Commentary

Cutler's night troubles raise questions

Some wonder if quarterback's diabetes plays a part

Updated: November 21, 2009, 1:30 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

The look on Hunter Hillenmeyer's face reflected either a bad question or a bad reaction to lunch.

But given the question that prompted his disgust -- did he feel the Bears' struggles in night games this season were merely a coincidence? -- maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise. Players do not like to acknowledge things they cannot control, much less a factor every team must face, often multiple times a season. Throw in the fact that the Bears are 0-3 this season in prime time going into Sunday night's game against the Philadelphia Eagles -- and that of their 12 night games since their Super Bowl appearance nearly three years ago, they have gone 5-7 -- and it's easy to see why it's something of a raw nerve.

The Bears could take some solace in the fact that the Eagles have been worse, losing nine of their past 12 prime-time games, and are 0-7 all-time on NBC, which will carry Sunday night's game at Soldier Field.

Both teams can only hope the NFL isn't one day offered a sweet deal to play on Wednesday nights. Or hey! Why not on Tuesdays even, when players would be forced to submerge their bodies in ice baths between plays?

The theories as to why some teams don't perform as well at night are as varied as players on the field. While some prefer the routine of playing every game Sunday at noon, there are just as many who enjoy sleeping in. For a night game like the Bears-Eagles, players on both teams will spend much of the day Sunday as NFL fans everywhere will: laying around and watching football.

Although that might not be conducive to being very sharp come kickoff time, it is at least a level playing field, as both teams have to deal with the same elements. West Coast teams could argue that it's usually tougher on them, such as when Arizona came to Chicago two weeks ago for a noon start, 10 a.m. by their body clocks.

But in our zest for overanalysis of a local nature, it's tough to ignore how playing under the lights has specifically affected the Bears' starting quarterback, who has thrown 11 of his league-leading 17 interceptions at night, including five against San Francisco in the Bears' previous game Nov. 12.

Jay Cutler is 4-9 in his career under the lights, but was not quite as repulsed as Hillenmeyer when asked about it.

"That's how it's rolled so far," he said. "It doesn't really matter to me what time we play. A game is a game. It's just how it's gone this year."

While we have puzzled over the various reasons why Cutler is, after nine games, just one pick shy of his total for all of last season, some have wondered if perhaps Cutler's diabetes has played a part or made it any more difficult for him to perform at night.

Jay Leeuwenburg, an offensive lineman for the Bears from 1992-95 and a nine-year NFL veteran who coauthored the book "Yes I Can! Yes You Can! Tackle Diabetes and Win!" about playing with the same Type 1, insulin-dependent diabetes as Cutler, said it was a challenge adjusting to weeks in which schedules and game times changed.

"For me, it took a long time, not until my fourth or fifth year, that I felt comfortable with all the different start-time schedules and what I had to do for a 4 p.m. kickoff as opposed to a Sunday day game or a Sunday night game," he said. "It's possible [Cutler] hasn't played enough games to where he has the routine down."

But while some diabetics experience difficulties with night vision or controlling their blood-sugar levels more at night, Leeuwenburg stressed that everyone with the disease is different. "It's like saying that all vegetarians eat the same, and that's not the case," he said. "Everyone manages the disease in a different manner.

"There are also so many different variables and different symptoms for everyone if they have low or high blood sugars. I could have low blood sugar and my symptoms could be that I shake or it's hard for me to concentrate. Jay's symptoms could be his eyesight is off. It's so individualized, you don't know. When I played, I prided myself on being one of the most physically fit players, so when I was winded when after a series, I knew I had to check my blood sugar.

"And even if Jay has to miss a series or even a half, it doesn't mean he's not going to be able to come back and play great the next week. It's a day-to-day disease."

Leeuwenburg, 40, was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 12 and never missed a down in nine years while making 137 starts. He is now a third-grade teacher in Colorado. He is checked regularly for diabetes-related eye conditions, but even after nearly 30 years with the disease he has not had any major problems.

Cutler, who was diagnosed a little more than a year and a half ago, has said he checks his blood sugar four or five times before the game and usually pricks his finger every time he comes off the field as well, especially in the first half. He adjusted well last season in Denver, his first after being diagnosed. But all diabetics have to be ever-vigilant.

"You can have the best doctors in the world and the only way they have a clue is based on what you've told them," Leeuwenburg said. "You have to be the one who manages your disease. And every day Jay practices and goes through games, not only is he maturing as a football player, he's maturing as a person living with the disease."

Chances are the offensive line's problems, poor route-running by his receivers and lapses in judgment in the red zone have been responsible for Cutler's interceptions. Just like inadequate gap control, careless tackling, foolish penalties and overall inconsistency by the entire team have led to their problems in night games, as they have all season.

"It was always a bone of contention of mine that if I gave up a sack, it was, 'Is it because he's having a low blood sugar day?'" Leeuwenburg said. "No, it was because my technique sucked on that play. My guess is that Jay just didn't play particularly well on those nights."

He's in good company there.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.