The performance of Jay Cutler in the win over the Minnesota Vikings foreshadowed presenting the Bears with a problem — a problem the Bears and every other NFL organization would love to have:
The need to choose between good quarterbacks (emphasis on the “good” part). Maybe it will be “among” good quarterbacks, if the field expands in 2017 beyond two, to include Cutler, Brian Hoyer, Connor Shaw and a draft pick to be named later. Hoyer and Shaw will be coming off seasons ended by broken bones but had impressed within the organization before those injures.
In the meantime, regardless of the shape of the future, and he does have team-friendly salaries in the next several years, Cutler is the Bears’ present, with suddenly very intriguing possibilities that he hinted at with his performance against the Vikings: a game with 20-of-31 passing for 252 yards, a touchdown, zero interceptions, and a 100.5 rating that he bettered just twice in full games all last season, which was the best of his career.
More important than just the numbers, however, Cutler did what too often he hadn’t managed to do over the span of his career: lift the performance levels of everyone around him.
“I think the kind of the story line [post-Minnesota] that was talked about was the run game,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “To me it was how Cutler inspired his teammates. I thought he played very inspired football.
“It went back to his preparation. The way that he dealt with the injury and staying involved and helping Hoyer. When his number was called, when he was cleared to be the starter again, he was ready to play. He didn’t miss a beat. I thought he played his best game of the season. And we expect the Tampa game to be the next best.”
Quantitative Jay vs. qualitative Jay
Cutler began 2016 with some of the same pedestrian results that have characterized too much of his career: passer ratings of 76.2 (at Houston Texans) and 74.9 (vs. Philadelphia Eagles), one TD pass vs. two interceptions, a 4.3-percent interception rate, 60.8 completion percentage. Typical Jay. Pre-2015 Jay.
The easy excuses were there — shaky O-line, modest weapons, the usual — and that Houston (No. 5) and Philadelphia (No. 6) were top defenses. But so were the Vikings (No. 3 now, No. 1 when Cutler faced them), and Cutler responded with a game that turned a good defense into a backdrop for his and Bears’ best game of the season.
Cutler was both a huge reason — teammates were effusive in praise of what his return from the five games lost to a thumb injury — and a huge recipient of what was the Bears’ best collaborate all-phase effort of the season.
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“We have a good locker room,” Cutler said. “We’ve got a great bunch of guys in there. It doesn’t matter who’s playing; I feel like everyone’s going to feel supported out there. Everyone’s got each other’s backs. Injured or not injured, whoever’s next up, we expect them to go out there and play.
“And that was the same case for me. Guys went out there, they played extremely hard, it was Monday Night Football. I feel like our backs were up against the wall a little bit and guys responded, which was awesome to see.”
The feelings “upstairs”
The 2016 season was expressly termed a prove-it year for Cutler, more so even than 2015 if only because this year is the last with guaranteed contract money for him. Those early games were without question working against his future lying in Chicago, the obvious reality is that Cutler was not going to be handed his job back from Hoyer any more than Tony Romo is going to be reinstalled automatically as the Dallas Cowboys starter over rookie Dak Prescott when healthy.
But broader perspectives are in play.
Whether John Fox likes or dislikes Cutler (Fox’s comments at last spring’s owners meetings, how Cutler had impressed him in 2015, suggested at the very least an open door and mind) should not be over-analyzed at this point. How Fox handled the Hoyer situation, making clear that a player performing very well was not going to lose a job, was exactly what a head coach should do: underscore that there is a culture of honest competition. When Fox welcomed Cutler back as the starter, the coach was again doing what a coach should do: express support for the player who was in place as the starter.
Indeed, one not unreasonable supposition would be that Hoyer’s play and Fox’s position statements were warning shots to Cutler, that he needed to keep the pedal down in the face of some doubt. Cutler has traditionally turned in some of his worst play in the wake of things like contract extensions, anointing as a “franchise” or “elite” quarterback, or a huge new contract.
Cutler was in the first of his true prove-it years in 2015 and the positive response bordered on the dramatic, by comparison. It was then-coordinator Adam Gase who had insisted on going with Cutler, and a defense-based head coach acceded to a major offensive-staff personnel preference.
After this season, it will be Loggains making the recommendation to Fox and GM Ryan Pace on quarterback direction. And Cutler is clearly impressing his coaches, with his play and his leadership, leading by example rather than rhetoric.
“I saw how involved he was, how into the preparation he was and that’s where it starts,” Loggains said. “The way he played on Monday night didn’t shock me. I expected that, just because of the way he prepared. That became contagious to his teammates. I think they followed his lead.”