It’s early in the afternoon on a Tuesday in mid-June, with the Chicago Bears having just closed the first padless practice of their mandatory three-day veteran’s minicamp, and Jay Cutler is uncharacteristically relaxed and at ease.
Expectations for Cutler have gradually approached sea level from their astronomic provenance, as Chicago shuffled through four offensive coordinators in his six seasons as a Bear. Yet positivity permeates 1920 Football Dr., as John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase are the last hope to refine Cutler’s preternatural gifts.
“I’ve known some of these coaches throughout my career. They’ve had a lot of success in this league and they’re trying to bring it here,” Cutler said, analyzing his comfortability level before this season versus the last one.
Two offseasons ago, former general manager Phil Emery took a chance on Marc Trestman’s reputation as a quarterback Svengali. But the transfusion of Trestman's West Coast offense into Chicago’s gritty blood type from Lovie Smith's ground-and-pound attack was rejected.
Their inaugural season together ended with backup Josh McCown putting the Bears on the playoffs ledge before retreating, as Cutler returned to lose two of his last three. In the ruins of that inauspicious season, Bears brass remained so bullish on Cutler that they slid him a seven-year deal worth $126.7 million and guaranteed $54 million.
But then a 3.9 QBR on Monday Night Football against the Saints’ 31st-ranked defense in mid-December spelled the end. Soon after, Trestman put Cutler out to pasture and handed Jimmy Clausen the reins.
There’s always been a disconnect between the man, myth, legend and his game-day execution. Cutler has only been to a single Pro Bowl in nine years. He’s reached the playoffs just once. Among active quarterbacks, he’s 25th in interception percentage (percentage of times intercepted per pass).
The links to the previous decade of prosperity are dwindling within Halas Hall after the exoduses of Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Peanut Tillman, Brandon Marshall and center Roberto Garza. Cutler is the final component preventing a complete reset. The diminished cap penalties attached to Cutler’s contract if he’s released by the third day of the 2016 league year could make this season his Waterloo.
Essentially, players are investments of the highest order, and the draft is a 72-hour IPO gathering. Ten years ago, the investment in Cutler—playing under the radar for several bad Vanderbilt teams—as a top-15 prospect was contingent on more speculation than usual. It's taken a decade of productivity for the bear market on Cutler to reach this critical juncture.
“Like a bottle of wine or a promising college quarterback turning pro, C.E.O.’s are similar to what economists call experience goods: You commit to a price long before you know if they’re worth it.” – Adam Davidson, New York Times
Prior to his senior year of college, Cutler was an unknown prospect to the football world outside Nashville. Much of the radio silence was due to his 11 victories in four years as a starter.
Conservative estimates had him anointed as a potential NFL unicorn. In the venture-capital community, unicorns are defined as speculative tech startups with $1 billion valuations. The NFL’s analogs are quarterbacks who can successfully carry the brand of $1 billion franchises for one or two decades through playoff victories and Super Bowl appearances.
Cutler bore a resemblance to another mobile, prototypical quarterback who could shatter the sound barrier with his release. In four seasons at Stanford, John Elway's Cardinals never played in a bowl game, either. Like Elway, Cutler was built like a MLB shortstop after playing the position in high school and threw whistling missiles on the move like one, too.
Every investor is looking for the next Uber or Snapchat, leading them to continue bankrolling companies that wind up becoming dying unicorns. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen saw some of Elway in Cutler and traded up to select him 11th overall in 2006.
At the beginning of 2014, 41 start-ups had ever been given billion-dollar valuations. By July, the tally had crept to 109. The NFL’s $100 Million Quarterback Club has grown exponentially.
Loquacious Bears tight end Martellus Bennett has dubbed himself "Black Unicorn" and also taken to calling Cutler "White Pegasus." The nickname hasn't spread yet, but it should. Beginning in the 20th century, the winged horse from Greek mythology has been a corporate symbol of hope and prosperity. Just as he was thought to have been cast in Elway's dye by Denver, Cutler represented the first elite quarterback talent to suit up for the Bears since Sid Luckman.
Sticking with a high-risk investment that isn’t producing profit reeks of what the investment community refers to as the Fear of Missing Out. FOMO fuels rash decisions that can obscure the realities of an investment. FOMO applies to the Bears patience with Cutler. For his part, Fox is entering this season cautious and illusion-free about the pitfalls of corralling Cutler.
