and special teams. It didn’t matter that up until this season, the Bears defense had been a strength, and if it weren’t for that unit doing more than their part, Cutler’s record with the Bears would be much worse than it is right now. For a few years, the only consistent threat on offense besides Cutler was Forte. No, that is not an exaggeration. And while Forte is a very good running back, he’s not exactly a game-changing horse of a back who can just up and will a team to victory whenever he feels like it.
Cutler was doomed from the start, they often said. The horrendous play-calling limited his big arm and surprisingly, above-average mobility. Then again, if you’re an offensive coordinator, what do you call when the only two weapons you have are your quarterback and running back? Would you want your quarterback to have to target Bennett 15 times in a game? Would you call a play for Kellen “Drop It, KD!” Davis? With the Bears running out such a horrendous offensive line for years, I’m surprised pass plays beyond a few yards downfield were called at all.
The Bears fans who want to blame Cutler for all of the Bears’ failures have often ferociously pointed to the other side and attempted to paint them as gullible and naïve. This is partly true. I find it amazing that some of my friends and people I follow on Twitter will stop at nothing to avoid criticizing Cutler, even when a bad play is clearly his fault. Throwing off of his back foot? Blame the line. Forced throw? Blame the receiver. Bad body language? Blame the media…or gas. Just don’t blame Cutler. To be fair, the Bears fans who act as if Cutler, or any other quarterback, are responsible for all happenings on the football field are just as ridiculous, if not a tad bit more. Cutler is not responsible for the following: Pass blocking, run blocking, blitzing, stopping the run, stopping the pass, tackling, punting, kicking field goals and extra points, and challenging or calling plays. It’s not, and never has been Cutler’s responsibility to turn crud into croissants. So while I’ve been waiting for Cutler to maximize his potential since he arrived, I do realize that he hasn’t been put in the best position to do so.
I suppose I’m in the middle. Admittedly, Cutler received a few dozen passes from me for his early troubles with the Bears. After a 2009 45-10 beating at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals, I wanted Cutler to leave because I didn’t want to see such a young talent have his career ended prematurely, or at least mucked up by the ineptitude of the Bears. At the same time, any member of the “Cutler Lover For Life” camp who argued that the guy was elite should explain then, why he didn’t really make any of the guys around him better. I simply won’t hear or read that Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees haven’t made guys around them who aren’t household names into…well…household names. Granted, all four of them have mostly enjoyed exceptional offensive line play, but those four could win more than lose with almost any team, I believe. Cutler has two stud receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, but they were prepackaged bundles of talent. Cutler didn’t reach down and find their superstar within, or anything close. That’s not entirely his fault, either, but it does lend some credence to the arguments that while Cutler is good, he’s no superstar.
Then again, the Bears and I never needed Cutler to be a superstar, so I find a nice chunk of the criticisms of him to be unfair. The problem is, he was sold as one, and he has not been. I’m sure the biggest fans of his know he has not been elite since becoming a Bear and the incessantly dissenting fans make sure to indicate that. To be honest, I don’t sense much middle ground when it comes to Cutler. And, maybe there doesn’t need to be. Cutler is an impending free agent and while I want the Bears to tag him and draft a young quarterback early, I sense the front office is leaning towards extending him. I don’t have any issues with an extension, so long as it’s not Flacco-like. Perhaps with some continuity for the first time in years, Cutler will come back in 2014 and live up to expectations. After all, this was arguably the finest season of his career, despite missing five games. Perhaps, not. Either way, the warring Cutler fans will just have to put off the squabbling for another 8 months. I’m coming, Elizabeth. I’m coming.