Bear of an Opportunity: For Jay Cutler, Playoffs Will Help Determine His Legacy

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IJanuary 13, 2011

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 12: Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears looks to pass against the New England Patriots at Soldier Field on December 12, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.  The Patriots beat the Bears 36-7.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Of the eight remaining starting quarterbacks in the NFL playoffs, only one has the chance to change everyone's perception of him. Only one, can change the way that fans and critics alike view him. And that quarterback is Jay Cutler.

Win or lose over the course of the next four weeks, Cutler has the opportunity to elevate his stock, and be seen as more than just a mediocre quarterback with a cannon for an arm. The beauty for him, is that he doesn't even have to win to do it. All he needs to do is play good football for as long as the Bears are in the playoffs, and not be the reason that they get eliminated, if that happens.

While some may argue, and say that every quarterback is in a position to have their perceptions altered based on their continuing postseason performance, I say that regardless of how the rest of the playoffs shake out, nothing will change for the other seven starting signal callers. And just to further elaborate, let's take a quick look at all seven of them.

Starting at the top is Tom Brady. There is no way that Brady loses his image as a winner, and one of the elite quarterbacks in the league regardless of how he plays. Brady could easily go 3-20 with 26 yards and four INT's, in a losing effort, and no one would think he was any less of a quarterback.

To almost the same degree is Ben Roethlisberger. While very few people are willing to put Roethlisberger on the same level as Brady, there is no denying that he is a two time Super Bowl winning quarterback, and plain and simple he is a winner.

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As a starter, he is 69-29 (.704 win percentage) in the regular season, and 8-2 in the playoffs. Once again, regardless of how he performs in the postseason, Roethlisberger will still be regarded as one of the most clutch quarterbacks in the league.

Aaron Rodgers, in a lot of peoples eyes, is the fourth best quarterback in the league, behind Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees. If he is that highly regarded already, and having won just one career playoff game at this point, why would anyone think that people's perception of him would change if he has a poor showing the rest of this postseason?

I think it would be impossible for his stock to take a hit just because he has a bad game.

Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco are both wrapping up their third season in the league. And more importantly, both have been starters for all three of those seasons.

While neither Ryan or Flacco are considered elite quarterbacks just yet, both of them are certainly just a notch below it. Each of them have guided their respective teams to three straight winning seasons, with nearly identical records.

Both quarterbacks have an almost 2:1 touchdown to interception ratio, and both are considered to be future faces of the league. Once again, with such high praise, and great numbers to back it up, there is no way that a poor playoff performance from either of these two could result in a tarnished image.

Then you have Matt Hasselbeck. He has always been considered a good quarterback, but never really great. The problem facing Hasselbeck is that he is so far along in his career, that there is no time for his perception to be changed.

Even if Hasselbeck leads the surprising Seahawks to the Super Bowl championship, he will still only be considered a decent quarterback, that got hot at the right time. And if he struggles, and the Seahawks fall flat, it will be what was expected anyway.

Mark Sanchez is an interesting one. While he certainly has an opportunity to make a real name for himself with another deep run, he has already been built up as a superstar.

His career numbers, through two seasons, aren't really overwhelming. He has 29 touchdown passes to 33 interceptions, and has fumbled 19 times. But it is the back to back playoff appearances that have everyone buzzing about him.

So, once again, regardless of how he performs his image as a quarterback will remain intact, at least for the time being.

So that brings us back to Cutler. He is the only one who has the chance to either elevate or seriously diminish his already fragile image as a big time quarterback. A Super Bowl win all but solidifies Cutler as at least a star.

For his career, Cutler is just a .500 quarterback. He is 35-34, and it is only that good thanks in large part to the 11-5 record of his Bears this season. And prior to this season, Cutler has yet to lead a team into the postseason. The rest of Cutler's career numbers are okay, but certainly nothing that would bowl you over or give you any reason to want to run out and make a trade for him.

Overall, he has thrown 104 touchdowns compared to 79 interceptions, including a league high 26 a season ago. Cutler has a cannon for an arm. Maybe the strongest in the league. His biggest problem is that sometimes he tries to squeeze a pass into a tight spot, that he has no business throwing to, and the end result is a turnover. 

There is no doubt, that because of all of his inconsistencies over the years, Cutler is only considered a middle of the pack quarterback. And one of the most common words used to describe Cutler is potential. Well, now is the time to capitalize on all of that potential, and seize the opportunity to move into the upper echelon of quarterbacks.

So, there is no doubt that the next few weeks are the most important of Jay Cutler's career. He has that once in a career chance to silence his critics, and completely give how he is perceived a 180 degree turn.

If Cutler has a strong showing over the next few weeks, all of the doubters and critics will have nothing to gripe about, and finally after so many years of mediocrity, Cutler can rise up and prove that he was worthy of the number 11 overall draft choice five years ago.

But if he struggles, and fails to put up any sort of quality numbers, it may leave him with the permanent label of a mediocre quarterback, and a label like that is hard to get rid of once you have been branded. Even a Super Bowl victory down the road will do little to change people's opinion of you as a quarterback. Just ask Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson or Eli Manning.

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