Saturday night in Cincinnati against the Bengals, Jay Cutler will have a chance to be Tom Brady. Or maybe Aaron Rodgers.
And the Bears need exactly that from him. It’s time.
Preseason doesn’t count, but the third game in particular can be a telling test kitchen (see: Bears at Seattle, 8/22/14). Cutler won’t ever be any sort of approximation of either Brady or Rodgers. No one will ever expect that after this many years. And the health issues at wide receiver provide a stern test for an offense committed to running the football against a defense that knows the Bears are offensively passing-challenged.
But so much talk sprayed around over the past half-decade or so about how much Cutler needed more weapons. He got them and still didn’t win. And the assumption was always that he had to be given them.
By contrast, Brady and Rodgers were among the greats at creating their own from what they had. And with a growing list of injured Bears wide receivers who may or may not be ready by Week 1, that is precisely what the Bears need right now from their $126-million quarterback, with “right now” looking ahead to possible health problems in 2015.
Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal are expected to be ready by Week 1. But it is entirely possible that Cutler could have a receiver group consisting of Josh Bellamy, Jeremy Kelley, Rashad Lawrence, Marc Mariani and Cameron Meredith.
John Fox and Adam Gase should demand, “Ok, ‘6,’ win with those. Period.”
Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte will be in his huddle. But the Bears and Cutler are to a point where the quarterback needs to find ways to win with the tools at hand - in this case, his wide receivers. And most of all, not give the football away, something he’s managed to avoid through wins over Miami and Indianapolis.
Cutler is being paid like Brady and Rodgers. The Bears are entitled to see a return on the investment. And a third preseason game is an exquisite opportunity for Cutler to show whether he’s learned anything, conceptually or technically, from Gase and QB coach Dowell Loggains.
The Brady Model
Brady won his first Super Bowl with his top two receivers standing 5-foot-10 (Troy Brown, David Patten). Brown, an eighth-round draft pick, didn’t become a starter until his eighth season and didn’t reach lone Pro Bowl until 2001 – the year Brady took over from Drew Bledsoe as the starter. Patten was a castoff from the Giants and Browns through his first four seasons before catching 51 passes in 2001.
Brady won his second Super Bowl, over Fox and the Carolina Panthers, with Brown, Deion Branch (5-foot-9) and David Givens (6-feet). No Patriot caught more than Branch’s 57 passes.
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What Brady didn’t do was throw interceptions, with an INT rate of 2.3 percent both years. Bill Belichick may indeed be among the great defensive minds of this era, but his defenses have had the advantage of a quarterback who let them stay off the field and not be forced to defend short fields after quarterback giveaways.
Cutler has only once in his career been that secure with his passes, and then only in 2011 when a superb season (2.2 percent) was derailed by his broken thumb after 10 games.
That was the year of Cutler’s lowest single-year completion percentage (58 percent) but the Bears were winning in large part because he wasn’t completing passes to wrong uniforms. And his top three wide receivers were Johnny Knox, Dane Sanzenbacher and Devin Hester.
The Rodgers Model
When the Green Bay Packers got past the Bears on the way to winning the 2010 Super Bowl, they were doing with a roster that had 13 players on IR by mid-December, 16 by season’s end. Rodgers himself suffered two concussions and missed a game.
He also lost running back Ryan Grant, tight end Jermichael Finley, right tackle Mark Tauscher, and no Green Bay receiver or back started all 16 games with the exception of Greg Jennings.
Rodgers suffered through the second-highest interception rate of his seven seasons as a starter – and that was all of 2.3 percent, a huge boost for a defense that was so riddled with injuries that coordinator Dom Capers was forced to take certain calls out of his playbook.
It falls to Cutler more than any other individual Bear to find ways to solve issues involving the paucity of wide receivers, injuries and shaky play on the offensive line, even the questions around the defense.
For Cutler, it’s time to win with efficiency, ball control and what he’s got on hand.