RENTON - For one of the first and most storied NFL franchises in existence, the Chicago Bears have never really possessed a tradition of quarterback success.
In a city that laments a cursed baseball team, the football team seems to have a position that is cursed. And that’s not good when it’s the most important position on the field.
Of course, when you trade away George Blanda and Bobby Layne, that doesn’t help either.
Still, the crew of quarterbacks that has worn a Bears uniform is far from a list of football’s Who’s Who? It’s more like a list of Who’s That? Don’t remember the names of Steve Stenstrom, Henry Burris, Moses Moreno, Peter Tom Willis and Jim Miller? It’s OK.
And the names you might remember – Kordell Stewart, Doug Flutie, Chris Chandler, Dave Krieg and Mike Tomczak – were not great or really good in the Windy City.
Perhaps the three greatest quarterbacks in franchise history are Sid Luckman, Jim McMahon and Jim Harbaugh. That’s really not saying much for a cornerstone NFL franchise that started with the league in the 1920s and boasts more Hall of Fame players than any other team.
So when the Bears traded Kyle Orton and a handful of draft picks for Jay Cutler on March 2, 2009, the quarterbacking hopes of the present, and the unfilled hopes of the past, were dumped on his shoulders.
He was a cannon-armed, touchdown-throwing machine for the Denver Broncos with a bright future. In 37 games with the Broncos, Cutler threw for 9,024 yards and 54 touchdowns. Those passing yards would have ranked Cutler seventh on Chicago’s all-time list of career leaders.
Bears fans expected Super Bowls, Pro Bowls and success.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Much as his play can be from series to series and game to game, it’s been an up-and-down ride in Cutler’s two seasons as the Bears’ quarterback.
But on Sunday at Soldier Field, Cutler can do plenty to reach those high expectations and cement himself well above the quarterback fodder of the Bears’ past by leading his team to a playoff win, and beyond.
His physical gifts were never in question. Cutler’s right arm seems to have been touched by a lightning bolt. Think Brett Favre or John Elway in terms of arm strength. “He’s a great player,” coach Lovie Smith said. “He can make any throw you need a quarterback to.”
Quarterbacks are supposed to be confident, but Cutler at times comes off as carelessly cocky.
It’s that mentality that can irritate Bears fans. In his first season with the Bears, Cutler threw for 3,666 yards and 27 touchdowns. But he was also picked off 26 times and had a quarterback rating of 76.8. The team slogged to a 7-9 record and many fans wondered if they had been traded a lemon by the Broncos. Sure Cutler could throw the ball, but could he win?
“As a player and a person, you come into a new environment and new team, there’s a lot you go through early on,” Smith said.
Cutler went through plenty. The local media hammered him and fans booed him. He and Smith were the subject of most of the criticism for last season’s disappointment.
This year has been different in a good way. Cutler has been better. He’s thrown for 3,274 yards and 23 touchdowns, with just 16 interceptions. And under new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the team’s offense has flourished.
“We are always on the attack,” Cutler said of Martz’s scheme. “We’re always pushing the ball downfield. We’re always looking for holes and bubbles in the defense where we can take advantage of stuff. There’s never really a time where we’re going to sit back and grind it out.”
Things didn’t start off so well in the Martz system. The Bears had serious problems on the offensive line. On Oct. 3 against the Giants, he was sacked a record nine times in the first half, and was knocked out of the game with a concussion. During that stretch, the Bears lost three of four games, including a 23-20 loss at home to the Seahawks in which Cutler was sacked six times. They were 4-3 and scuffling.
“It’s going to take a little while for a whole new offense to get going,” Cutler said. “We hadn’t been at it long. Over the course of time, we’ve gotten better and better.”
Some personnel changes up front have shored up the protection. When the Bears ripped off five straight wins in midseason, Cutler was sacked just 14 times – a definite improvement considering Martz’s system does put the quarterback in harm’s way.
“We needed to improve,” Smith said. “We just didn’t play well for whatever reason. We’ve seen improvement each week from them.”
Cutler was still sacked a league-high 52 times, but given even a modest amount of time to throw, he is extremely dangerous.
“(Cutler) does a great job of avoiding the rush and getting the ball out and throwing the ball very quickly,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “They’re taking advantage of his ability to get rid of the football – which is phenomenal, he’s great at it. But they still have all of the stuff and all of the ability to strike you dead, and they still utilize it, they’re still getting the ball down the field.”
For Smith, it’s not just Cutler’s growth on the field that’s important. Cutler has stepped up and become the leader of the team.
“Jay came in wanting to be one of the guys, but you know as the quarterback of the team you can’t necessarily be one of the guys,” Smith said. “We look to the quarterback to show leadership, make plays when we call on you – and that’s what Jay has done. He knows how to take responsibility. He’s everything we are looking for in a quarterback.”
Now Cutler finally seems to be proving it on the field.
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 email@example.com