I was 21 years old when the Bears traded for Jay Cutler in early April 2009. The seven and a half years that he’s been with the franchise account for more than a quarter of my time on Earth. So many important things have happened during those years: I’ve lived in four cities. I lost my father. I started a career. In a way, my relationship with Cutler as a Bears fan is among the longest relationships that I have.
The end of any relationship that long, even an unhealthy one, can be tough to reconcile. And when news came last week that Cutler is expected to miss the remainder of the 2016 season because of a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, I had to acknowledge that next fall — for the first time in almost a decade — there’s a strong chance that Cutler won’t be Chicago’s starting quarterback. With the Bears (2–9) in utter disarray and the team on the hook for just $2 million in dead money if it opts to release Cutler, it’s reasonable to assume that ownership may take a flamethrower to most of the organization. That includes the man who’s under center.
The epitaph for the Cutler era will likely carry the same tone as his persona: equal parts dismissive and contemptuous. His record as Chicago’s starter now sits at a cruelly appropriate 51–51. Among players with at least 3,000 pass attempts since 2009, only Ryan Fitzpatrick has a worse interception rate. In Cutler’s seven seasons, the team has the same number of playoff wins as it has playoff appearances: one.
For all of the negatives associated with the Cutler era, though, for all of the horrid interceptions and the sideline apathy, there’s a reason why the Bears stood by Cutler for as long as they did. Even when it was hard to defend Smokin’ Jay as a personality, it was possible to defend Cutler as a quarterback. At a time when teams are clamoring for competent QBs, a supremely talented but undeniably flawed asshole never felt like the worst-case scenario.
If Cutler’s time in Chicago is indeed nearing an end, Jay will be remembered for his ability to endlessly frustrate Bears’ fans. Looking back, it’s also apparent how close he was to being something more.
We all have days that stick with us, memories we can recall as easily as a DVR pulls up saved material. The day that the Bears landed Cutler — April 2, 2009 — is one of those for me.
I was sitting in the newsroom of my college paper, The Columbia Missourian, and for whatever reason, I wasn’t at the sports desk. I was about to grab lunch at the local pizza place, Shakespeare’s, but I refreshed ESPN.com just before packing my things. When the page loaded, a news alert was front and center, with flashing letters and a familiar orange logo. The Bears, it said, had just traded for Cutler.
That week had been full of reports about Cutler’s discontent in Denver. The Broncos, who’d selected Cutler with the no. 11 pick in the 2006 draft, had hired Josh McDaniels as head coach on the heels of an 8–8 campaign in 2008. The former Patriots offensive coordinator had reportedly tried to trade for New England backup Matt Cassel, and a rumor was circulating that it had enraged Cutler to the point of requesting a trade. It was petty, sure, but also at least partially responsible for my newfound excitement.
When I saw the news, I didn’t care why the trade happened, or how much the Bears would have to give up. (They parted with two first-round picks and a third-rounder.) Cutler was coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he threw for 4,526 yards — a full 1,500 yards and change more than Kyle Orton had passed for in Chicago. After two decades of searching, it felt like the Bears had finally found their quarterback of the future.
Before Cutler, Erik Kramer was the best QB the Bears had produced in my lifetime. Hell, from the time Brett Favre took over as Green Bay’s starter in 1992 until he left the franchise in 2008, Chicago trotted out 21 different starting QBs. It was hard not to smile when Henry Burris took home Grey Cup MVP honors for the Ottawa Redblacks last Sunday; he’s one of the names on that list, and though he made only a single start (in 2002), he’s hardly an outlier. Moses Moreno, who started one game in 1998, is probably the toughest pull of the group.
That pipeline of mediocrity was why the prospect of Cutler — a 25-year-old with a rocket launcher attached to his right shoulder — was enough to send Chicago fans into a collective frenzy. It felt like a turning point, a new age for a franchise that desperately needed it. Then he went 17-of-36 with four interceptions in his first start — against the hated Packers, no less. The Bears dropped their 2009 opener 21–15, and limped to a 7–9 finish.
Chicago’s offense was brutal during Cutler’s first three seasons in town (it was 28th, 28th, and 30th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, respectively), but given the team’s lackluster personnel, it’d be wrong to pin that all on the QB. He was sacked a league-high 52 times in 2010, 12 more than any other quarterback. Playing in offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s slow-developing scheme behind a line featuring free-agent miss Frank Omiyale at left tackle, first-round misstep Chris Williams at left guard, and rookie J’Marcus Webb at right tackle, Cutler was frequently tossed to the wolves.
