By Robert Zeglinski
The story of Jay Cutler’s football career has always been curious. He’s been seen as a savior and hope for a starving football city. There’s a narrative that surrounds the veteran that supposedly screams of a lack of leadership and ability to lead his teams, yet if you take a proper view, you’ll see the criticism isn’t fair.
Since high school, Cutler has been used to doing it all. From Heritage Hills High School in Indiana to Vanderbilt, the Denver Broncos, and now the Bears, the brunt of the pressure and responsibility has always come down hard on the 33-year-old signal caller.
Somehow he’s still standing.
In some cases, events went according to plan. As a three-year starter at quarterback at Heritage Hills, Cutler went a sparkling 26-1 as a starter. In his senior year, Heritage Hills would win the state championship on a Cutler touchdown in overtime. The title capped a season where he accounted for 42 touchdowns rushing and passing as well as nine interceptions as the team’s starting free safety.
This kind of success where he was expected to excel as a team’s breadwinner would become tougher to swallow.
As a top recruit, Cutler chose to attend Vanderbilt University, a school and program not exactly known for its football prowess. The university was known for flexing it’s academic muscles and molding the future of America, not for producing studs to play on Sundays. Of course, Cutler was the exception.
All of the continued evidence you needed was on display in Cutler’s 45-start (the most in school history) four-year career. The Commodores best record during his tenure was 5-6, where the captain Cutler won SEC offensive player of the year. Behind a mediocre assortment of talent, it was a miracle anyone could enjoy a semblance of success. Cutler became accustomed to literally running for his life showing off his athleticism, breaking the pocket, and really being the team’s only consistent offensive hope.
Survival was a matter of adaptation for Cutler that by the time he was ready to be drafted in the 2006 NFL Draft, scouts drooled over his potential and the prospects of what he could do if a proper team was settled around him. Draft reports described his mechanics as “occasionally sloppy” but it was nothing that couldn’t be polished. A pass was given to Cutler because of the fact that those said mechanics often were compromised to survive with a hapless team. To this point, Cutler became so used to being the “guy”, that a change of scenery with competence and professionalism was seen as an opportunity to blossom into superstardom and consequential glory.
If only things could go according to plan.
With the Broncos in a rut in the 2006 season, former head coach Mike Shanahan called on the rookie Cutler to keep things afloat after benching Jake Plummer. That was a mistake. As told by former Denver general manager Ted Sundquist, the Broncos had loved Plummer and didn’t believe the struggles were their leader’s fault. They saw Cutler’s promotion as a betrayal of trust by their coach and that he was only promoted because of a golden boy draft status. Sticking to the theme, none of these sentiments were Cutler’s fault. All he could do was play football to the best of his ability, whether he was ready to excel or not.
His next few seasons at Mile High would showcase all of his best and worst qualities. Whether it was a less than sufficient defense or the lack of progress and development by Cutler with crucial turnovers, Cutler’s protector, Mike Shanahan, had his swan song ended on a sour note. Despite drawing (unjust) comparisons to Denver great John Elway with his loose cannon play outside the pocket, Shanahan would be un-sanctimoniously fired in 2009 and replaced by Josh McDaniels. McDaniels, who in never really showing Cutler real respect, would also eventually jettison the young man to Chicago in a high profile trade, that probably could have been handled better by both parties.
Nevertheless, Denver’s new “Elway” and potential was gone, as before his trade to the Bears, he had enjoyed his first and only Pro Bowl season. Now, in the blink of an eye, he was supposed to be the best Chicago quarterback ever. He was supposed to be the man that would lead the Bears to perennial Super Bowls. He was supposed to give them a stranglehold over the NFC North division for a decade and more simply because of his prowess alone. He was the first real franchise quarterback in Chicago in decades that was looked upon as the next big thing, but there was one problem.
Who knew you actually had to build a team around your franchise quarterback?
While Cutler was used to being the end all for his football teams, in the NFL, you’re asking a lot from your quarterback if you don’t support him effectively. Former GMs Jerry Angelo and Phil Emery failed to ever give Cutler the full complement of a roster. Whether it was number two and number three receivers that were less than subpar like Roy Williams or Devin Aromashodu, mediocre offensive coordinators that failed to effectively remedy all of Cutler’s flaws like Ron Turner, Mike Martz, and the much maligned Marc Trestman, the offense never quite clicked. Defense was done well under former coach Lovie Smith, but that didn’t mean Cutler had a puncher’s chance.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the lack of success early on in Cutler’s Chicago career was the offensive line, as he was sacked 184 times over a four-year span, one of the highest figures in league history. Yet somehow, he led the Bears to a 2010 NFC Title game berth, beginning to live up to his status as Chicago’s prophet.
A game to go to the Super Bowl against the rival Packers was supposed to be a coronation for Cutler, but it shifted his career in a different fashion. Despite being consistently pummeled and being the Bear’s only consistent offense, Cutler became the new punching bag for the media and fans alike when he left the game with an MCL tear. Cutler would try to play but was ruled out by the Bears, something he would receive blame for. The pouty-faced “Smoking Jay Cutler” was born as words like coward became some of the nicer things said about the gunslinger in Chicago.
From that point on, it seems Cutler’s career has been incredibly snake bitten. While he’s likely nowhere close to players like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers’ caliber, there can’t be times where he isn’t wondering what it would have been like to have the same organizational stability in coaching, talent etc., that those two greats have enjoyed.
No matter what Cutler has done since then, there just seems to be a consistent segment of people that will refuse to acknowledge any actual progress by the gifted player. Every year columns like this are written about Cutler, professing that this is “finally his year”, and every time he’s fallen short, it hasn’t solely been his fault. Yet he’s given this choker label as someone you can’t build around because sometimes he frowns on camera.
Who has the most fourth quarter comebacks in the NFL since 2009? Jay Cutler. Who just enjoyed the best season of his career behind a patchwork offense with a new head coach and general manager, where statistics can’t tell the whole story? Jay Cutler. But these things will go by the wayside as they tend to do until there are more results, perhaps fairly so.
They say late career renaissances can’t be done for quarterbacks, yet as noted, maybe Cutler is the next Jim Plunkett (as noted by windycitygridiron.com). Like Cutler, Plunkett was maligned for inconsistency early in his career, but then a new Raiders regime fully embraced their quarterback – as John Fox and Ryan Pace are doing at the moment with their captain – and championship magic happened.
Maybe Cutler finally stays healthy in a productive final era for his career. Maybe a coach’s belief like Fox finally lets him stay consistent, like he did in 2015. The offense is there in Alshon Jeffery, Kevin White, and a revamped young offensive line. The defense is returning to prominence with proper drafting, something Chicago is more accustomed to. The future looks very bright.
Jay Cutler was never to be the generational quarterback that would hold the league in the palm of his hands and it’s time people let that go. That doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of being one of the best and taking his team to the promised land.
Remember that his college scouting report noted he needed more support to have a chance. On what has been an incredibly bumpy ride, Cutler is finally receiving that blessing.
Time will tell whether he takes advantage.