The Bears’ disappointing season isn’t a total loss. Did you know we are witnessing one of the greatest seasons by a quarterback in franchise history?
It’s true. On paper. Jay Cutler is well ahead of the pace to set franchise records for passing yards, touchdowns and completion percentage. With a good finish in the final three games, he could have the Bears’ best passer rating by a full-time starting quarterback in 30 years.
It’s all right there in black and white. With 3,446 passing yards this season, Cutler is only 388 behind Erik Kramer’s franchise record of 3,838 in 1995. His 26 touchdowns are only three behind Kramer’s record-setting 29 from the same season. And with a 91.7 passer rating, he could eclipse Kramer’s 93.5 rating from that year, which is the best since Jim McMahon’s 97.8 in 1984, which is the best since Sid Luckman’s 107.8 in 1943.
And you know he’ll get there. With the Bears out of playoff contention at 5-8, Cutler can let it loose with nothing to lose. The last time he was in this situation was in 2009 — when the Bears were 5-9 heading into the final two games — and Cutler was never better. He threw eight touchdowns and one interception and had ratings of 108.4 and 122.0 in victories over the Vikings and Lions.
That wasn’t enough to save Ron Turner’s job as offensive coordinator, but it gave the Bears hope that Cutler was the franchise quarterback for whom they traded two first-round picks and Kyle Orton.
Five years later, we’re still waiting for Cutler to become the franchise quarterback the Bears traded for. But the Bears’ problem isn’t so much that Cutler is what he is, it’s that the Bears don’t seem to realize it or be able to do anything about it.
In the upcoming post-debacle analysis, the Bears will rationalize Cutler’s season as part of a total team failure. They can start preparing now for the inevitable follow-up: “Did you get your money’s worth?” The Bears made Cutler the highest-paid player in the league this year, with the highest salary-cap number in the NFL. Yet his season has been relatively — almost positively — mediocre.
Cutler’s career-best passer rating of 91.7 ranks 17th among starting quarterbacks. That’s not even in the top half of the league. (Kramer’s 93.5 rating was fifth in the NFL in 1995.) Cutler’s 265 yards per game is 14th. And most discouraging of all, his 6.98 yards per attempt — his lowest since his first season with the Bears — is 26th. A year ago, Cutler’s 7.38 yards per attempt was 10th.
That’s an issue that coach Marc Trestman will have to deal with. By the naked eye, Cutler’s accuracy on deep throws has diminished. Too many passes have gone out of the range of receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Cutler is 17th in the NFL in deep-passing accuracy (35.7 percent/11.6 yards per attempt on passes of 20 yards or more). Last year, he was fifth (45.6 percent/14.5 yards per attempt).
And Cutler still is prone to errors, usually at the most inopportune times. His 21 turnovers (15 interceptions and six fumbles) are the most in the NFL.
The question is whether Trestman can do anything about that — assuming he gets the chance. The Bears are committed to Cutler for two more seasons. They don’t appear interested in finding out if they have anything better.
To his credit — for what it’s worth — Cutler has handled this difficult season well. His composure and attitude after the loss to the Cowboys on Thursday was a far cry from the petulance he displayed after the season-opening loss to the Bills. If he didn’t have such a long history of unfulfilled expectations, you’d almost think he could pull the Bears out of their funk.
“The guys in that locker room, especially offensively, we know we haven’t lived up to expectations,” Cutler said, “and we’ve got a chance these next three games to play better. We’re obviously not going to fix the season by any means. Trying to end on a better note would help.”
In reality, it’s a no-win situation for Cutler. If he finishes with a flourish, we’ll wonder why he couldn’t have done as well against the Patriots, Packers, Bills and Panthers and consider it fool’s gold. If he stumbles to the finish line, we’ll lament another unfulfilling season from the franchise quarterback.
Either way, the Bears are saddled with the same old quandary at quarterback. Is Jay Cutler the solution or the problem?