Not ready for prime time
Cutler, Bears again suffer from Sunday night stage fright
Chicago could challenge for the NFC North, and if your imagination resembles Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are," the league crown. But it's looking more and more likely that this team will strain and stretch all season long. This is a team destined to make you say, "What if?" Sunday's game at Atlanta was seen as a chance for this Bears team to erase its previous national appearance, Cutler's four-interception Bears debut in the season opener at Green Bay. Instead, the 21-14 loss showed this team is still searching for its identity on offense and lacking any credibility in its running game.
Cutler, entering his prime in his third full season as a starter, has been pretty much as advertised, if you realized coming in that he had a big-time arm capable of self-destructing a few times per game, but was not the savior of the team. He looks like a Not Ready For Prime Time Player. That was a compliment in Chicago, back when "Saturday Night Live" raided Second City. In this case, though, it indicates his proclivity to throw interceptions, six in all, in two Sunday spotlight games. But it's not all his fault. Sure, he throws more red zone interceptions than anyone else, but when you don't have a big target or a running game, it limits your options.
A quarterback's best friends, aside from a good money manager to invest his wealth, are a reliable running game and a trustworthy safety valve.
Coming into this season, it was believed, by pretty much everyone, that Matt Forte and Greg Olsen would form the Three Amigos with Cutler, who would benefit from Forte's production and Olsen's big-play potential. Cutler's skills would then set Olsen free and provide ample running room for Forte, who is assuredly a marked man after his stellar rookie campaign.
So far, the fruition of that dream has been on par with Chicago's Olympic dreams. We'll get a velodrome on the West Side before Forte breaks a tackle, or so it seems.
Olsen has three touchdowns, but only 15 catches -- he had five for 57 yards Sunday. The big tight end had a handful of great plays late in the game, including a 41-yard catch on what looked like a skinny post, and a game-tying touchdown catch, and those plays only underscore his importance. He has been nearly invisible for long stretches this year, due to double-teams and the emergence of other threats like Johnny Knox, but he needs to keep being a key part of the offense.
The biggest positive surprise thus far on offense has been the emergence of the young wide receiving corps. Knox has been a revelation, Devin Hester a powerful weapon and Earl Bennett a reliable third option. But none of them is a "go up and get it" type of receiver, as Cutler infamously noted in the preseason about a poorly thrown jump ball to Hester. That is why the Bears split Olsen out wide and try to get him isolated in the end zone. Olsen is a great athlete ... for a tight end, but he's not exactly Terrell Owens in his prime. I thought Olsen would be most valuable running past linebackers and into the secondary as a safety valve for Cutler, but we haven't seen it yet, and the season is over a quarter old.
There are a lot of people, amateur analysts and backseat offensive coordinators mostly, who are wishing for the good ol' days of Kyle Orton, now that he's leading undefeated Denver. Not me. Sure, watching Cutler play is an exercise in hair-pulling, couch-slapping and forehead-smacking. Like any so-called gunslinger, you take the good with the bad, and if nothing else, Cutler provides the Bears with a chance to do something special every play, as there is nothing he can't accomplish on the football field. But he needs help, and he's not getting it from everywhere, especially the running game.
Maybe it's the fault of the offensive line, a patchwork crew if I've ever seen one, or maybe it's the play calling by Ron Turner, a familiar punching bag, but this offense doesn't have the continuity it needs to compete.
And it's not early anymore. This team has been practicing together since minicamp and spent a long summer month working out the kinks of an unfamiliar group. It's almost two months into the regular season, and I don't think anyone is happy with the way the offense is controlling things, starting with the principals involved.
Forte is learning why running backs don't last very long in the NFL, as he's struggled to gain solid footing in his second season, with 294 rushing yards through five games, and that's weighted by gaining 121 against lowly Detroit. He ran 15 times for 23 yards on Sunday, which is terrible by any estimation. His longest carry was 5 yards, though to be fair, there were four red jerseys surrounding him every time he got to the line of scrimmage. But his day could be best summed up by his rare fumbles in the second half.
"We didn't do enough to win the game," Forte told reporters, blaming himself for some mistakes.
At the goal line, with the Bears down 14-7 at the end of the third quarter, Forte fumbled twice, losing the second one. Line play certainly is playing a major role in the team's dismal running game, as defensive tackles and linebackers spend more time in Cutler's pocket than his iPhone. Coach Lovie Smith likes to use the old saw, "We get off the bus running," which is untrue this season, but I guess it sounds better than, "We get off the bus getting gang-tackled." Maybe Rod Marinelli should coach the O-line, as well.
I don't know if you can blame the line totally for the complete breakdown of the running game. The Bears came into the game with the third-worst rushing attack in the league, and the front office might have failed to compensate for the loss of backup Kevin Jones in the preseason, especially given the possibility that Forte wouldn't repeat his 2008 performance. Garrett Wolfe hasn't shown he can be a consistent NFL running back, and Adrian Peterson (a locker-room favorite) is banged up and, fair or not, has never gotten a chance to show he can be a regular threat beyond his special-teams role and spot duty.
The Bears didn't have the wealth of draft picks this year (though they wisely used the fifth-rounder they got from Denver to select Knox) to fish for a running back, but it's clear that will be addressed next offseason, along with, likely, some help at the line.
While Cutler has given the Bears the dimension they've lacked so clearly over the years, it hasn't translated into important statistics, like third-down conversions. Chicago came into the game tied for 21st in third-down conversions at 33.3 percent, tied with luminaries St. Louis and Washington, and ahead of the dregs of the NFL. The Bears went 9-for-16 on third down against Atlanta.
Cutler hooked up with Bennett for a 24-yard gain on third-and-25 on the team's final drive, but a false start on fourth-and-1 led to fourth-and-6, and Cutler couldn't find Desmond Clark across the middle. Game over.
Cutler is going to get his share of blame for this one, for his two picks, including that first-quarter one in the red zone, and deservedly so. But his failures in two Sunday night games can't be placed fully on his shoulders, without first assigning blame to a weak offensive line and a nonexistent running game.
It doesn't look like the Bears are running off the bus this season. At this point, I'd settle for a trot, a jog or a brisk pace. Any kind of movement will do.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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