Jays of Our Lives: Cutler's dramatic NFL career perfected the art of the tease
- What’s the first memory you think of when reminiscing on Cutler’s career? Is it a dazzling, game-winning play? Or simply a shot of Cutler standing on the Bears’ sideline, an expression of borderline boredom on his face?
The old saying “Always leave them wanting more” is great advice for those in the entertainment industry. For an NFL quarterback ... not so much.
Jay Cutler, as of Friday a new analyst for FOX’s NFL coverage, will enter into retirement as the Bears’ all-time leader in passing attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns and regular-season wins. He threw for 32,467 yards during his career (currently 37th most in league history) and 208 touchdowns (35th most). He started a total of 111 games between Denver and Chicago, spanning an 11-year career.
Most, though, will react to all those statistical accomplishments the same way: So what?
Cutler’s career was dotted with brilliant performances, predictably offset by frustrating, disappointing letdown. That’s not all on him, of course—neither wins nor losses fall solely on a quarterback, so Cutler’s 68 victories (51 with Chicago) and 71 losses (also 51 with Chicago) are as much on his teams as on Cutler himself.
But it was in those glimpses of greatness that Cutler teased the possibility of better days. The Bears stuck with him from 2009 through ’16 and, at least until near the end, seemed to believe he was capable of helping them compete in the NFC North.
They made one playoff trip during Cutler’s tenure, in the 2010 season. Cutler finished that brief run watching from the sideline, injured, as the NFC Championship Game slipped away from Chicago with Caleb Hanie and Todd Collins filling in at QB.
The Bears decided to cut Cutler in March, saving themselves around $14 million and paving the way for their draft-day move to select Mitchell Trubisky. Cutler did not find any suitors as a free agent; the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported during the draft that the Texans ignored calls from Cutler this off-season, despite their need for a No. 1 QB.
“I don’t know if retirement is the right word; I don’t feel that anyone ever really retires from the NFL,” Cutler said in a statement, after the announcement of his move to the broadcast booth. “You are either forced to leave, or you lose the desire to do what’s required to keep going. I’m in between those situations at this point in my life.”
Ah, yes, “desire”. With Cutler, the conversation cannot help but circle back to this topic.
Cutler played hard, at times he played hurt, but his aloof personality made it easy to question just how much he wanted to win. What’s the first memory you think of when reminiscing on Cutler’s career? Is it a dazzling, game-winning play? Or simply a shot of Cutler standing on the Bears’ sideline, an expression of borderline boredom on his face?
Unfair as it may have been to Cutler, he spent his entire Bears career compared to—and typically overshadowed by—Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. Few quarterbacks in league history have been able to match Rodgers’s skill level, but Bears fans no doubt longed for Cutler to bring at least a dash of the swagger Rodgers carries.
A quarterback doesn’t necessarily need to be a vocal, cocky presence. Cutler’s demeanor, though, made him much more vulnerable to criticism when things went wrong. And they often did. In 2009 Cutler threw 26 interceptions during his first season in Chicago, the second-highest total of the past decade (Eli Manning had 27 in ’13). Cutler led the league in picks again in ’14 (18), then took an NFL-high 52 sacks during that lone playoff campaign of ’10. Finally, he sat out the majority of his final Bears season due to injuries.
Take it all into account and Cutler’s on-field legacy, as it were, is hard to grasp. On any given Sunday he could be good or great or horrendous, and it was impossible to know which version was forthcoming.
To start at the quarterback position for 11 years in the NFL is a success in and of itself. Cutler made just one Pro Bowl (2008) and never earned an All-Pro nod, but certainly there have been far, far worse quarterbacks to come through the league. The Bears may even miss him in the very near future, if Mike Glennon and Trubisky both bomb.
He never made that proverbial leap, though. For each laser of a touchdown pass or fourth-quarter comeback (21 of them in all spanning his career), there was an ill-timed turnover or a boneheaded decision. No matter what, Cutler’s public reactions barely wavered.
Cutler could be good but rarely great. He could be bad but rarely terrible for an extended stretch. He showed up, he hung some numbers on the board and he eventually called it a career.
It just always felt like there was going to be more.