Over the holiday, I was back in Chicago for the first time since the start of football season. Amid all the eating and drinking, there was plenty of time in the car, and with that came the chance to hear Chicago sports radio. I made a handful of long drives over the course of those few days, and each time the radio was on, the programming was the same — a re-airing of that week’s "Jay Cutler Show."
Each week (excluding those after a concussion), Cutler joins the "Waddle & Silvy" show on ESPN 1000 for an hour, and from what I gather, the segment is immensely popular. All of my Bears-fan friends are regular listeners, and considering the station was content to let it run for what seemed like three days, I imagine those friends are a representative sample. They tune in because, much like watching Cutler play football, just about anything can happen. Sunday’s Bears game against the Vikings was a perfect example.
Late in the first quarter, with the Bears up 7-3 and driving again, Cutler dropped back to pass. With no one open, he pulled the ball down and scrambled to his left. He managed about seven yards down the left sideline before ending the play with a stiff arm to the helmet of cornerback A.J. Jefferson. As he gathered himself out of bounds, Cutler then flipped the ball at Jefferson before starting his jog back to the huddle. The flag flew in, and what had been a positive play now had the Bears moving backward.
With less than two minutes left in that same half, the Bears now up 18-3, Cutler, rolling and then drifting to his left, let a first-down throw loose into the tiniest of windows on the left side of the end zone. Tight end Matt Spaeth made an incredible play hauling it in, but that Cutler was willing to make the throw, let alone was able to complete it, was the most improbable part of the sequence. Cutler ended the second quarter yesterday 15-of-17 for 117 yards, and after what’s become a trademark rocky start, the Bears led 25-3.
Those two plays are the Cutler narrative we’ve known since his arrival in town — a mix of hard-to-match flashes of talent and hard-to-understand levels of *******ry. Yesterday was no different, as he blended a few masterful throws with the downright bizarre (tying J’Marcus Webb’s shoe in the huddle during the fourth quarter).
Sometime in that first half though, I thought about a joke I’d made to a few friends during the previous week’s Monday-night blowout in San Francisco. Considering what happened against the Niners, and what happened over the final six games of last season, is Jay Cutler the most valuable player in the NFL? The answer, of course, would seem to be “no.” In 10 games this season, Cutler has a passer rating of 81.1. But what determines the definition of value? In football, the array of injuries provides the occasional chance to find out just how good or bad a team is without a certain player. There’s no way to determine how much the Heat would suffer without LeBron James because they’re never without him, but with Cutler, and with many quarterbacks, we’ve gotten that chance.
The facts are as such: In the past three seasons, the Bears are 25-10 with Jay Cutler. Without him, they’re 2-6, and one of those wins came in a game in which Todd Collins went 6-for-16 with 32 yards and four interceptions. Cutler’s value isn’t in throwing for 400 yards and a handful of touchdowns. It’s in allowing the Bears to be who they want to be. The most impressive play Cutler made yesterday wasn’t the touchdown pass to Spaeth. It was a throw to Brandon Marshall that came after sliding to his left, avoiding two rushers, and finally running back to his right before letting it go and earning a pass interference call in the end zone. All we had to learn about the state of the Bears’ offensive line (and this is before yesterday’s injuries), we learned while Aldon Smith was pumping up his sack lead last Monday night. Like Aaron Rodgers can with T.J. Lang and Marshall Newhouse, Cutler hid Webb and Gabe Carimi the best he could. Now, with that questionable offensive line in tatters, the task becomes even greater, and Bears fans will be watching as intently as ever. Because our fascination with Jay Cutler isn’t the product of his status as an enigma. It’s a product of us knowing just how valuable he really is.