“I think he’ll [Gase] help Jay, but talking about it’s not going to answer anything. Still gotta perform,” Fox told reporters.
FOMO sometimes leads to indecision and inactivity. Unfortunately, it also manifests itself as a tractor beam, luring herds of opportunistic investors to risky investments and creating market bubbles that eventually go bust.
Former Vanderbilt center Trey Holloway had front-row seats for Cutler's five-year metamorphosis from Santa Claus, Indiana, lump of coal to Vandy's diamond in the rough. In addition to his symbiotic role as Cutler's center, Holloway crashed with Cutler, fullback Matthew Tant and safety Ben Koger during the summer before their junior year.
"There's not a real good history of winning a bunch of games at Vanderbilt. If you wanted to play football and go to a school that focuses on academics, you could go to Notre Dame or Stanford. You had other options," Holloway explained.
Lack of depth was their crippling handicap, according to former Vanderbilt running back Cassen Jackson-Garrison.
“Us as starters, by the time we got to the fourth quarter, we were beat to hell most of time, and the other team had volume that we didn’t, because we can’t get those type of players in there because they didn’t have the GPAs. We played with what we had.”
Cutler’s NFL potential wasn’t readily apparent for systematic reasons.
"People forget that during his first two years as a starter, we were a heavily option-based team. That's probably why people weren't viewing Jay as any kind of pro prospect," Holloway said.
By the end of Cutler's Vandy career, he was sixth in career rushing touchdowns and had gained over 1,200 yards finding running lanes or sizing up linebackers. He became inured to the bludgeoning SEC like a hammered nail, serving, in a way, as a precursor to his turnstile Bears offensive lines. During his junior year, the offense transitioned away from the option toward an attack featuring more stretch play action.
“It didn’t really matter what offense we’d switched to with Jay, because he was so athletic everybody had to honor it,” Jackson said.
It wasn’t until the conclusion of Cutler’s two-win, 33-sack, junior season that his name picked up significant buzz.
"I knew after his junior year when he explored his draft grade. That was the first clue that he might be a pro prospect," Holloway recalled.
Projected as a late-round prospect, Cutler made the decision to exhaust his final year of eligibility. As a senior, he became Vandy's offensive deus ex machina. He showcased his arm by slinging it a league-high 42 times a game for the outmatched Commodores, helping Vanderbilt knock Tennessee down a peg by beating the Vols for the first time in 23 years. He doubled his win total en route to becoming SEC Offensive Player of the Year. His superior ability made leaning on him a necessity and may have exacerbated his hero-ball tendencies at a key point in his development.
“The way he led us to those fourth-quarter comebacks and his ball-placement ability and that drive to beat Tennessee, it showed you: Damn, he’s good,” Jackson said. “Jay knew he was that good. No matter what we did as a team, he created plays and extra momentum himself.”
Cutler emerged from his subterranean Vandy cocoon cutting a Favrian/Elwayesque figure. He’s on a short list of QBs who can squeeze laser throws through the tightest of windows. Yet he’s also what venerable NFL analyst Greg Cosell has labeled a “see it, throw it” passer who uses his arm strength as a crutch.
“He has never been a pure anticipation thrower or a disciplined structured player,” Cosell said in a film review for Yahoo Sports last September. “He’ll wait until he sees a receiver come open, then throw it. That’s the antithesis of being an anticipation thrower.”
"Jay can make all the throws,'' then-Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher said, via USA Today's Tom Pedulla, while coaching the 2006 Senior Bowl’s South roster. "But he has some habits we need to break.''
On Day 2 of this year's minicamp, a light drizzle left the field soggy. On one dropback during 11-on-11 drills, Cutler sensed pressure coming, and instead of settling into the pocket to get his feet underneath, he released a soft, fading spiral off his back foot. The pass floated into the hands of converted outside linebacker Jared Allen, who clumsily bobbled the prospective pick-six.
Allen shrieked and clutched his helmet. Cutler dropped his head and clapped his hands in frustration.
The maddening sight of the back-foot throw has been a staple of Cutler's dating back to his SEC years.
"You obviously don’t want your quarterback throwing off his back foot," Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy told reporters of Cutler’s awkward throws before the ‘06 combine. "That’s something you have to work on."
Even then, Cutler defended his imperfect pocket fundamentals.
"I'd like to see the other guys come in here and not throw off their back foot," Cutler told Bleacher Report's Tom Weir, then writing for USA Today in 2006. "Back in my early days, you just didn't have a lot of time to throw the ball. You're just trying to make plays out there."
