Cutler prepared for playoff debut

Posted Jan. 11, 2011 @ 7:39 p.m.
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By Bob LeGere

Anyone who's watched the Bears on TV has seen an emotional Jay Cutler, an irritated Jay Cutler, a teed-off Jay Cutler, an irate Jay Cutler or an exasperated Jay Cutler. That's Cutler on the field. He's not hard to read.

Off the field, he's almost always the laid-back Cutler. Well, except sometimes when he's dealing with the media. He's usually pretty low-key then, too, but he can also appear preoccupied, bored and anxious to be almost anywhere else. He's also likely to provide a thoughtful response to an intelligent question. He doesn't suffer fools gladly on or off the field.

That's Jay Cutler. On rare occasions, he's lived down to the reputation that followed him to Chicago from Denver — aloof, arrogant and peevish. But the Bears have no buyer's remorse after trading their own starting quarterback, Kyle Orton, two first-round draft choices and a third-rounder for Cutler and a fifth-round pick on April 2, 2009. The good has far outweighed the bad.

Cutler hasn't yet moved into the exclusive neighborhood of elite NFL quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, but he made some major strides this year under new offensive coordinator Mike Martz. His passer rating jumped from last year's career-worst 76.8 to 86.3. He cut his interceptions from 26 to 16 and increased his yards per attempt from 6.6 to 7.6 despite being sacked more times than any quarterback in the NFL.

"He has everything that you need as a quarterback to get to that (elite) level," Bears GM Jerry Angelo said. "He still needs to have more of a body of work to be put in there in comparison with them because all of those guys have great résumés. Hopefully Jay is going to have a great résumé, and hopefully this year is the start of that.

"He's off to a very good start. He has all of the traits to be an elite quarterback, but the bottom line is the bottom line. You've got to win football games. Winning the division is one step; now we get into the playoffs. But we feel very, very good about his progress."

Cutler's progress hasn't been limited to statistics. Last season, when a young receiving corps deserved some of the blame for Cutler's NFL-worst 26 interceptions, the quarterback showed newfound maturity, refusing to toss anyone under the bus. He was throwing to rookie Johnny Knox, second-year player and first-time starter Earl Bennett, Devin Hester or Devin Aromashodu, who all made their share of mistakes, but Cutler accepted the blame, even when he didn't deserve it.

This year, Cutler was sacked a whopping 52 times, but he never blamed an offensive line in flux that suffered through some embarrassing outings before finally jelling in the final weeks of the season.

There is no shortage of game film on Cutler reacting angrily to poor performance on the field, but according to Martz, it's always self-disgust.

"I think his frustrations are in his own performance, if he doesn't play well," Martz said. "If he's frustrated with the other players, he doesn't say it to me. I'm not aware of it. Obviously if we fail at something, he's very frustrated, but he takes responsibility for that."

It's not that Cutler has never had words with a teammate in the heat of battle. What field general hasn't? But Bennett said Cutler goes about it the right way. The two of them go back to Vanderbilt when, in Cutler's final year with the Commodores, Bennett was his leading receiver with 79 catches and nine touchdowns — as a true freshman.

"He'll pull you aside, if we're not on the same page, and talk about what he sees and what he's looking for from you," Bennett said, starting to laugh. "Then, after he completes the same pass later in the game, he'll just look at you like, 'See what happens when you listen to me?' "

Cutler is nothing if not confident. When he was asked about taking more command in the huddle or more of a leadership role in the playoffs, he said that wouldn't be necessary. He's already got the situation under control.

"I'm not going to change anything," Cutler said. "Those guys understand. (While) I get the play, (center) Olin (Kreutz) is going to do his talking. When I get in the huddle, it's going to be my huddle, and we're going to tell everyone what to do. If we've got to make corrections, we'll make corrections. But we're not going to change anything we've done the past 16 games."

Martz saw no reason to discuss with Cutler the importance of playoff football, same as he didn't have to talk to Kurt Warner when the Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" first went to the postseason.

"I've always felt that was unnecessary," Martz said. "Kurt went through that the first time, but they know. (Cutler) has been around. If he were a rookie or something like that, I'd talk to him. But he's been in some big games this year, kind of a playoff atmosphere. We just talk about managing the game, like we do every week with him."

Combine that Cutler confidence with the rare arm strength that enables him to squeeze the ball through tiny windows of opportunity and the surprising athleticism for a 6-3, 233-pound quarterback, and you've got a potential franchise player. Only five quarterbacks had more rushing yards than Cutler's 232.

The quality in Cutler that often gets overlooked is his intelligence. Not just the innate, book-learning kind, but football smarts. Cutler's ability to grasp concepts almost immediately has impressed Martz from the day they met 11 months ago.

"He's as sharp an individual as I've ever been around," Martz said. "Mentally, it can be a dangerous thing for me, because sometimes I've put too much on him because I know he can handle it. I have to be very careful of that because he's so smart. He's just very, very sharp — not just smart smart, but football-awareness (smart) — and he has a great feel for it. He's a one-time guy. I take him out there and I give him one rep, and he has a good feel for it."

It remains to be seen how quickly the 27-year-old Cutler picks up postseason football, since he's never participated in the NFL playoffs.

"Jay will be cool and collected, but I'm pretty sure he's going to be pumped about the game," Bennett said. "He'll lead us to victory, same as what he's been doing recently."

Cutler said he couldn't even watch the NFL playoffs the past four seasons.

"You go through 16 games, and you watch all the film that you watch and then you don't get in," he said. "It definitely takes a toll on you, and it's hard on you. I just never have."

Cutler and Bennett never even went to a bowl game at Vanderbilt. This season was first that ended above .500 for Cutler since he led Heritage Hills High School in Lincoln City, Ind., to the state championship in his senior season.

After the bye week at the end of October, which the Bears entered with a 4-3 record, Cutler helped orchestrate victories in seven of eight games prior to the meaningless — to the Bears, anyway — regular-season-ending loss to the Packers. During that streak, Cutler had four games with passer ratings over 104.0 and a fifth at 97.6.

"Jay started to get more comfortable with the offense and in his role," GM Angelo said. "You saw him starting to move around a little bit more, too, which bodes well for him and the offense because he kept plays alive and started making plays downfield."

Fortunately for the Bears, Cutler was able to grasp the complexities of Martz's playbook a lot quicker than most quarterbacks, although he admits it wasn't easy.

"This is a concept-driven offense," he said. "You've got to understand the whole picture of why things are designed the way they're designed. It takes time. The receivers have to have a really good feel, too.

"In some offenses, you can kind of tell the receiver just go do this and don't worry about it," he said. "But in this offense, you have to know why the guy inside of you is doing that, and why the guy inside of him is doing that. It takes all 11 guys, and if one guy is off-key, it will throw it off."

It's up to Cutler to keep the Bears' offense in harmony, and he's never been more ready for the role.

 

Bob LeGere covers the Bears for the Daily Herald.

This column was first published in the Jan. 16, 2011, print edition of Pro Football Weekly, which also contains features on the Patriots' unsung RB duo, Falcons head coach Mike Smith, and rehired interim coaches Leslie Frazier and Jason Garrett, as well as previews of all four divisional playoff games and an early fantasy draft board for 2011. The PFW print edition is on sale at retail outlets across the country and also online at PFWstore.com, where both print and electronic (PDF) versions can be purchased.