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Will he ever learn? Jay Cutler goes all out, and pays a steep price

Jay Cutler’s pick-6 after a flawless start against the Cardinals and the injury he suffered on that play typified his star-crossed career in the NFL. He caroms from one extreme to the other, always struggling for the finesse that makes a guy with a “cannon for an arm” also a winner.

There’s no in between with Cutler and that’s one reason why he suffered an injury for the sixth consecutive season with the Bears. Of course, every quarterback wants to make the tackle on an interception return. “They’re competitors,” Bears coach John Fox rationalized after the game. “Guys do that — I don’t care what position it is.”

But quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and even the particularly headstrong Philip Rivers play safety on interception returns — falling back for a last-gasp attempt at the interceptor. Cutler attacks the play like a linebacker, closer to being the first guy with a shot at the tackle than the last.

And it’s not like Cutler didn’t know first-hand of the consequences. He suffered a broken thumb trying to make a tackle on an interception return against the Chargers in 2011 — the Bears were 7-3 with a five-game winning streak and Cutler was in the midst of the best six-game streak of his Bears career — a 91.3 passer rating.

The injury ruined the Bears season (they went 1-5 with Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown at quarterback and finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs) —  a pretty costly lesson that Cutler did not appear to learn well. It’s another facet to the Cutler paradox: his willingness to sacrifice his body for the team — whether it’s losing his helmet on a dive for the end zone in a preseason game or going all-out to tackle the interceptor — is Cutler’s No. 1 leadership quality. It makes his teammates want to play for him. But sometimes you not only have to play hard, you have to play smart. Unfortunately, finding the middle ground has never been Cutler’s strength.

 

2. For the record, Cutler’s interception against the Cardinals was his 15th pick-6 in his 10-year NFL career and 10th in seven seasons with the Bears. Only Drew Brees (19), Carson Palmer (17) and Eli Manning (16) have thrown more pick-6s since Cutler entered the league in 2006.

The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers remains the gold standard for risk-aversion: Rodgers has thrown one pick-6 in his 11-year career — 124 games and 3,918 attempts including the postseason.

 

3. This season is starting to resemble Fox’s final year in Carolina (2-14) in 2010 than his first year in either Carolina (7-9 after inheriting a 1-15 team) or Denver (8-8 with a playoff victory). The common thread of course is Jimmy Clausen, who was 1-9 as a rookie starter on Fox’s final team in Carolina in 2010. Clausen is 0-1 as a Bears starter, losing to the Lions 20-14 in Week 16 at Soldier Field.

Clausen’s passer rating in his 11 starts (1-10) is 64.0. He was 23-of-39 for 181 yards, two touchdowns and one interception (77.0) against the Lions in December.

 

4. Don’t expect the Bears to overtly “tank” this season if it comes to that. On the other hand, under Pace and Fox, the Bears don’t figure to go out of their way to stick with veterans who give them “the best chance to win” when developing younger players — and getting a better draft pick — is the more prudent move. Lineup changes likely will be swift when the time comes. The big question is who those younger players might be. This roster still needs a lot of upgrades.

 

5. Bears coach John Fox wouldn’t admit this is a bigger job than he thought. But Kyle Fuller’s momentary demotion is one indication it might be. When Fox was asked at the combine in February if the Bears had any players he could build a defense around, Fuller was the first player he mentioned.

“I’d say Fuller is a guy [you could build around],” Fox said. “My evaluation is more from what he did in college, where we had him in the draft process than it is completely on Bear tape. But I’d say a young guy like that, a core guy, he was a first-round draft pick — I think he has the right kind of tools to be a guy that can lean into that leader spot as he goes.”

 

5a. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has a big job on his hands. The Bears have zero sacks in two games — the Raiders and the Colts are the only other teams in the league with no sacks. In Fangio’s four years in San Francisco, the 49ers never had back-to-back games without at least one sack. In fact they only went sack-less six times in 72 games (8.3 percent) — and only once in his first season in 2011 (Week 12 vs. the Ravens).

