In many ways, Jay Cutler still can’t win in Chicago. It hasn’t happened on the field yet, with just one playoff win in seven seasons as the Bears’ starting quarterback, and a 50-47 starting record. It has yet to take place with the fans, either, who, as was the case with Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose, tend to resent franchise players who don’t show their emotions in public. The sight of Cutler standing mostly expressionless on the sidelines in the 2011 NFC Championship Game after being replaced while the Bears attempted a comeback remains for some the burning image of his legacy.
Or maybe it’s the number 126.7 million, which would be the dollar figure on his seven-year deal and represents the most contract money currently owed to any player in the NFL. It’s the forces largely outside of Cutler’s control that continue to define him more than what should really matter: how he plays on the field.
Cutler’s image used to be a more fair mosaic, back when he played with Pro Bowl players at running back in Matt Forte, tight end in Martellus Bennett and wide receiver in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. There’s a reason the first three are out of town and the last one is seemingly headed that way next offseason.
The NFL is a bottom-line business, and Cutler hasn’t been successful enough for the talent he and his skill players have possessed. They produced a 13-19 record in the two seasons they all played together, 2013 and 2014. The first three left with rumblings about their experience in Chicago and playing with Cutler. Jeffery doesn’t often speak publicly, but his silence sometimes can say it, too: It just hasn’t all worked out.
That’s the inevitable truth of Cutler’s career, ever since he was a first-round pick in Denver and then traded to Chicago, where the rocket-arm gunslinger was supposed to bring quarterback stability and did, but not to the level of $126.7 million expectations. Some of it is his own doing. He clashed with offensive coordinator Mike Martz at the start of his Chicago tenure, and his mistakes have had a way of repeating themselves in the form of painful interceptions. But plenty of the Bears’ problems on offense never were all his fault, and they certainly aren’t right now.
The question is whether those outside the Chicago bubble will start see it this way without the results reaching out and grabbing them. In an age where anyone or anything can be defined in a 30-second highlight or a 140-character tweet, can a quarterback’s play on the field ever trump what his NFL.com profile says? What about the story of his career?
Cutler might have once been a player who struggled to maximize the immense skill he had around him, although failures in offensive scheme and pass protection during those years too often went unseen. The most recent version of him, though, is one who actually elevated the play of the mediocre talent around him.
Last year, the Bears finished 6-10 with the league’s 23rd-ranked passing offense. Forte, Bennett and Jeffery were on the team, but they missed a combined 15 games and played hurt through plenty more. Cutler lost his starting center for the year by Week 4, which sometimes meant his left guard moved over; all after his best offensive lineman, Kyle Long, had been transitioned from a Pro Bowl right guard to an average right tackle out of necessity. Cutler’s primary running back was a fourth-round rookie, his second-leading receiver and blindside protectors both former seventh-round picks who had yet to play in important roles. And yet there was Cutler, time and again using his mobility to avoid deep edge rushes and to allow limited receivers to find open spots in the coverage.
In ways that don’t jump off the page, Cutler logged the best year of his career as part of a 6-10 campaign. He finished with the second-best completion percentage and interception percentage of his 10-year career while setting his best-ever mark in yards per attempt. The Bears finished 13th in passing DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) despite going up against the second-hardest slate of defenses in the league by DVOA.
This season, the talent around him might be even more scarce, which might only increase the pressure everyone places on him. This year will be his first without Forte, who was not offered a contract by the Bears. Like Marshall the year before, Bennett was traded. If the old trio continues to produce in different places — a likelihood in the Patriots (Bennett) and Jets (Forte and Marshall) offenses — a meager output from the Bears offense is likely to keep the old Cutler narratives running: Does he have anyone to blame for the “what could have beens” but himself?
It’s a fair question in some ways, but it’s not the one that should define the Cutler of today. This version is in his 30s, with a wife and two children. He’s a team captain who has become much more comfortable with the media and has made progress in limiting turnovers due to pressure. It took losing his fantasy football stars for it to happen, but the quarterback who seemed like he couldn’t change finally has.
You just have to take the time to notice.