Commentary

Confident Cutler leads Bears

The enigmiatic QB rose above his own bad habits as he rose above the Eagles

Updated: November 29, 2010, 10:37 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Jay Cutler chuckled Sunday when told that a teammate had compared his scrambling ability favorably to that of Michael Vick's. But it was a winner's chuckle, a stab at humility that, believable or not, was borne from the knowledge that on this day, in this game, he was superior to a quarterback being heralded as an MVP candidate.

And that includes his feet, his arm and his head.

Whether Cutler continues to get better or backslides a bit, whether he admits that the Chicago Bears' 31-26 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles was more significant than any other, this one was special and it stands out today as it will stand out after the season as a signature moment in Cutler's career with the Bears.

Big stage, big implications, big opponent. It was all there, a game in which the enigmatic quarterback with the rare skills and the exasperating penchant for taunting us with them, stood tall and managed a near-flawless, all-around performance.

Cutler completed 14-of-21 passes for 247 yards and tied his career high with four touchdowns for a quarterback rating of 146.2 (out of a perfect 158.3). After throwing seven interceptions in his past four games, Cutler tossed not a one on Sunday, and was only really close with one wounded duck he lobbed up in the fourth quarter intended for Matt Forte.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireJay Cutler had his best game as a Bear on Sunday.
It preceded a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct call on Cutler for yelling at officials and conjured up visions of critical late interceptions and a miracle comeback by the Eagles. "There he goes again," the message boards began chirping on the Internet, but it was Cutler's only serious transgression and was not indicative of an afternoon in which he rose above his own bad habits as he rose above the Eagles.

"I don't know for him personally but me playing with Jay, this has to be in the top five games that I've seen him play," said Bears' receiver Earl Bennett, who has played two seasons with Cutler as a Bear and one year with him at Vanderbilt.

"He was composed, he did a great job of managing the clock, he did a great job of making sure everything on offense ran smoothly," Bennett said. "His efficiency was great. We did a great job today."

"We" was right, because while Bennett caught two touchdown passes from Cutler against the Eagles, it was indeed a team effort offensively and every other way. Bennett, Devin Hester and Johnny Knox, who caught another scoring pass, combined on 16 catches for 210 yards. Greg Olsen caught just one pass but is getting to be a fairly routine sight in the red zone as he snared a 9-yarder in the end zone, this one also preventing an interception coming as it did over the head of the Eagles' defender.

The Bears' offense is truly getting fun to watch, on this afternoon a beautifully balanced display -- 28 rushes for 131 yards to Cutler's 21 passes -- that was neither impulsive nor impatient and a true testament to offensive coordinator Mike Martz' growing ability to adjust and adapt.

Maybe the best thing the Bears' offense did all day was pound out a 17-play, 10-minute drive in the third quarter that went 83 yards before they had to settle for a field goal. It ate up the bulk of the third quarter and kept Vick off the field.

"We weren't worried about that [but] our defense had been on the field quite a bit," Cutler said. "We'd hit some big plays, had some quick scoring drives, deep plays, quick slants -- three, four, six plays. So that was kind of a signature moment of the game for us to grind out the clock and get the running game going and pick up some tough first downs and third downs. Even though we only got three out of it, to burn up that much time and really let our defense rest and just get some momentum going, it was huge."

Even Vick had to acknowledge it.

"Jay did a great job with his feet, moving and made plays down the field, kept his eyes down the field and kept us off the field," said the Eagles quarterback, who finished with 333 yards on 29-of-44 passing with two touchdowns and one interception for a QB rating of 94.2. "If you do that, you really give yourself a good opportunity to win the football game."

It's Cutler's feet that are ironically garnering the most attention over much of the four-game winning streak, not just running downfield (he had 17 yards on seven carries, Sunday) but eluding pressure and rolling out on play-action, which is making the Bears' offense so potent. His touch-pass to Hester for a catch-and-run gain of 39 yards was the perfect example.

"I enjoy watching them," cracked Bears corner D.J. Moore of the offense. "They're the greatest show on & dirt, because that field is tough. Imagine them on another field."

Not to worry about overconfidence. Their youth, Cutler's penchant for understatement and the continuing challenge to master Martz, keeps them in check.

"There are still some things happening that we have to clean up and you can just tell that we're young in the offense and we just haven't completely grasped it yet," Cutler said. "But we're making enough big plays that we're covering for some stuff. We're limiting our turnovers and limiting our penalties."

Cutler was sacked three times in four plays over two series in the second quarter -- the fourth of the game -- and it looked like one of those days again as the Bears' offensive linemen took turns playing bullfighter. But the unit hung in there and, more importantly, Cutler let his feet do the talking.

"The better we get, the more he'll get a chance to play," Bears' center Olin Kreutz said. "I think Jay has always been what you saw, we just need to get better around him and the better we get around him, the more he'll be able to be Jay."

It's no great secret anymore. As the Bears' offensive line goes, so goes the offense. Only now the offense is becoming proficient enough to overcome the line on most Sundays.

"I think it goes back to protection," Cutler said. "It's hard for me to run if they're not fitting up to the right guys, blocking, giving me some time. Whenever we're getting pressured, just losing guys, I'm not going to be able to go anywhere. It all comes down to the front five."

NFL interception leader Asante Samuel's absence probably helped. We'll never know how much. But for now, a moratorium should probably be called on too many qualifiers to the Bears' success.

The Bears are 8-3, alone atop the NFC North and tied with the Saints for second-best record in the NFC, a scenario even the most ardent of fans would have had a tough time predicting. And a confident quarterback is leading the way.

You don't think Cutler secretly wanted to outperform Vick, Sunday? For once the Bears have a quarterback capable of backing that up.

"I take every game personally," Cutler said. "Every game is very important to me. I do everything possible and the later we get into the season, the bigger the games are going to be and the higher the stakes are going to be raised and the higher the expectations are going to be, not just on this team but on me, and we all have to rise to it."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

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.

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