Context is essential when evaluating the Jay Cutler Era in Chicago. Without it, many misconstrue Cutler for a super talented underachiever who is unencumbered and devoid of leadership ability. These uninformed critics cite the J’Marcus Webb situation, his departure from the NFC Championship Game during the 2010-11 season, his stout interception numbers and his trademark sideline brooding that makes the gun-slinging quarterback appear like a six-year-old boy being dragged to church.
These all are unspectacular moments of the Cutler era, not even the greatest Cutler apologists can argue otherwise, but before shoveling blame on Cutler’s doorstep understand the poisonous milieu he has had to endure since arriving in Chicago.
The Cutler-Josh McDaniels divorce in Denver yielded no winner. McDaniels was exposed as pompous and consumed by his own ego and Cutler left with the stain of appearing spoiled and overly sensitive.
When the dust settled, Cutler brought this unattractive reputation to Chicago and was instantly proclaimed the solution for the team’s extensive quarterbacking woes. The Bears gave up two first-round draft picks and Cutler was quickly given a contract extension, henceforth garnering him the title of franchise quarterback.
Cutler's less-than-flattering persona gave him little wiggle room with the demanding Chicago supporters. Based on the cost of acquiring Cutler both the fans and the organization cultivated lofty expectations for him. Contradictory to the expectations were the actions of the Jerry Angelo regime, who to their great failure didn’t protect their investment in Cutler.
The Bears were that guy that goes out and buys a 60-inch plasma screen television but refuses to spend the $10 dollars a month on HD. The TV is big and looks pretty on the wall, yet once it’s turned on the grainy projection exposes its owners misuse.
Likewise, Chicago’s unwillingness to recognize the importance of surrounding their expensive acquisition with amenities came at the detriment of their initial purchase. They expected Denver Bronco Jay Cutler—who possessed an exceptional offensive-minded coach, offensive line and Brandon Marshall—to perform with half-crippled Orlando Pace, Matt Forte and a strew of undersized receivers that included Devin Hester who eludes crisp route-running at every opportunity; which in combination is a recipe for offensive disaster, regardless of your quarterback's talent.
After a brutal 2009 season, the Bears' brass evaded personal inventory and instead axed offensive coordinator Ron Turner. They traded Cutler’s leading receiver, Greg Olsen, and brought in fading offensive coordinator Mike Martz. This idiotic endeavor resulted in even more sacks and further harm to Cutler's health—during the Martz era Cutler suffered a concussion, a torn MCL and a broken thumb.
For context of the horrific punishment Cutler was subjected to during his first three seasons in Chicago, glance over these sack accumulations.
Meteoric sack numbers such as these are obviously not conducive for a statistical outburst. Ostensibly, Cutler’s numbers in these seasons were pedestrian compared to his production in Denver, but considering the band of misfits he was taking the field with Cutler's stats are as misleading as his public perception.
The most egregious perception of Jay Cutler is his apathy. Do you really think anyone would take that kind of beating if he didn't care about winning?
Jay Cutler is a proven winner. Over the past three seasons Cutler’s record as a starting quarterback is 27-13. The notions that he folds under pressure were put to sleep in 2012. Cutler's play elevated in the fourth quarter of games, posting a 114.7 quarterback rating. Tom Brady, who many revere as one of the best clutch performers among quarterbacks, posted a fourth-quarter rating of 91.4.
In Week 8 the Bears trailed Carolina 22-20 with two minutes remaining in the game. Cutler proceeded to lead Chicago on a surgical no-huddle drive, going 6-of-7 and setting the Bears up for a chip shot game-winning field goal.
In Week 13 against Seattle with the game all but lost Cutler displayed his exceptional arm strength and sly athleticism connecting on this bomb to Brandon Marshall, which led to a game-tying field goal.
As revealing as the moments of success are with Jay Cutler, perhaps more illuminating is the disgusting abomination that is the Chicago Bears' offense when Cutler isn’t playing. Cutler has missed eight games since 2009 in which the Bears went 2-6.
One of those victories was in spite of backup quarterback Todd Collins only amassing 32 yards and throwing four interceptions as the Bears somehow beat the Jimmy Clausen-led Panthers. In 2011, the Bears were off to a 7-3 start before Jay Cutler got hurt. They finished just 8-8. Chicago’s Cutler-less struggles illustrate his invaluable importance to them being competitive.
Phil Emery’s blueprint for success in Chicago isn’t a secret. He plans to build the team around Jay Cutler. From the onset of his hiring, Emery has demonstrated his faith in Cutler both verbally and more importantly with his actions.
Just look at the personnel decisions the first time general manager has made in Chicago. Just a couple months into the job, Emery hit a home run by reuniting Cutler with his old pal Brandon Marshall via a trade with Miami. Shortly after, Emery drafted Alshon Jeffery and just before the season began he extended the contract of running back Matt Forte.
After an unfulfilling 2012 campaign that left Chicago missing the playoffs again, Emery observed the continued strategic stagnation of the Bears' offense and reacted by sacking Lovie Smith and his staff in favor of quarterback guru Marc Trestman. On the first day of free agency Chicago stuck lucrative contracts with Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett. Given Emery's prowess as a scout you can expect more offensive improvements to come in next month's draft.
It's refreshing that Emery's talk corresponds with his actions. Contrast Emery's handling of Jay Cutler to the New York Jets' treatment of their quarterback. They verbally support Mark Sanchez but then completely undermine him with their front office activity.
Luckily for both Bears fans and Emery, Cutler has shown improvement in his time Chicago. Don't expect him to suddenly give Ray Lewis-esque motivational speeches or to minimize his interceptions to single digits.
Part of wielding Cutler is managing expectations. He's going to force some passes, but he's also going to steal your heart by threading lasers between defenders. He's going to look aloof and disengaged but he will also give his body for the team and perform at a high level in the 4th quarter.
For the first time since arriving in Chicago, Jay Cutler has the appropriate tools to match the lofty ambitions the Bears' organization maintains. Said tools are the direct result of Cutler having the trust of his pragmatic general manager Phil Emery.
However, this front office assistance is a double-edged sword. If the Bears, and more specifically the Bears' offense, flounder in 2013 Cutler apologists like me will be out of excuses. With his contract expiring at the end of season, this year will be a fantastic measurement for Jay Cutler.
Both the Bears and Cutler have tabled talks of a contract extension until after the season. It worked out for Joe Flacco, but will it for Jay Cutler?