November 03, 2009

There's a widely accepted axiom in the NFL that you are what your record says you are. The Chicago Bears hit November with a 4-3 mark, same as last year's after seven games. If they're running in place, it's viewed as regression because of the wild-eyed expectations generated by Jay Cutler's arrival from Denver in an uncharacteristically bold trade made last April.

Finally, a "franchise quarterback," the Bears' first since the Sid Luckman Era, which occurred more than 60 years ago if you're keeping track even half as diligently as most Bears fans.

Finally, perhaps, an end to coach Lovie Smith's tiresome "We get off the bus running" approach, a musty mantra that produced two playoff runs in his five previous years but none since a Super Bowl loss to good buddy Tony Dungy's Colts after the 2006 season.

It was advisable, if not necessary, to run it right at people in the still celebrated Age of Walter Payton; "Sweetness" was a once-in-a-lifetime marvel whose unique blend of talent, will and effort came to define Chicago Bears football, as much as much as MikeDitka, as much as DickButkus, as much as George Halas himself.

And in fairness, the Bears' legacy at the running back position -- Payton, Sayers, Galimore, Nagurski, Grange -- is as illustrious as their quarterbacking history is bleak.

But offensive diversity is a requirement for success in 21st Century NFL. Were it not, the Bears would have more to show for the 11 1,000-yard seasons they've had from the undistinguished likes of Rashaan Salaam, James Allen, Raymont Harris and others since Payton hung them up after the 1986 campaign.

Even Matt Forte, a second-round rookie from Tulane, got 1,238 yards just last season, and the 9-7 Bears watched the playoffs from home on their flat screens for the second straight year.

So let's bring in Cutler and throw it around a little as we get off the bus.

The cost was considerable: Incumbent starter Kyle Orton, a careful "game manager" whose lack of big-play charisma was viewed as a fatal flaw despite a 25-12 record as a starter, and two first-round draft picks.

The upside: Cutler arrived as a three-year starter with miles of passing yards and a Pro Bowl appearance on his résumé at 26. He has the arm, the pocket savvy and the unwavering confidence to transform a clunky Bears offense into a Super Bowl contender. He's the real deal, a rung below the Manning-Brady-Roethlisberger level, but the best the Bears have had at the position since ... yep, Sid Luckman.

The reality: Cutler needs help, across the board, or a 4-3 start morphs into a 9-7, out-of-the-money finish, just like last year.

Start with his receivers -- Cutler has to miss Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal every time he drops back in the pocket and looks downfield. No one on the Bears is as good.

Devin Hester has home-run speed and improving hands, but he's not a route-runner, and at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds he lacks the heft to go over the middle and make the tough catch on third down. Third-year tight end Greg Olsen was supposed to be Cutler's go-to guy, but he's not there yet, a missing piece for puzzling stretches.

Forte's production has dipped alarmingly in his second year; he's averaging a pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry behind a revamped offensive line that has had trouble clearing the way for him. A bigger concern is the line's inability to protect Cutler -- lowly Cleveland sacked him four times and belted him around like a slow-pitch softball in Sunday's game. One particularly vicious helmet-to-the-chin hit from Kamerion Wimbley brought a 15-yard roughing penalty, kept a scoring drive alive and had Cutler spitting blood for the next several series. He didn't miss a play, if anyone questioned his toughness. But he won't be a franchise player for long if such abuse persists.

The Bears' pass rushers, meanwhile, collected their first sack in three weeks, dropping embattled Browns QB Derek Anderson one time. Losses to Cincinnati and Atlanta in the previous two games were largely attributable to Carson Palmer and Matt Ryan finishing work with spotless uniforms. The revolving-door secondary accounted for four turnovers and a touchdown on Charles Tillman's interception return after weeks of uneven play. A glass-half-full assessment hails a corner turned; the half-empty version is stuck on Anderson's woeful 10.6 passer rating, achieved on merit.

The Bears are 4-3 because of an uplifting victory over Pittsburgh in Week 2, and because a favorable early schedule brought them Cleveland, Detroit and Seattle when it was missing Matt Hasselbeck. They're 0-for-3 against the other playoff contenders they've faced. They're a 4-3 team for a reason.

There's no buyer's remorse over Cutler, not much grumbling even as he throws an interception for every TD pass (11-11), and as Orton has Denver in first place in the AFC West with a significantly higher passer rating.

Instead, there's a grudging, growing realization that not even a franchise quarterback can do it alone.

"We've got to get better in every respect possible offensively," Jay Cutler said.

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