Despite a bottom-feeding offense, the Bears managed to go 11–5 in 2010, riding the addition of Julius Peppers and the promotion of Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator to a date with Green Bay in the NFC championship game. After spraining his MCL in the third quarter, Cutler spent the rest of the game on the sideline, ceding quarterback duties to vastly unqualified backup Caleb Hanie. The outcry — from both former players and fans — was swift. Cutler was lampooned for his unwillingness to play through the pain, and the Bears fell to the Packers 21–14.
To anyone who saw what Cutler had been through earlier in the season — he was sacked a record nine times in the first half of a 17–3 loss to the Giants that October — the notion that he wasn’t tough seemed downright laughable. He’d spent the better part of four months pulling grass out of his face mask; I wasn’t to going start doubting him if he felt like he couldn’t play. Like it typically is with Cutler, though, defending him was complicated by the fact of his being Jay Cutler.
For seven years, Cutler seemed to make it his mission to ensure that rooting for him wasn’t easy. From blowing off coaches to berating teammates to … well, having the smuggest face imaginable, Cutler has done himself no favors. To be clear, I don’t think he gives a shit about all that. And I don’t really, either. Yet everything about Cutler’s aesthetic has made riding with him through the rough patches that much harder to rationalize. Even as the fan voice in my head grows softer with age, part of me understands why it was so hard for some to care about Cutler when he didn’t appear to care about anything at all.
The loss in the NFC title game was the first major what-if moment of Cutler’s tenure in Chicago, but it isn’t the one that haunts Bears fans most. In 2011, the team was 6–3 and on its way to a fifth consecutive win when wide receiver Johnny Knox slipped while running a slant route against the Chargers. Cutler’s pass was intercepted by Antoine Cason, who looked to have a clear path to the end zone before Cutler knocked him out of bounds. The QB suffered a broken thumb on the play, and as he missed the final six games, the Bears stumbled to an 8–8 finish.
Cutler’s numbers that year weren’t all that different than his stats in previous seasons, but that 10-game stretch remains his best with the Bears. (Though he had a great run with coordinator Adam Gase last fall, piloting a top-10 offense by DVOA with the likes of Josh Bellamy and Marc Mariani among his pass catchers.) A July 2011 trade that sent tight end Greg Olsen to the Panthers left Cutler with a receiving corps that included Knox, Roy Williams, and Earl Bennett. Still, Cutler made enough mind-bending throws to keep a sinking offense afloat.
Chicago’s defense was among the best in football in 2011, continuing a trend of the Bears’ nonoffensive units playing at a championship-caliber level under head coach Lovie Smith. But whether it was Cutler’s sprained knee, broken thumb, or on-field failings, the offense was never enough. And when Chicago fired Smith before the 2013 campaign and brought in Marc Trestman in an effort to jump-start the quarterback, the duo failed to catch hold in the way many had imagined. It was backup Josh McCown, replacing an injured Cutler, who enjoyed the most success under Trestman.
When the Trestman experiment eventually went haywire, the Bears hired John Fox (and as a result, Gase) to take the reins in 2015. Gase’s work with Cutler last season (when he led the NFL in passing DVOA under pressure) was that of an actual magician; but with his former coordinator now in Miami, Cutler’s 2016 season has been another slog.
Since Cutler arrived in Chicago, nine other QBs have started 100 games with one franchise: Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Matthew Stafford, and Joe Flacco. My first reaction to that is crushing sadness. As the Bears have toiled through a tortured existence, five quarterbacks on that list have won Super Bowls, and about half boast legitimate Hall of Fame cases.
Looking at some of the less-celebrated names there, though, is a useful way to understand both the reality and the tragedy of the Cutler era. For most of Flacco’s time in Baltimore, he hasn’t played appreciably better than Cutler has in Chicago, and both have hampered their franchises with onerous contracts. The difference is that Flacco’s deal came directly after a Super Bowl win. For one season, every factor necessary for a Flacco-led offense to capture a championship came to fruition. That never happened for Cutler, and regardless of everything else — the interceptions, the cigarettes, the pouting — that will remain a sticking point for those outside Chicago.
As for Bears fans, we’ll be left untangling Cutler’s legacy for a long time to come. I understand every choice that three separate front-office regimes made in both acquiring and retaining one of the more physically talented quarterbacks alive. I just wonder whether we’ll look back a decade from now and regret how many times we let ourselves fall back into Cutler’s web. Even without a firm sense of what the future holds, I know that I’m ready to guarantee it never happens again.