Commentary

Cutler taking fans' expectations in stride

Quarterback knows keeping perspective is key

Originally Published: August 5, 2009
By Jerry Bonkowski | ESPNChicago.com

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJay Cutler knows expectations are high, but he's taking it all in stride.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. --There's no question Jay Cutler is the most talented quarterback the Bears have had since Jim McMahon.

After all, it's not as if Pro Bowl quarterbacks grow on trees. Nor is it every day that a team can lure away such a lofty talent from an opposing team, as the Bears did in obtaining Cutler from Denver in early April.

And with Cutler having grown up in Santa Claus, Ind. (yes, there really is a town with that name in the southern part of the Hoosier State), Bears fans are excitedly thinking the fourth-year NFL veteran might have some big presents in store for them, including several Super Bowl victories in the offing.

But as talented as Cutler is, history hasn't been kind to Bears fans when it comes to quarterbacks meeting high expectations.

Do names such as Steve Walsh Cade McNown, Rex Grossman, Shane Matthews, Kordell Stewart, Erik Kramer, Rick Mirer, Brian Griese, Jim Miller, Danny Wuerffel, Dave Krieg, Steve Stenstrom, Kyle Orton and Chad Hutchinson ring a bell?

How many quarterbacks have come to the Bears through the draft, in trades or as heralded free agents, only to never quite live up to a team QB legacy set by greats such as McMahon, Sid Luckman, Bill Wade and Johnny Lujack?

Still, all you have to do is read fan blogs or listen to local sports radio talk shows to understand the level of excitement Bears fans have about Cutler and what he'll bring to the team.

"I don't think you temper that at all," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "You go to 31 other camps, they're saying the same thing. We want them to think that way. We in Chicago, that's what you start the season with, fans should be pumped up about that. But like I said, every camp in America right now is saying the same thing, and that's all good for 'em all."

Since Bears GM Jerry Angelo pulled off the huge coup to obtain Cutler earlier this year, there has been a buzz and vibe among fans about Cutler becoming nothing short of a Superman with the Bears.

When, in reality, he's just a very talented 26-year-old quarterback who should make the Bears a better, more productive and successful team.

The operative word is "should."

"Jay is an All-Pro quarterback," Smith said. "He has a lot of confidence in his ability, and normally guys with confidence, you see that, and that's what he's doing -- when you know what you're doing and you feel like you're a good football player."

But what if, for whatever reason, Cutler joins the list of predecessors who fell short of expectations? What if the Bears' offense is picked apart by opposing defenses and the team starts off 0-8 or something like that?

And, what if, God forbid, a player who has fortuitously avoided injury for his entire high school, collegiate and pro career, is suddenly sidelined for days, weeks or even months?

What happens to the Bears then? Are they putting way too much stock into just one man? Is there an adequate backup plan in place, just in case?

Will backup QBs Caleb Hanie or Brett Basanez, both second-year players signed as free agents, be able to pick up where Cutler left off if they're called upon?

The prospect of not having even one tried-and-true veteran QB on the bench as a backup is troubling, especially given that Basanez has thrown just 11 passes for 56 yards in his pro career (with Carolina) and Hanie has yet to see action in a regular-season game in his brief pro career (although he did complete 29 of 49 passes for 321 yards, 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in last year's preseason).

Cutler is well aware of the what-ifs, but he won't allow them to be a distraction.

"[The fans are] excited and I think this whole team is excited, but we have to keep things under control as a team and realize this is a 16-game season and there's going to be ups and downs, we're going to have injuries at some key positions," Cutler said after practice Wednesday.

"We just have to keep everything in perspective and realize this is camp, we have to get certain things done here, then get through the preseason and get some work done as far as concentrating on that first game," Cutler added. "And then, as the season builds, we'll start looking forward."

The comparisons between Cutler and McMahon are inevitable. Even Cutler's teammates see it.

"If he's a good guy and teammate like McMahon was, who really didn't care about what people said about him and had a swagger, yes, then I can see the comparisons," Bears defensive tackle Adewale Ogunleye said. "I know we've got a good guy."

But at the same time, Ogunleye makes it clear that although Cutler is a huge addition to the team, he's not necessarily the savior many fans have projected him to be, either.

"We've gone to the Super Bowl without a Pro Bowl quarterback before," Ogunleye said. "We know what it takes; it's not just one person that's going to have to do it.

"It's going to have to be a team effort and I think we have the right guys in place, and with the addition of Jay, he's kind of in the same mold of us: hardworking, goes out there and has a swagger about himself that's going to help us go a long way."

Cutler certainly has the numbers to warrant the enthusiasm and optimism, having thrown for more than 9,000 yards and 54 touchdowns in 2 seasons as a starter with the Broncos.

"It pumps everyone up when you have a guy like that," Smith said. "We harp on [the Chicago defense] getting takeaways, taking the ball back and giving the offense as many opportunities as we can, knowing they have a guy like Jay that's about scoring and hopefully it'll help us score more."

Cutler will be the first to admit he has been blessed with some good fortune, particularly when it comes to injuries.

"I've been lucky," he says.

But all he needs to do is look at what happened to McMahon to see how fleeting fame can be. Just six games into the 1986 season, after having taken the Bears to victory in Super Bowl XX the season before, McMahon suffered a season-ending separated shoulder when he was viciously body-slammed to the turf by Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Charles Martin after the play was whistled dead. McMahon would never be the same for the remainder of his career.

"You have to work hard in the offseason, and you have to get lucky once in a while," Cutler said. "You never know when that injury is going to come or if it will come. The offensive line has to keep me upright, and I've got all the confidence in the world in them doing that. And, knock on wood, that we make it through 16 games."

But although he's cognizant that injuries could derail his tenure in Chicago, he blocks the prospect out of his mind, just as Smith and the rest of the Bears do, for fear of jinxing their new multimillion-dollar quarterback.

"I just know there's a lot of excitement this year," Smith said. "After finishing [last] season with a bad taste in our mouths, everyone is anxious for football and you have high hopes."

And try not to think about the what-ifs.

Jerry Bonkowski is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

ALSO SEE