Commentary

Gut-check time for Lovie

Coach must show players everyone is accountable for miserable season

Originally Published: November 15, 2009
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

If he were any other quarterback, Jay Cutler would have been benched by now.

But when you've invested what the Chicago Bears have invested in him -- not much, just the franchise's future -- then you're stuck with the human interception machine.

Or are you?

[+] EnlargeLovie Smith
Kyle Terada/US PresswireIf Jay Cutler can't get it together quickly, Bears coach Lovie Smith will face a painful question.

Is there any chance Bears coach Lovie Smith would do the unthinkable? Would he have the courage to pull Cutler from the lineup if Cutler throws, say, a first-half pick or two against the Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday night? Would Smith risk losing what's left of his football credibility by saying he's seen enough of Cutler's interceptions, of forced throws into triple coverage, of red zone meltdowns?

Doubtful. Smith is a company man, and the company bet everything on Cutler. It bet the foreseeable future on him by giving up first- and third-round picks in 2009, a first-round pick in 2010 and starting quarterback Kyle Orton. It bet $50 million in salary on him through 2013. It bet entire marketing campaigns on him.

And here's what the Bears have to show for it: a 4-5 record, 17 league-leading Cutler interceptions and almost zero chance of reaching the playoffs.

Cutler was 17-20 as a starter for the Denver Broncos before he whined his way to a trade. He's sub-.500 with the Bears. He never led the Broncos to the postseason, and it doesn't look like he'll get the Bears there this year. So maybe none of his win-loss numbers are a coincidence.

He had 18 interceptions in 616 attempts during his 2008 Pro Bowl season. He already has 17 INTs in 338 attempts in 2009. That means he's completed only 13 fewer passes to the opposition than he has to Bears rookie sensation Johnny Knox.

Yet Cutler will be the starting quarterback when the Bears face the Eagles at Soldier Field next Sunday night. Uh-oh. Cutler's worst games as a Bear have come at night: four interceptions against Green Bay, two against Atlanta, five against San Francisco. All losses, by the way.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesFive of Cutler's 17 interceptions this season have come inside the 20-yard line. The Bears can't afford to have a quarterback who keeps giving away red zone points.

The Bears have no margin of error left in their season. They can't afford to keep playing a quarterback who thinks arm strength can overcome triple coverage and who keeps giving away red zone points. Five of Cutler's 17 interceptions have come inside the 20. If you're keeping count -- and The Denver Post's Mike Klis has done exactly that -- Cutler has thrown a combined eight red zone interceptions in his past 14 games.

Meanwhile, Orton, who was kicked to the curb by the Bears, has thrown two in 42 career starts. Before suffering an ankle injury late in the first half of Sunday's game against Washington, Orton had a pair of touchdown passes. He has 11 TDs for the season and only four interceptions. Cutler: 14/17.

If Cutler struggles again, Smith needs to pull him. For a series. A quarter. A half. The rest of the game. Whatever. But he has to do something. Insanity? No -- it's a necessity.

Last month, Smith benched Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris against Cincinnati. Cornerback Nathan Vasher lost his starting job earlier in the season. Linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer lost his starting job last season. Quarterback Rex Grossman lost his job early in the 2007 season. Why shouldn't Cutler be held to the same performance standards?

I know Cutler is the franchise quarterback. I know backup Caleb Hanie has a grand total of one NFL completion for 3 yards. But if Smith wants to send a message that everyone, including Cutler, is accountable for his play, he has to do more than blather on about it in his postgame monotone-athon.

Cutler has two four-plus-interception games this season. He has four games with two or more interceptions. He's been penalized and later fined for chirping at officials. And you don't need Rosetta Stone learning software to read his body language. Cutler has cornered the market on brooding.

At some point, you have to ask a bizarre question: Did the Bears get taken by the 6-3 Broncos? Seriously.

[+] EnlargeKyle Orton
Geoff Burke/US PresswireBefore injuring his ankle late in the first half of Sunday's game vs. the Redskins, Orton threw two touchdown passes.

Right now, the answer is yes -- and not just because the Bears need a Lysol bath to hide the odor of their record. Since Cutler's arrival, the Bears have abandoned their identity. They weren't a great rushing team in 2008, but now they're worse, averaging about 20 yards less a game in 2009. And Matt Forte's rushing attempts have decreased by about four per game. Scoring is also down about three points per game from 2008.

Cutler and his right arm changed the dynamic of the Bears' offense. Its personality went from run to pass. Problem is, it isn't equipped for the change. The offensive line gives up too many sacks. The receiving corps lacks a true No. 1 option. And then there's Cutler, who keeps making the same mind-numbing mistakes.

If New York Yankees starter CC Sabathia stinks it up, he gets pulled. If Chicago Blackhawks goalie Cristobal Huet stinks it up, he gets pulled. If Cutler stinks it up, he gets a contract extension. And the Bears get another loss.

It's time for Cutler to quit imitating Brady Quinn. And if he doesn't, if he keeps throwing more game-killing interceptions, then it's time for Smith to quit acting like a company man.

Cutler isn't going anywhere. Neither is Smith, who has $11 million and two years left on his contract extension. The Bears could easily afford to fire him, but they won't. That's because team president Ted Phillips has a history of squeezing pennies so hard that Abe Lincoln needs a respirator.

So Smith has a decision to make. He can keep Cutler in the lineup, no matter how many times Cutler throws to the wrong team. Or he can risk angering Cutler by calling him out or pulling him out -- even for just one attention-getting play. And he risks angering team management, which is married to Cutler for better or worse.

You'll get your answer the next time Cutler ends another Bears drive with an interception. But I'm guessing nothing changes. Cutler will stay on the field.

Smith's double standard will stay there, too.

Gene Wojciechowski is a columnist for ESPN.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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