Jay Cutler made the Pro Bowl in his third season in the NFL. It was also his last season as a member of the Denver Broncos. Since then, Cutler has had an up-and-down career with the Chicago Bears, and he will finish his fourth season as a Bear in danger of not getting 20 touchdowns and 3,000 yards for the second year in a row.
Many Bears fans might be ready to pull the plug on the Cutler experiment, but at 29 years old, the former first-round pick still has time and plenty of talent.
Cutler can return to his Pro Bowl form, and it can happen by next season, but he is going to need a lot of help in addition to making some key changes in his style.
In order to identify what Cutler needs to do, you must go back and look how he got there before. In 2008, Cutler had the highest completion percentage of his career while attempting over 600 passes. In other words he put the ball through the air more than he has ever done in his career but was accurate in doing so.
Since joining the Bears, Cutler has gone over 500 pass attempts only once. His first two seasons, he was barely over a 60-percent completion rate, finished at 58 percent last year and needs to be very accurate in his final two games if he wants to get back to 60 percent this season.
In order to put the ball in the air as many times as Cutler did back in 2008, you need to have the necessary help around you.
During that season, Brandon Marshall went for over 100 catches, but unlike this season with the Bears, there were other receivers with good production, too.
The Broncos had two tight ends with over 30 catches apiece. Kellen Davis will be lucky to get to 20 receptions this year.
Eddie Royal had 91 receptions that season with five touchdowns. Devin Hester, Earl Bennett, Alshon Jeffery, Eric Weems and Dane Sanzenbacher have combined for 68 receptions so far, with only five touchdowns collectively.
What about everybody's favorite hot-button topic this season? The Bears offensive line has been a punching bag for media and fans alike all year, and rightfully so.
It's no coincidence the Broncos put the ball in the air as much as they did the same season Ryan Clady made his debut in the NFL. Clady is a rock-solid left tackle who has been to a Pro Bowl himself.
J'Marcus Webb will never be the caliber of player that Clady is.
The 2008 Broncos were coached by the brilliant offensive mind of Mike Shanahan—the same guy who won two Super Bowls and has done a terrific job with rookie quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins this season.
Mike Tice is not nearly on the offensive-scheming level of Shanahan.
As for Cutler, he needs to evolve as well. His decision-making needs to get better, and he needs to be more of a leader on the field as opposed to visibly being frustrated and showcasing a sour look every time something goes wrong.
Cutler will always have a high interception rate. Even in 2008 he had 18 interceptions. What he must do is get that interception-to-pass-attempts rate under 3 percent. Currently he's at 3.7 percent, and when he made the Pro Bowl, it was at 2.9 percent. That goes directly with being more accurate and making smarter decisions.
Cutler has often been called a gunslinger, similar to Brett Farve, but unlike Cutler, Favre was always in control on the football field. Throughout Favre's 20-year career, he nurtured a ton of young receivers, captained new systems and was the clear-cut leader on the field. Cutler has to embody the same kind of leadership.
There is no question the talent around Cutler has to be better in order for him to return to the Pro Bowl. The Bears have a lot of work to do with the offensive line and also need to collect more weapons for Cutler to throw to. As they work on that in the offseason, Cutler should look in the mirror and reassess the kind of leader he is.
Cutler should want to be remembered not for the bitter facial expressions and demonstrative gestures but for being the quarterback who made sure his receiver was in the right place and being the leader who picked his teammates up when they made mistakes.
There is no doubt Cutler has the skills and wherewithal to get back to a Pro Bowl level.
It's going to take a good deal of help from both Bears general manager Phil Emery and Jay himself to get back there.