- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Jay Cutler doesn't have to tackle Michael Vick this Sunday, so consider him lucky. But if Vick goes off and Cutler combusts, the Bears quarterback will have to deal with the comparisons and the putdowns.
Will that hurt more?
Vick has reintroduced himself to the National Football League and the sporting world as the do-everything quarterback we salivated over at Virginia Tech after an unimaginable turn of events that saw him morph from inconsistent quarterback to reviled felon to comeback story.
Vick is one of the few players you would pay to watch for his own aesthetic, visceral beauty.
Cutler is the guy with the big arm and the big frown; the multimillion-dollar contract and the nickel-and-dime resume. He's the guy you pay to watch screw up, schadenfreude in a helmet.
Vick and Cutler, two of the league's most talented, enigmatic and criticized talents, match up this weekend at Soldier Field in a must-see battle of first-place, 7-3 teams.
This isn't a must win for either team, though with six games left, a victory would be much appreciated and bring it with some authority.
It's also a chance to see which quarterback, one nearly destroyed by problems of his own making and the other trying to work his way out of a career-long morass, can lead his team past difficult defenses and into the driver's seat of the NFC.
While Vick is the It Quarterback once again, Cutler remains the What's His Deal Quarterback. No one knows what to make of him.
The Eagles quarterback is at the apex of his redemption story. He's got the cover of Sports Illustrated and coming off two prime-time division wins. He's the highest-rated quarterback in the NFL, and despite missing three-plus games, he's an MVP candidate.
Instead of atrophying after 19 months in the can and two entire seasons out of the game, Vick has never been better at an old 30. It's truly remarkable.
Even before he got busted for his role in a dog-fighting ring, Vick was a lot like Cutler, whose talent didn't always match up with reputation or results.
Vick's bugaboo was not working hard enough to prepare. Cutler's preparation has never been an overt problem.
"It was pretty much me," Vick said in his conference call with Chicago media.
"You have to have the desire to want to be great. Your coaches can only talk to you about it and inform you about things you can or can't do. It's up to you at the end of the day. Basically, I didn't take advantage of the time I had and opportunities I had. I had to start from ground zero."
While the Eagles look to be a Super Bowl favorite out of the NFC, the Bears are just trying to keep pace with Green Bay atop the NFC North. And for Cutler, he's looking to burnish a reputation that has, at times, had him compared to Jeff George.
It's silly to use words like "legacy" to describe a 27-year-old quarterback (he's really only three years younger than Vick?) but Cutler's career albatross is the lack of a winning season. We've harped on it ad nauseum, but Cutler hasn't been on a winning team since his schoolboy career in Indiana. If he doesn't lead the Bears to one this year, the questions and assumptions will only grow and grow, even if it's not all his fault.
His season has been interesting as he adapts to yet another new offense while playing behind a porous offensive line.
He's had great games, horrible games and a lot of in-between. His interceptions are down from last year -- only two multipick games -- but he's not taking as many shots downfield. He's running more, which is nice to see, especially considering how many shots he took early in the season. In fact, his pocket presence has been the biggest knock against him.
The Bears would have to collapse down the stretch for his winning-season jinx to continue. They need help for the playoffs, but they're certainly in reach.
"From here on out, every game is huge," Cutler said. "We're getting to that final stretch of games where every game is important to whether or not we make the playoffs."
When asked about Vick's improvement, Cutler gave a hint about how he's still developing as a starting quarterback in the NFL.
"The first couple years you're just trying to pick up the offense," he said. "It's impossible to completely prepare for a defense."
While Vick has fine-tuned his game, becoming a more complete quarterback, Cutler has led his team to the cusp of the playoffs by tampering down his game. Whither the Denver gunslinger?
In the past three games, all wins, Cutler has thrown for 581 yards, averaging less than seven yards an attempt. Some would call those Kyle Orton numbers, and that's fine with him, because he doesn't need to throw for 350 and take those deep shots with the way the defense is playing right now.
"Our defense couldn't do the things we're doing now, [when he was] in Denver," Cutler said. "We had to go out there and score points; we had to push the ball down the field."
Cutler has impressed by being unimpressive. Vick has been ethereal at times, and comes into the game as the top-rated quarterback in the league, with 11 touchdowns passes and no picks. Has he gotten lucky at times? Sure, but everyone needs luck.
Vick's six-touchdown game against the Washington Redskins two weeks ago still remains fresh in everyone's mind. Last week, he failed to pass for a touchdown against the New York Giants only because Jason Avant dropped an easy pass in the end zone. He still passed for 258 yards and ran for a 9-yard score.
The Eagles are 5-1 when Vick starts and once again his peers speak of him in hushed tones.
"To be considered one of the best in the league right now, it's a major accomplishment, not only to myself, but to all the people who helped me get here," Vick said in an impromptu acceptance speech. "I gotta give a lot of credit to my teammates, because without them I wouldn't be in this position. It's great, it's something we all can enjoy right now."
Cutler also played the gracious card Wednesday. He really doesn't get enough credit for that part of his personality.
"I've said it all year long, the defense has been carrying this team," he said. "Whenever the offense catches up, we're going to be where we want to be."
While everyone pays homage to Vick the Redeemed, Cutler the Question remains the biggest target in the league, aside from Terrell Owens and Randy Moss. Not a week goes by without some former quarterback or coach giving his two cents on why Cutler has struggled. With his pouty sideline demeanor and poor podium appearance, he's an easy mark. Sometimes I think he gets more criticized for his demeanor by the football folks than Vick does for his past transgressions.
And that's why this game is more important to Cutler. Vick has reclaimed his throne as the most exciting player in the game. Just by returning from his exile, he's won. But Cutler hasn't. Not yet.
The announcers will talk and talk about Vick's redemption story this weekend.
But Cutler is the one with something to prove.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
3dEric D. Williams
2dMel Kiper Jr.
3dEric D. Williams