Commentary

McNabb's trials hold lessons for Cutler

Mount Carmel graduate has gone through a lot while in Philadelphia

Originally Published: November 19, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Jay Cutler doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would go for therapy.

But if he ever wanted to bend a professional's ear, the perfect guy rolls into town this weekend.

Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb should put out a Lucy Van Pelt booth (metaphorically, of course) and charge a nickel (or $5,000) for quarterback psychotherapy.

After all, how many 11-year veterans have been through as much as the Mount Carmel graduate?

[+] EnlargeDonovan McNabb
Jimn Luzzi/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesDonovan McNabb has been through a lot since playing for Mount Carmel.

Let's run down an abbreviated list of highlights and lowlights of his professional career: Getting booed on draft day by Eagles fans; leading his team to five NFC Championship Games (and yet winning only one of them); going to five Pro Bowls; setting team records in every important passing statistic; becoming the NFL's all-time leader in interception percentage; throwing three picks and being accused of puking in the huddle, while failing miserably at clock management during a Super Bowl loss in 2005; having his mom star in soup ads; fighting with Terrell Owens; forgetting the rules of overtime; and on it goes.

That makes Cutler demanding a trade from Denver seem kind of boring, doesn't it?

This year, starting only seven games because of a rib injury, McNabb has compiled a mid-90s quarterback rating, but completed only 48 percent of his passes in a 13-9 loss to Oakland, and threw two picks and took three sacks in a 20-16 loss to Dallas two weeks ago. The Eagles are still in the playoff hunt, but this is a must-win game for them too.

It's been a wild ride for McNabb, and while he's never struggled in a season quite like Cutler, he would have some advice for the 26-year-old who has never made the postseason and has had a roller-coaster career.

"I've had games where I don't play well as expected, or as I prepared to," McNabb said Wednesday. "I think every quarterback goes through it. Thing about it is, have [the] confidence [to] pull yourself out and things will turn for the better. But I think the group of guys he has around him … everyone will try to elevate their game to take a little bit pressure off him, and try to get him going."

On the surface, McNabb is cool and collected, while Cutler is young and sulky. Cutler could learn a lot from McNabb, especially with McNabb's ability to read a defense and not throw interceptions.

Cutler has better numbers this year, partially because McNabb was out for two games. Cutler is ahead in yards (2,353 to 1,685), completion percentage (62.4 percent to 60.1) and touchdowns (14 to 12), but where the two differ is in execution. Cutler has thrown 17 picks, four more than McNabb has ever thrown in a full season. Then again, McNabb rarely commits a turnover, unless, of course, it's in a Super Bowl.

Playing in coach Andy Reid's pass-happy system, McNabb is second all-time in touchdown/interception ratio. The Eagles, while only a game better than the Bears at 5-4 and hardly an elite offensive team, are scoring at a 91.3 percent clip in the red zone this season, compared with 70 percent for the Bears, who have been hurt by Cutler interceptions in that all-important area.

"Jay's play? He's an aggressive guy," McNabb said. "He always has confidence that he can get the ball into tight situations and give his guys the opportunity to make plays. Sometimes, that's costly for you; sometimes it's great for you. A lot [his interceptions] could be decision-making, some could be just poor judgment. And the list goes on. Overall, you want your quarterback to be aggressive and play aggressive and have the confidence they can make every throw."

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesMcNabb has given Cutler a vote of confidence, saying the Bears quarterback will "be fine."

McNabb has been linked to Cutler's job before, as recently as this past January, even after the Eagles publicly stated he would be back for this season. With Cutler on board, the rumors have obviously ceased, right?

"Ha-ha, that'll never stop," McNabb said, noting he loves coming home to play.

In the summer of 2007, a few months after the Chicago Bears got drilled in the Super Bowl, and the Eagles spent a second-round draft pick on Houston quarterback Kevin Kolb, outspoken defensive tackle Tommie Harris was at McNabb's camp and was asked if he'd like McNabb to be the Bears quarterback.

"Donovan is a great guy, he's a positive guy," Harris was quoted as saying. "And I'd love to have him as my quarterback in Chicago. I know if he comes to the Chicago Bears, we'd win the Super Bowl."

Thousands of sullen Eagles fans probably spit out their Cheerios when they read that quote. After all, McNabb, while popular, had just choked in the Super Bowl. Despite all of his success, McNabb is alternately loved and hated by a hard-core fan base that booed him on draft day when Philadelphia drafted him over Ricky Williams.

Would the Bears be better off with McNabb, who turns 33 years old next week, than Cutler? In the short term, probably, because he doesn't commit turnovers. But what could this Bears team accomplish with McNabb? Cutler is the much better choice, because he represents the future of the franchise. In the next few years, I'd bet a Lou Malnati's deep dish that Cutler's offense and his supporting cast are vastly improved to give him a better chance to succeed.

"Jay's going to be all right, Jay's going to be fine," McNabb said. "There's still a long season ahead of us and you know, I look forward to good things happening in Philly and I'm sure he's looking for the same things in Chicago."

For now, Cutler has had a first season to forget in Chicago. Sure, the Underground is fun, but Cutler was brought here to be the next Sid Luckman, not the next Billy Dec.

The fans and the media have taken turns cooing in Cutler's ear and battering him like a pinata. Heck, our own Gene Wojciechowski wrote that he would rather see Caleb Hanie in there if Cutler has another five-interception game. I disagree, but I see his point.

McNabb himself was benched for a half last season, and it was major news.

"Nobody wants to be benched," McNabb said. "I'm sure you guys don't want to be pulled from writing your great articles that you guys write, be on suspension for a week or two. Then you'd probably be outside, taking old papers and sitting on the bench drinking coffee and feeling like nobody loved you."

Reid had a less colorful response to questions about how hard it was to bench a franchise quarterback.

"I'm not going to go there," he said. "I know kind of the direction you're going here. I'm not going to get into all of that. Go to the next question."

Benching a franchise quarterback is a tricky situation. If you do it in a blowout, it's no big deal. Just postgame fodder. But one reporter asked Cutler if he would've benched himself after his fourth interception last week in a 10-6 loss to San Francisco. His fifth pick came in the end zone as he rushed a throw for the win.

"No," Cutler said. "I wouldn't bench myself."

Cutler took the blame for the picks and said he needs to learn to accept kicking field goals deep in the red zone. He admits he has a lot of work to do, but he needs to be on the field to do it.

With seven games left and the goal of a winning record within reach, everyone needs to remember those fateful words from Lovie, slightly amended: Jay is our quarterback.

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.