- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Jay Cutler at the podium is not unlike Jay Cutler under center.
In each instance, he is judged, and more often than not, we are left wanting more, wanting better.
Jay Cutler's potential is his burden. Despite his discomfort in front of cameras, he can be funny and bright. Despite his propensity for mistakes on the field, he is nimble and strong-armed, intelligent and confident.
When I think of Cutler's public persona, I am reminded of the opening line of the fourth season of "Mad Men": "Who is Don Draper?"
The viewers know who Draper is, but his friends and family do not. But that question drives the entire season like the question of Cutler the football player, and occasionally the person, has hung in the air this season.
Who is Jay Cutler? And more importantly, how good can he be?
We might find out this Sunday when the Chicago Bears host the Green Bay Packers for the NFC championship. Cutler is the main character of this three-hour drama.
The coach likes Jay Cutler.
He understands Cutler's quirks, both as a player and as a person, but once fought for the right to draft the quarterback out of Vanderbilt.
The coach, an offensive assistant for another NFL team who wishes to remain anonymous, knows Cutler's game well. He also knows why people knock Cutler: The poor fundamentals, the poor people skills.
"He's very talented, but the questions that always came up, until last week, was can he win? Is he a winner?" the coach, who has followed Cutler's career closely since that 2006 draft, said in a half-hour phone conversation on Wednesday.
"The knock on him, even in our building, coming out of the combine was: Does he know how to win? I was a big Jay Cutler fan. I said if Vince Young and Matt Leinart were at Vanderbilt, could they do what Jay does? No, because neither one was as mentally tough as Jay. But he could do what they did at USC and Texas."
The player doesn't really like Jay Cutler.
The former Denver Broncos teammate, who also wished to remain anonymous, didn't always enjoy being around a moody Cutler. He certainly didn't like the way he took unnecessary risks. He thinks Cutler was immature in Denver, but also feels he has grown as a player and, possibly, as a person. Like a lot of people who know him but aren't in the quarterback's inner circle, the player wishes Cutler would still "lighten up and be more personable" to the public, something Cutler was castigated for last week. Mostly the player just wants to see Cutler utilize his "freakish" skills.
"He has really matured as far as not doing stupid [stuff]" on the field, the player said in a phone conversation. "That was his problem in Denver and last year in Chicago. Everyone seems to think it's only a matter of time before he goes back to it. But he might have matured and learned. He's got Mike Martz, and the run game is pretty good."
Both the coach and the player are happy for Cutler. Both are stunned he is at the brink of the Super Bowl, but for wholly different reasons.
"I'm actually surprised with what he's doing with the talent around him," the coach said. "He doesn't have good receivers. He's definitely elevated those around him. You got to give Martz credit for putting those guys in a position to be successful."
"I am surprised," the player said. "I always told people, when they asked about Jay as a quarterback, that he was a 7-9, 8-8, 9-7 at-best quarterback and that was all he was going to do. Obviously, a lot of this has to do with the awesomeness of the Chicago Bears defense."
Those two vantage points, from a coach and a player, provide some idea what the perception of Cutler is within the NFL. Despite the closed-book façade, he's not a mystery nor an enigma. For those who know him beyond a sound bite from a podium, what you see is what you get. You might not like him. You might not understand his decisions, on or off the field. But he is a popular person to talk about, dissect and criticize, even in NFL circles.
If you're upset that Cutler is getting treated unfairly by a media that doesn't know him or doesn't understand him, get used to it. Now that he's quarterbacking a winning team on the verge of the biggest game in professional sports, it's only going to get worse.
While quarterbacks get an awful lot of preferential treatment in the NFL -- from protection by the referees to a ridiculous paycheck -- they don't get to be loners. They have to put on a public face and let people in, even if it's only skin-deep. It's just part of the bargain, and although Cutler doesn't seem to embrace the role, he gets it. I think years of losing, preceded by years of being a small-town winner, soured him.
"He's a lot smarter than he wants people to know he is," the coach said. "I don't know why he likes that. He's almost nonchalant. He listens and hears everything people say, but he acts like it's not important. He's just a very guarded person."
After a four-touchdown game (two running, two passing) against Seattle in his first playoff action since high school, Cutler, who was very patient and forthcoming in his weekly interview session Wednesday, is very close to changing his image throughout the NFL community and the media.
If you don't believe me, just listen to the former players that line up to tee off on the guy on TV. Reporters make fun of his media conferences, the analysts rip his livelihood.
And if the Bears beat the Green Bay Packers on Sunday on the strength of the defense and the running game, the cacophony will only get worse during the two-week buildup to the Super Bowl.
Trust me, no one will pick Cutler to win Super Bowl MVP. And if the Bears lose this week, and Cutler plays poorly, he will get the brunt of the blame. The numbers bear this out.
During the regular season, when the Bears won, Cutler had a 106.5 rating, a 63.9 completion percentage, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. When the Bears lost, he had a 50.3 rating, a 54.2 completion percentage, one touchdown and nine interceptions.
His splits are pretty ugly across the board, actually. He has a 101.7 rating in the second quarter. His ratings are in the 70s in the other three quarters. His third-down rating is his worst. And for each pass he attempts more than 20 per a game, his numbers plummet.
