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Cutler crashes Packers party?

Friday, January 21, 2011

The buildup to the Bears-Packers NFC Championship has at times felt like a coronation. The Packers appear poised to be the NFL's "It" team, with Aaron Rodgers ready to take the mantle as new quarterback King.

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, drafted one year after Rodgers, was once seen as a potential heir to the QB throne. Five messy, sometimes-enthralling years later, Cutler's shine has dulled nationally. At 27, he's viewed with suspicion. A mistake waiting to happen.

With one game, Cutler can change the narrative. He can write a story that's a little more complicated than Rodgers, but just as compelling. Jay Cutler is in position to crash the party.

Unquestioned talent

Mike Mayock started it all. In the buildup to the 2006 NFL draft, Mayock took an early stand as NFL Network draft guru.

Cutler was thought to be a second round pick, but Mayock said the floppy-haired kid from Vanderbilt was the best collegiate quarterback prospect in the land. This was seen as heresy considering the draft has Heisman Trophy winner/national champion Matt Leinart and national champion Vince Young. Mayock, of course, was right on.

It seems ridiculous in retrospect that Leinart was selected tenth by the Cardinals, one spot ahead of Cutler. There is no comparison between their arm strength and accuracy. Cutler has far more mobility than Leinart and most other pocket passers. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan saw this all and traded up to draft his next John Elway.

Cutler knew pressure. Not the pressure of defending a national title with a collection of all-stars like Leinart – literal pressure. SEC defensive fronts overwhelmed Vanderbilt's small offensive line week after week. Cutler was forced to improvise, take his lumps, and rely on his golden arm.

That collegiate experience set the table for Cutler's early career. Playing at Vanderbilt gave him bad habits to overcome, and an uncanny ability to create something out of nothing. Cutler's new offensive coordinator in Chicago Mike Martz is trying his best to fix Cutler's flaws, especially his footwork.

"You can't go through a lifetime with those kinds of habits and fix them in one season," Martz said Wednesday. "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. . . . He's had a whole career of running around and trying to make it happen kind of mode."

That kind of freewheeling talent usually inspires legions of fans. But Cutler has never been particularly embraced because of an indifferent relationship with the media.

I've never understood the animosity directed at Cutler for one simple reason: He's fun to watch. Cutler, Rodgers, and Michael Vick are probably the three most physically gifted quarterbacks. Every tool is there.

No quarterback has completed more low-percentage, "how did he do that?" throws over the last five years than Cutler. One game from his ultimately failed three-year run in Denver immediately comes to mind.

In 2008, Cutler's Broncos arrived in New York to face the Jets just after Thanksgiving. Brett Favre and Eric Mangini were 8-3, and suddenly were touted as AFC favorites for the Super Bowl.

Favre shriveled on a raw, windy, rainy day. Cutler went wild, throwing for 357 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception in one of the best bad weather performances I've ever seen.

Up ten points late in the third quarter, Cutler was working out of the shadow of his own end zone. Shanahan called for a play-action then roll out to the right, like he so often did with Cutler. The Jets were in perfect position.

With Jets linebacker Vernon Gholston right in his face, Cutler tried to throw a fake, then out-sprinted Gholston to the outside. Gholston followed, so Cutler didn't have a chance to set himself before heaving the ball across his body with Gholston right in his face. Cutler threw the ball at the four-yard line.

"What a crazy throw," CBS announcer Randy Cross said with the ball in the air.

Broncos tight end Tony Scheffler caught the ball at the 37-yard line, with no fewer than four defenders around him. The Broncos went on to win 34-17.

For good and bad, those "crazy" throws have defined Cutler's career. I take notes when I re-watch games and took some old Broncos ones out for this column. Here's a very small sampling of early Cutler:

1. "Great arm. Seems to do better when in trouble. Insane throw off back foot. Then just a terrible interception after fumbling snap. A couple near picks deep. Great throws, poor decisions."

2. "Unreal play with his feet to extend drive. Finds Brandon Marshall even when well covered. Streaky start, then making plays then … AWFUL INTERCEPTION"

3. "Really stupid interception after great game. Makes throw backing up with two people coming at him, into double coverage, hits it. CAN MAKE THE LONG TOUCH THROW. WOW."

Cutler makes me break out the caps lock like a 14-year-old girl on instant messenger. He hasn't always been an easy quarterback to believe in. He can wow you, and drive you crazy in the same series. Perhaps that's why he still doesn't inspire a ton of respect, even on a team headed to he NFC Championship game.

After a strong stretch run marked by mostly good decision making, the Chicago Sun-Times wrote Thursday that "All Cutler proved last week was that a mid-sized moment wasn't too big for him."

While momentum picks up for Rodgers as the game's best quarterback, Cutler is often a punchline.

"Cutler, I think if he gets under pressure, he'll just start slinging that sucker around like free loaves of bread in the 'hood, man," Fox analyst Michael Strahan said this week.

"I feel like the guy's color-blind," Terrell Owens said on his television show. "He's just going to be tossing it and slinging it everywhere. At some point, he's going to be the Jay Cutler that we all know."

When did raw, unharnessed talent become so unlikable? I don't care what Cutler is like off the field. On the field, he's fascinating to watch in victory and defeat.

If Cutler was a basketball player, he might be Allen Iverson: Worth the price of admission, but sometimes too aggressive for his own good.

Perhaps a quarterback comparison would be Randall Cunningham. Cutler doesn't have the same scrambling ability, but both players know how to make highlights while freelancing with their physical gifts. Cunningham was very popular in his day, while Cutler was recently called one of the most hated men in the NFL. (By one of the most hated writers in the country.)

Well, there's one surefire way to make America love you. Just win baby.

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Gregg Rosenthal has directed Rotoworld's football content since 2003. He co-hosts the NBC Fantasy Fix and covers the NFL for and Catch him on Twitter.
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