 

6. How far as Fuller fallen? In Week 2 last year, he had two impressive fourth-quarter interceptions to ignite the Bears’ upset of the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium and won the NFC Defensive Player of the Week award. Brandon Marshall had him on his way to Canton.

“I told him it’s not about starting, it’s not about making the Pro Bowl,” Marshall said. “For him, he needs to have Hall of Fame on his brain — because that kid can play.”

 

7. Under Fox and general manager Ryan Pace, the Bears hired a new training staff, a new strength and conditioning staff and created a new position for a sports nutritionist — placing an emphasis on avoiding injuries, particularly the soft-tissue and stress-related injuries so common in football.

But so far the early results have been dubious. Kevin White developed a stress fracture that eventually required surgery. Alshon Jeffery suffered a “mild calf strain” that kept him out a month — he missed last Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury. Ego Ferguson missed the game with a knee injury. And now Cutler is day-to-day with a strained hamstring.

“I think some people have histories of different injuries,” Fox said when asked if he was surprised by the injuries in spite of the team’s emphasis on avoiding them. “I think our nutritionist and strength-and-conditioning people have done a very good job. It was a little bit of a fluke play for a quarterback, I think.

“We played a guy a week ago that had a calf injury down the stretch [Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers] and I had a guy in Denver that’s probably a first-ballot Hall of Famer [Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning] that played about six weeks with a similar quad injury, muscle pull type of thing. They happen. You don’t like to see any injuries, you like to be at full strength, but reality is it doesn’t happen very often.”

 

 

8. The Bears have allowed three of the six longest kickoff returns in the NFL this season — 108 yards for a touchdown by Cardinals rookie David Johnson; and 46- and 41-yard returns by Packers rookie Ty Montgomery.

 

8a. Did you know? As much as the Bears struggled on special teams under Joe DeCamillis last year, they actually led the NFL in kickoff coverage — 17.5 yards per return with a long return of 31 yards.

 

8b. Bears special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers didn’t have to worry about kick return coverage too much at home with the Broncos last year —  44 of the Broncos’ 54 kickoffs at Mile High Stadium were touchbacks — and five of those 10 returns came in the final regular-season game against the Raiders. Already six kickoffs have been returned at Soldier Field, for an average of 37.2 yards.

 

9. Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Buccaneers safety Chris Conte had an interception of Drew Brees, a key forced fumble and a tackle-for-loss in the Bucs’ 26-19 victory over the Saints. And best of all, he was still standing at the end.

Conte, a bit of a surprise to make the Buccaneers roster after missing most of training camp with a hamstring injury, started in place of another former Bears safety, Major Wright, who suffered a hip injury in Week 1. With the Buccaneers leading 23-19 with 3:05 to play, Brees threw a first-and-10 pass from his 39 to running back Mark Ingram. But Conte forced a fumble and Henry Melton recovered just barely in bounds to all clinch the victory.

Lovie Smith has two other former Bears on his roster: Melton, a Pro Bowl player with the Bears in 2012, had the big fumble recovery.  And cornerback Tim Jennings, a Pro Bowl player for the Bears in 2012 and 2013, had five tackles and a pass-defense in 53 (of 79) snaps off the bench.

 

10. A ray of hope? As dreadful as the Bears outlook appears with or without Cutler, you still can never underestimate the mediocrity of the NFL. Five teams that lost by double digits in Week 1 — including the Buccaneers by 28, the Browns and Raiders by 20 and the Vikings by 17 — won in Week 2.

“The difference between 5-11 and 11-5 is this much — I hate to break it to the fans and you guys,” Allen said holding his thumb and finger about an inch apart. “It’s not a whole lot of changes you need to make. It’s execution at this level. It’s execution and guys making a play here or there to change the tide of the game. [The Cardinals] didn’t do anything crazy over the top, they executed.”