When the Bears acquired Jay Cutler back in April 2009, they did so with the understanding that they were adding a budding superstar. Based on the overwhelmingly positive reaction from fans, they too believed they had acquired an elite talent.
It's certainly hard to fathom both management and the Bears' rabid fanbase supporting a move that cost them two first-round draft picks if they believed they were getting an average quarterback in return.
The problem is, to this point, it's difficult to find any evidence to support a claim that Cutler is anywhere near an elite talent at his position.
While he unquestionably possesses elite arm strength, he has yet to match his rookie season quarterback rating of 88.5, has never topped the 63.6 percent completion percentage he posted during his second NFL season and has only eclipsed 4,000 yards passing once in his seven-year NFL career.
As a point of reference, in 2011, 11 quarterbacks rated higher than 88.5 and 10 threw for more than 4,000 yards. As for completion percentage, Cutler finished last season at 58%, which was good for 23rd in the league. For those keeping score at home, that was three spots behind former Bear Kyle Orton.
Sunday afternoon, in the Bears' 2012 season opener, Cutler once again put his arsenal of capabilities on display for fans at Soldier Field. It was a performance littered with examples of both his menacing ability and inexplicable decision-making.
Cutler fit the ball in seemingly impossible windows and hit his receivers in stride, including a tantalizing 42-yard strike to Alshon Jeffrey in the back of the end zone. He also hit defenders in stride, creating far too many opportunities for the Colts defense to make a play.
Fortunately for the Santa Clause, Ind., native, the boys from Indianapolis only took advantage of one of those opportunities, returning an opening-drive pick for a touchdown.
Smart money says Cutler won’t be as lucky against a Packer defense with plenty to prove on Thursday night. As has been the case throughout Cutler’s career, the decision-making will have to improve if the Bears are to win at Lambeau Field.
Speaking of Lambeau Field, it hasn’t exactly been a welcoming place for Culter during his past visits. He has never won on the frozen tundra, and he’s only beaten the Packers once in his career. You’d be hard-pressed to find a team that looks forward to seeing any quarterback under center more than the Packers do with Cutler. He’s a lifetime 1-6 against them with seven TDs and 13 INTs.
That was all before Phil Emery assembled the much-improved, new-look offense at Soldier Field. In just a few months, he reversed years of offensive futility. Cutler recently described it (via Michael C. Wright of ESPN Chicago) as “a different energy…a different confidence.”
The offense better be significantly improved with all the “confidence” coming from Halas Hall this week. “Good luck,” Cutler said when commenting on the potential for Green Bay’s defense to attempt to out-physical his wideouts. “We invite press coverage. We invite man coverage.”
To their credit, the Bear offense backed up the talk last week by dropping 41 points on the Colts. That was the Colts, though. This is the Packers, and one might expect a little more humility from a guy who’s struggled as mightily as Cutler has against the Packers.
The difference this week is they’re not playing a team that had the worst record in the NFL a season ago. They’re playing the team that had the best record in the NFL. They’re also not playing on the sunny shores of the Chicago lake front; they’re playing on Vince Lombardi Ave.
Something tells me an early pick six won’t be quite as easy to overcome at Lambeau. I also doubt the Packer faithful will politely lower their volume when Jay angrily walks from the line of scrimmage after burning a timeout because of excessive crowd noise.
While it’s hard to criticize an offense that put up 428 yards of offense last week, it’s even harder to ignore the fact that they continued to make the same mistakes they’ve made for the past three seasons. This is the big lights, on a grand stage with a national audience; it's where truly elite players elevate their games. No second chances are promised.
This is a statement game in a year that will have a major say in the direction of Cutler’s NFL career. He should be the first to tell you that he’s out of excuses. He has big-play wide receivers, he has two outstanding running backs and his guys are calling the plays.
He also quite clearly had plenty of input on Phil Emery’s personnel decisions this offseason. Make no mistake about it, this is a team built to Cutler's specifications.
One of two things will happen Thursday night. Cutler will continue down the path of mediocrity, making ill-advised throws and disappearing in key situations. Or, he will take the next step and demand he be included with the elite at his position. He’ll shoulder the responsibility for the success of this offense, protect the football and make plays when the game is on the line.
And while it’s only the second week of the season, what we see from Jay Cutler Thursday night will undoubtedly set the course for the next 15 and beyond.