There were plenty of questions following the Bears' season-opening loss to the Houston Texans.
Can Kevin White play? And can he play with Jay Cutler?
Can Cody Whitehair be an NFL center and do silent counts with Josh Sitton?
Why didn’t John Fox challenge one Houston third-down conversion?
After matching its second-worst conversion-allowed rate (60 percent) from last year, can the defense get off the field on third downs?
But the performance that will bear most heavily on the Bears’ 2016 season — and beyond — lay with the player who threw the ball that White failed to get in the way of, the one who didn’t get Whitehair’s snap on the failed first-quarter quarterback sneak: Cutler.
Consider that White, Whitehair, Sitton — even Fox — aren’t going anywhere after this season. The Bears don’t want to be moving on from Cutler, either, but that’s kind of up to Cutler.
And teammates don’t want to see Cutler going anywhere but down the field. He was elected one of the co-captains on offense, and his stock in the locker room is solid, even given his turnover history.
“I’d rather have a gunslinger who’s going to try to make a play, rather than a guy who’s just going to stand back there, pat the ball and take sacks,” linebacker Jerrell Freeman told CSNChicago.com. “I like a guy who’s willing to try to make plays.”
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So do the Bears. But more even than 2015, the 2016 season is Cutler’s prove-it year.
This is the last season in which the Bears have any guaranteed money tied up in Cutler. With the Bears debating a roster decision last March that committed $10 million this year, chairman George McCaskey said last year that money would not dictate decisions. But interestingly perhaps, Cutler’s money situation now could swing from burden to bargain.
The Bears looked at options in the 2015 offseason and draft, if not actively shopping Cutler, but their ideal situation would be for his level of play to take another tick upward, given that the Bears have him under contract at a very favorable $15 million for 2017 and $16 million for 2018.
Adam Gase was a driving force behind staying the Cutler course last year after he made exhaustive inquiries with numerous previous Cutler coaches. Gase came to understand from those phone calls that Cutler’s issues were never his talents but rather his decision-making, which Gase and then-quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains hammered in on.
Gase is now the head coach in Miami, and the next-stage handling of Cutler falls to Loggains and current quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone. Early indications are that the lessons of 2015 were not false-positives. Cutler followed his interception-free preseason with the one interception at Houston, which he took responsibility for but was not his mistake. He threw the one White-induced pick, getting sacked five times (13 total hits). Once upon a time (in a 2009 game at San Francisco), Cutler threw five interceptions and wasn't sacked at all, hit a total of three times.
Cutler’s first half vs. Houston was exemplary: 10-of-13 passing for 156 yards, a touchdowns and a 141.8 passer rating. The offense had at least one first down on four of its five possessions.
The second half? Not so good: 6-of-16 passing, zero touchdowns, the one interception and a 22.9 rating, with either a sack of Cutler or an offensive penalty on five of the Bears’ six possessions.
Some of the hits on Cutler came when he held the ball, which happens when quarterbacks don’t completely trust their receivers, or got happy feet, which happens when quarterbacks don’t trust their protection. Not to absolve Cutler of all responsibility, but this was a situation where it is unlikely that even channeling his inner Tom Brady, Cutler could have taken the team on his back and carried it to victory.
That said, those times will come, even as early as next Monday night at Soldier Field. Cutler, who once appeared to struggle more in night games, is now a career 10-5 on Mondays. With his team in extreme need of a win to right the season, this is Cutler’s chance to begin proving it.