A eulogy for Jay Cutler, the best bad quarterback the Bears have ever had
The Bears have turned to Jimmy Clausen on Sunday against the Lions. This was not how the Jay Cutler era in Chicago was supposed to end.
Maybe Jay Cutler’s arrival in Chicago six years ago wouldn’t have resonated the same way had the city not been burdened with two decades of miserable quarterback play. Maybe you wouldn’t understand just how much Cutler meant if you weren’t familiar with the lingering ghost of Sid Luckman, the franchise’s all-time passing leader who took his first three step drop the year World War II began. To truly understand the emotional peaks and valleys of Cutler’s Bears tenure, you have to go back to the very beginning.
Even six years later, it’s impossible to forget the feeling around the city the day the Bears sent Kyle Orton and two first draft picks to Denver in exchange for the 25-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback. It felt like a real life miracle, and not just because of the bizarre flirtation between Josh McDaniels and Matt Cassel it took to free him from the Broncos.
For Chicago, the idea of Cutler was simply too good to be true. This city knew what Bears quarterbacks looked like, and they did not look like Jay Cutler. They looked a lot more like Craig Krenzel, Jonathan Quinn and Chad Hutchinson, three unwatchable signal callers the Bears started in 2004 alone. Cutler was young, athletic, successful and had a rocket for a right arm. He was everything Bears football wasn’t.
Six years later, it’s evident that Jay Cutler really was too good to be true. The idea of him, at least. On Wednesday, the Bears finally decided they could no longer start the league leader in turnovers for the last two games of a lost season. The final chapter of Cutler’s stay in Chicago won’t be written until the team can mercifully find a taker for the highest paid offensive player in the NFL, but the story already seems to have reached its logical conclusion.
Cutler’s six seasons here were many things: hopeful and disappointing, frustrating and cathartic, sensible and senseless. The Bears rarely made things easy on him and he never made things easy on the Bears. More than anything, it was a career defined by false hope and an avalanche of excuses, each of which carrying varying degrees of validity.
In the beginning, Cutler didn’t have the type of receivers he needed. Lovie Smith foolishly championed Devin Hester as a ‘Steve Smith type’ when the truth was that Hester was a lifelong cornerback. Johnny Knox was miscast as a No. 1 target. The one pass catcher Cutler did like, tight end Greg Olsen, was dealt for a third round pick.
All the while, Cutler was playing behind what might have the NFL’s most incompetent offensive line. He was sacked 52 times his second season in town, the most in the league. The Bears would reach the NFC championship game that year against the arch rival Packers, but Cutler suffered a torn MCL in the first half. No one knew the severity of the injury at the time, but it didn’t stop fans, media and even NFL peers from criticizing Cutler for a lack of toughness.
The truth is that Jay Cutler is too tough for his own good, and he won’t fully realize it until his football career is over. It’s always been that way. To step up to the line of scrimmage with J’Marcus Webb as your left tackle every down showed enough courage. To routinely return from concussions — Cutler has at least seven on record — the way he did would be downright heroic if it didn’t seem so dangerous to his own long-term health.
Those first few precious years of Cutler’s time in Chicago were wasted, as were the last few seasons of a once mighty defense that was finally declining thanks to the unstoppable force that is the passage of time. When the Bears finally realized that they should start surrounding the most talented quarterback in franchise history with some real weapons, the defense was every bit as much in need of a makeover.
Cutler liked big receivers so the Bears traded for his old friend from Denver, Brandon Marshall. The next season they drafted Alshon Jeffery and then signed Martellus Bennett to give Cutler a receiving corps that more closely resembled an NBA team.
When Lovie Smith was fired after a 10-6 season in 2012, the Bears only objective was to hire an offensive coach to bring out the best in Cutler. An exhaustive search finally ended with Marc Trestman, an unconventional and gutsy choice by GM Phil Emery.
There was a lot to like about Trestman. He didn’t yell and scream the way Mike Ditka did, the franchise’s still idolized red-faced mascot. He valued communication and care more than some misplaced idea of toughness. He talked about “building the man”. In the strange world of the NFL where grown men are expected to be treated like small children, Trestman was a breath of fresh air. At least it seemed that way until it became apparent no one respected his measured approached.
The way this current season has devolved has been a blur. Maybe it’s just been so bad Chicago has no choice but to wipe it from memory. Every damn week seemed to bring a new civic embarrassment, from fighting in the locker room to a scene last week that depicted offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer making a tearful apology to the team for talking shit behind Cutler’s back. “Cutler shook his head”, the report said, which was the most fitting end of all for both his Chicago tenure and this nightmare season.
Jimmy Clausen won’t fix all the Bears’ problems on Sunday against the Lions, which is mostly a nice way of saying Jimmy Clausen won’t fix any of them. The Bears’ issues go so far beyond Cutler that pinning even half of the blame for this season on him feels unwarranted. After all, this is one of the best seasons a Bears QB has ever had. That it comes when Cutler is leading the league in turnovers tells you everything you need to know about the Bears.
After a decade of having the best special teams in the league under Dave Toub, the current special teams are an eyesore. The defense simply doesn’t have the talent to compete, and Brian Urlacher, Mike Brown and Tommie Harris aren’t walking through the door. The offensive line regressed after a promising 2013. Worst of all, the purported offensive genius of Trestman now looks like a mirage. Forget being a nice guy, what Trestman really is is a pushover.
It’s not just Jay Cutler’s fault, but at the same time no one who watched him over these six seasons would really believe that. The Bears bent over backwards for him and every attempt ended in self-sabotage. That he was so reliably awful against the Packers only made things worse. In a certain sense, Cutler dug his own grave.
There’s plenty of reasonable excuses. What quarterback could be successful with four different offensive coordinators in six seasons? Why is Cutler being blamed for the defense’s inability to get off the field? Isn’t the real shame that the Bears couldn’t put together an offense while Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman still had their youth?
At this point, it doesn’t even matter. The talk around Cutler in Chicago has become so nauseating that all of it has to be tuned out. No one is going to remember his finest moments, like the time he returned from a concussion in 2012 to power the Bears over the Vikings. No one is going to remember the fact that before Cutler got here, the quarterback play was so, so much worse.
Maybe this isn’t the end of Cutler in Chicago, but it sure feels that way right now. If this is it, what a way to say goodbye. For all of the emotions at play, at least the city can agree on one thing: Jay Cutler was never boring.