Commentary

Not quite ready for prime time

Long-awaited regular-season debut of Jay Cutler a flop

Originally Published: September 13, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- At the end of a comically Bearrific first half, Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo sat by himself in the back row of the Lambeau Field press box. His glasses were on the table, and he was still staring straight ahead, as if blurred vision and a good imagination could correct what he had just watched.

Angelo looked like a Las Vegas loser who put the mortgage on a hand of blackjack and pulled a 20, only to watch the dealer go 13, 15, 21.

More accurately, he looked like a guy who just bet his career on a guy who looked like Jay Cutler and played like Chad Hutchinson.

The Bears lost 21-15 Sunday night to a Green Bay Packers team that took advantage of Cutler's career-high four interceptions, outlasting their division rival in an ugly opener for both teams. If you're a fan of irony, this game was perfect. If you're a fan of the Bears, you probably threw your remote through your flat screen.

In truth, it was amazing the Bears had a slim lead with 2½ minutes left in the fourth, but they didn't deserve the victory. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and receiver Greg Jennings opened the door with a 50-yard score and Cutler slammed it shut with his fourth pick.

With just over a minute left, Cutler had a chance to redeem his miserable Bears debut. On the first play of the Bears final drive, he lined up under center, two receivers to his left, one to his right. His intended target was rookie speedster Johnny Knox on a short pass, but Knox tripped and fell as veteran defensive back Al Harris muscled in front of him and picked off Cutler. Game over.

This loss can't be totally pinned on Cutler, but it was a fitting and deserved end to his Chicago debut.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireWhen Jay Cutler had to improvise, it wasn't pretty.

"It's pretty simple what happened tonight," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Anytime you have four turnovers, you normally aren't going to win the football game."

It's tough to decipher what exactly went wrong without being inside the huddle. Were his receivers bailing early on routes, or running the wrong ones altogether? Was offensive coordinator Ron Turner calling bad plays? Is Dom Capers' 3-4 defense the real thing? Was it a combination of everything going wrong for a team that was seemingly headed in the right direction?

"It's still a learning process," Cutler said. "We haven't been together that long in game situations, so we're still learning. But that is no excuse for what happened out there."

There was no mistaking Cutler's culpability in the loss. Sid Luckman's estate should ban reporters from comparing Cutler to the Bears' last dynamic quarterback. Cutler, of course, will get better. He's certainly not the player that put on his No. 6 jersey on a muggy Wisconsin night. But now he's lost some of the benefit of the doubt.

He was throwing across his body to the middle of the field. His passes were almost as high as the Goodyear blimp. He was out of sync and out of sorts most of the night. In the first half, he was 8-for-22 for 127 yards, with 68 yards coming on one sideline bomb to Knox, which was followed by a very unlikely interception by defensive end Johnny Jolly. That was one of Cutler's three picks in the half.

"I'm sure the city of Chicago is disappointed," Cutler said. "I'm disappointed and we have 90 people in the locker room, players and coaches, who are disappointed."

"I don't think anyone would imagine we'd have a game like this," receiver Earl Bennett said. "We still had a chance, though."

Bennett got his first serious action after an invisible rookie year and caught seven passes for 66 yards from his college quarterback. Cutler finished the game 17-for-36 for 277 yards, with one touchdown.

Cutler showed he can make a few amazing throws, a few good throws and a few truly horrific ones. There was one stretch in the first quarter when it looked like he had no business being on a football field, culminating in his first interception of the night. He missed Bennett twice badly, nearly getting picked off, and then gifted a pass to Packers safety Nick Collins at the Packers' 12. Green Bay didn't score but the Bears should have.

"That is what this defense is designed to do," Harris said. "We won the game."

Before Harris picked off Cutler to end it, the stage was set for the quarterback to find some kind of heroic redemption. Early in the third quarter, he connected with Devin Hester just like you draw it up. Hester ran right past Charles Woodson down the right sideline and Cutler lofted a perfect deep pass that Hester caught in stride as he crossed the goal line. The Bears were within one at 10-9.

[+] EnlargeDevin Hester
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe touchdown pass to Devin Hester gave a glimpse of what Bears fans wanted. But just a glimpse.

The play was important for more than just the score. In 2008, quarterback Kyle Orton completed only one pass thrown more than 30 yards in the air, and that was in the season finale (to be fair, he threw only 11). But the long bombs just highlighted how poorly Cutler and receivers connected on broken plays and a variety of shorter routes. The Bears' passing game looked stilted and uneven. Maybe that's to be expected given a new quarterback and an inexperienced receiving corps. (Cutler's soul mate of a tight end, Greg Olsen, caught his only pass midway through the fourth quarter.)

In a game that was supposed to match two high-powered offenses, the Packers were almost as disappointing. Then again, they won.

"We lost the game," Smith said. "It's hard to say anybody played well. None of us played well. The Packers played well."

It's important to remind yourself that Cutler didn't come out of the gloaming, like a modern day Roy Hobbs. He has a past and a record, and for all the promise riding on the cannon attached to his right shoulder, the reality of Cutler's brief tenure in Denver did nothing to promulgate a surefire Super Bowl appearance.

The reality is the Bears are 0-1 in a 16-game season, with the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers coming to town and a tough away game in Seattle following that. The reality is the Bears got exposed as an offensively confused team. The reality is that there is no white knight coming to the Bears' eternal rescue.

"We're a good football team," Smith said. "We're a good football team that didn't take care of business tonight."

If you say it enough, maybe it will come true.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE NFL HEADLINES