But for all the mistakes you want to harp on, consider that he can do amazing things with the football, make throws that cause grown men to weep.
"Everybody's different," the player said, drawing from Cutler's Denver days.
"But he just does stupid stuff, throwing the ball where no teammates are, and with conviction too. I don't understand why that happens. Most quarterbacks don't pull the trigger on something that is not there, not even close. What's weird is he's a pretty intellectual guy, he understands everything about progressions, reads, plays. I think he just makes up his mind where he wants to go with it."
I asked Mike Martz on Wednesday about the criticisms that are often made on Cutler's mechanics. Martz, who has all but sainted his quarterback to the local media, didn't hold back, giving one of the most detail-oriented answers of the year.
It was a weird time to be honest, but it gives us a good look into the work Cutler has put in, as a veteran, to get better. Not all quarterbacks are willing to do that.
"Some of the [criticism on his] footwork -- and he knows that -- is fair," Martz said.
"You can't go through a lifetime with those kinds of habits and fix them in one season. He's gotten better every week, the way we've asked our players to do.
He's gotten better every week. He knows that. But you have to temper that a little bit, too. He's making some really outstanding plays.
"We're making more plays each week than we're making the previous week and the decision-making, the timing of the throws, the accuracy, there's a lot that's involved with that. We do the footwork stuff twice a week, every week, for about 20 minutes with him. As we add new things he has a tendency to drift a little bit, but I'm pleased with his progress.
"To say, you can just go out there and say your footwork is not good we're going to do a few drills and fix it, it doesn't work like that," Martz continued.
"He's had a whole career of running around and trying-to-make-it-happen kind of mode. But he's working out diligently with all kinds of hot protections and things he has to deal with mentally and it's hard to prove yourself. I like his progress. He'll get there. He'll get there."
The coach I spoke to, who is very familiar with Cutler, agrees with the critique.
"Fundamentally, he'll break down a bit," he said. "He actually gets worse when he holds the ball with one hand and drops his hand below his waist. He's such a good thrower, though. He's accurate when he's fundamentally sound."
Cutler wants to be taught, the coach said, and he seems happy with his progress.
"I think you're always growing," Cutler said. "You're always trying to get better. You're always learning new stuff. Obviously, I had to learn a little bit quicker with the new offense and Mike. You're always seeing different defenses and always critiquing yourself, and if you're not, you're not going to get any better."
While Cutler still makes head-shaking throws, his interceptions are way down (26 last season, 16 this season), though the number of passing attempts dropped from 555 to 432. Cutler's quarterback rating is back up to where it was in Denver, 86.3. Cutler got sacked 52 times behind an offensive line that has improved but is still considered one of the worst in the league.
"Twenty-eight offensive coordinators couldn't name all five Bears linemen," the coach said.
Cutler's toughness has never been in doubt. And his ability to run the ball when plays break down has been valuable. He picked up 232 yards during the regular season, averaging 4.6 yards a carry. While he had only one touchdown in the regular season, he had two in the divisional round against Seattle, one coming in shotgun formation, a play straight out of the Michael Vick playbook.
"One thing he doesn't get credit for is [that] coming out of college he was a better runner than Vince Young," the coach said.
While he seems more attuned as a leader, more comfortable in that role, when things go bad, he still gets dissed for the gloomy sideline shots on TV. His former teammate said that was probably more of a problem in Denver, when Cutler would get angry at defensive miscues. He doesn't have that problem in Chicago, where Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and company are the stars of the team.
"I don't think he can control that," the player said of his downcast body language. "I think that's how he played as a kid. That was the way he was raised. I don't think it translates [to being a] good leader. Regardless, I don't think the Bears are having success because Jay's a good leader anyway. I think the defensive players are leaders of that team."
Here's the thing, though. For all the fun we make of his salty demeanor with the media, Cutler has been an unfailing public supporter of his teammates. He didn't rip his offensive linemen when they almost got him decapitated or blame his receivers when they broke off routes that turned into interceptions. Cutler, no fan of opening up to the media, has been critical of himself.
And most importantly, on this team especially, he's been the defense's biggest booster. Long gone are the days when he would rolled his eyes at the Broncos' defense.
"It's been huge," Cutler said Wednesday about having a top-flight defense.
"Those first seven games they carried us. Without them, I highly doubt we're in the position we are right now. They played really well down the stretch too.
That's what it takes to be a Super Bowl team, though. You've got to have all three phases, and as of late, all three phases are showing up for us."
Both the coach and the player are hopeful but unsure that Cutler and the Bears can take advantage of Green Bay's defense, which can make even the best quarterback look bad.
Both agree he needs a fast start and a strong running game to make it to the Super Bowl.
"If he keeps his throws around 25-30, they have a great opportunity to win," the player said.
"He needs to get into a rhythm early, so he doesn't feel the pressure to make plays and take unnecessary risks," the coach said.
Those aren't exactly stirring platitudes. But in a way all the negativity, all the anxiety toward Cutler makes me think he's going to surprise us. I can't give you a reason why I feel this way, and maybe I'm just being a contrarian, but I have a feeling that Cutler is going to make Bears fans celebrate this Sunday. And maybe he'll find some happiness, too.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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