It's not a coincidence: A more likeable Jay Cutler is better than ever

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Jay Cutler answers a question in the interview room at Soldier Field on Oct. 4 after the Bears beat the Oakland Raiders. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Jay Cutler had a little bit of an awkward moment at his weekly press conference Thursday at Halas Hall.

Asked if he could be more specific about what offensive coordinator Adam Gase talked to him about what “worked” with Peyton Manning, Cutler said, “I cannot.” Then after an awkward pause, he added, “I’m not joking.”

And then he moved on. We all moved on. It’s not even worth mentioning — except to illustrate how rare it is any more that Jay Cutler has an awkward moment these days. Almost since he arrived from Denver in 2009, Cutler struggled in the media spotlight in Chicago — often obstinate, defiant or petulant as he bristled at critical questions, touchy situations or the most innocent request for introspection. Late in 2009, I asked him where he had improved from the beginning of the season. “I don’t have the time to list all the ways I’ve improved,” he huffed, though I had only asked for one.

That was Jay. Unwilling to play the game of media cooperation. I suggested at the time that while Bears fans don’t care about Cutler’s dismissive attitude with the media as long as he wins games, Cutler’s social awkwardness, his unlikeability and his unwillingness to play the game was a red flag. You don’t have to be Mr. Wonderful to win the Super Bowl. But it sure seems like most of the big winners are pretty unflappable publicly — Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers. Their ability to manage the podium mirrored an ability to manage the huddle and the locker room and deal with adversity in a big moment. The goofballs — Ryan Leaf, Jeff George, Cade McNown and that group — somehow always ended up on the periphery or the curb.

Even at his worst, Cutler was far from that extreme, but still a long way from the Manning-Brady-Brees-Rodgers class. And while some teammates insisted we were all wrong about the guy, there were too many indicators that Cutler was too easily distracted and too easily annoyed to have the laser focus that makes guys like Brady so lethal in big moments and big games — shoving J’Marcus Webb; ignoring Mike Tice; telling off Mike Martz in the midst of a blowout victory. (It’s true that Brady, Manning, Rodgers, Brees and other Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks have had their moments with teammates and coaches — but most if not all were wearing Super Bowl rings that gave them the right. Cutler has made the postseason once.)

As recently as Week 1 of last season, Cutler was typically abrasive under fire. “You guys are going to be as negative as possible and we understand that,” he said after throwing yet another key interception in a loss to the Bills. “But we’ve got a lot of games left and we did a lot of good things. Obviously, we made some mistakes.”

Asked if he understood why people might be negative after a subpar performance, he was downright haughty. “Yes and no,” Cutler said. “I mean, nobody knows exactly what we’re doing out there. You think you do. But you don’t.”

But overall, Cutler’s public persona in good times and bad has improved over the last few years — coinciding, some say, with getting married and becoming a father. He’s not the guy he was when he arrived in 2009. “As a quarterback, I have become smarter. I’ve learned things. I’ve got experience. I’m a little wiser in some areas,” he said this week when asked how he had changed since his days with the Broncos.

Indeed he is all that, on and off the field. And the results are impressive. Cutler’s 95.3 passer rating is his best this late in the season in his 10-year NFL career. A player known for the almost perfunctory clunker has had six consecutive games with a rating of at least 88.4 — the first time in his career Cutler has gone six consecutive complete games without a rating below 76.0. He hasn’t thrown two picks in a game since Week 15 of last season against the Saints.

He’s playing smarter than ever. In Week 2, he suffered a hamstring injury chasing the Cardinals’ Tony Jefferson on an interception return. When he threw a Pick-6 against the Chargers in Week 9, he barely made a token effort at trying to tackle Chargers cornerback Jason Verrett. Last week against the Rams, he had room to run in the middle of the field on a read-option, but instead of turning on the jets for more yards and risking a big hit or another hamstring injury, he downed himself and settled for a 26-yard gain.

And his on-the-field apex has coincided with a similar rise in his public persona. Cutler isn’t Mr. Wonderful, but he’s a lot more adept at handling the responsibilities of being a professional quarterback than he was when he got here. More than ever, it seems like his teammates are playing better because of him. I haven’t checked his Q Score recently, but it sure seems like more people than ever are rooting for Cutler to succeed.

Some say he’s become a better guy because he’s a better quarterback. I say it’s the opposite. Cutler credits offensive coordinator Adam Gase, “the offensive line, play calling, guys around me,” for his recent run of success. But the biggest difference for Jay Cutler this season is Cutler himself.

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