His coachability has come under fire thanks to the contentious partnerships he’s had with every single Bears offensive coordinator who’s been paired with him.
After getting word in 2009 that new Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels was attempting to pull the rug out from underneath his feet by ogling former USC Trojan-turned emergency Pats starter Matt Cassel, the chip on his shoulder from experiences with David Koral and Matt Dlugolecki weighed heavily. Cutler, who must have developed an allergy by now to California beach-boy QBs from Elway to Jimmy Clausen, stood firm, demanded a trade and was branded a malcontent.
Marshall and Cutler’s bickering has been cited as an indictment of Cutler’s subpar interpersonal skills.
In June, Marshall, volunteered the names of his 12 best teammates to a Twitter follower, including a little league cohort for good measure. Cutler was excluded.
Cutler’s disconnect from some teammates may stem from his candidness.
“There was no sugarcoating anything (with Jay), “ Jackson said. “That’s just the way Jay is, you know. He’s gonna tell you exactly what he wants, because he’s a very smart and talented man and he knew the game.”
Cutler’s leadership style has always been more laconic, and according to Holloway, “He was more of the type to pull guys aside and talk to them individually."
Cutler’s Vanderbilt teammates also depict a magnanimous teammate off the field who bent over backwards to help others where he could.
Jackson was originally set to play for Gary Barnett at Colorado until a sex-and-recruiting scandal rocked the program and pushed Vanderbilt to the top of his list.
When Jackson met Cutler as a freshman, he was already a junior and the big man on campus. Jackson was on the bottom-rung of the totem pole, trying to assert himself. Yet Cutler took to him quickly.
“There was a time when I didn’t have a car on campus and stuff. He said, 'Hey man, don’t worry about it. I have another one. You can use mine. Just take care of it. No big deal.’ It takes a lot of trust in somebody to let you use their vehicle,” Jackson said with a chuckle.
Even new Bears receiver Eddie Royal is downright giddy about reuniting with Cutler for the first time since his record-setting rookie season with the Broncos in 2008.
"Watching how much we've all grown as players and as people, it's good to kinda reconnect and get out there. It makes it that much more fun," Royal said. "Football is already a great sport and a great game we get to play, but when you're doing it with your friends it adds a little something more to it."
When Cutler isn’t being criticized for how apathetic he appears, he’s called a hothead.
Three years ago, Cutler’s bump to left tackle J'Marcus Webb, the 6-7, 335-pounder tasked with keeping his blind side clear of oncoming traffic, earned him additional derision. That his frustration stemmed from getting sacrificed to the defensive altar for a seven-sack night behind porous blockers was omitted from the postscript. The coverage veered dramatically askew of the narrative of Tom Brady shrieking at his wideouts for dropping passes.
“I can’t remember which game it was, but I think I missed a block, and he got hit. He snatched my helmet up and let me know, ‘Hey! Don’t do that s--t again.’ ” Jackson said. “You gotta respect that.
“And if you did do it again, he’ll let ‘em (the coaches) know. ‘Get him out of here.' ”
Prudence is a characteristic exhibited by both successful quarterbacks and successful traders. Yet prudence has rarely been a term attached to Cutler's style of quarterbacking.
When asked what his first impression of Cutler was as a Bronco teammate, Royal beamed and told Bleacher Report, “It was just that gunslinger mentality.”
Cutler’s ceiling as a contemporary Bert Jones, Favre or Elway overreached. Bears fans would settle for Bill Wade, who was the last Vanderbilt quarterback drafted in the first round and led the Bears to their eighth NFL championship in 1963.
There are two classifications of quarterbacks. Metronome quarterbacks are in constant rhythm and rarely rattled. Levels of effectiveness vary, but their results are consistent. Whiplash passers can spin the laces but are streaky and can leave a fanbase feeling woozy observing their peaks and valleys.
Cutler is the latter.
Two years ago, FootballPerspective.com investigated how quarterbacks decay. Its research determined that the average starter usually peaks at 27 and plateaus until he dives off a cliff at 37 years old. At 32, Cutler's present is urgent, because late-career surges are rare.
The next four months will determine whether Chicago winds up getting burned or if Cutler finds his bearings again.
Ten years after his breakthrough senior campaign, it’s time to muster up another leap forward before the Bears move on without him.