NFC North: Jesse Jackson
(No, it wasn't Ndamukong Suh.)
The two exchanged awkward pleasantries, a 69-year-old activist and 27-year-old quarterback united by three words.
Keep hope alive.
(Sorry. Couldn't resist. I'll be available for flogging Monday morning.)
Tortured connections aside, I really do think Jackson's signature phrase appropriately describes what Cutler did in the Bears' 24-20 victory Sunday against the Detroit Lions. It demonstrated Cutler's tremendous progress this season and helps explain why he is on a winning team for the first time since his senior year in high school.
That's right. After leading Heritage Hill (Ind.) High School to a 15-0 record in 2001, Cutler has played on eight consecutive teams that have finished .500 or worse: four at Vanderbilt, three with the Denver Broncos and one with the Bears.
A reasonable football fan could have watched the entire game Sunday and not noticed a single thing Cutler did. But he was a winner in every sense of the word, most notably when it came time to awaken his team from a three-quarter slumber and elevate it above the self-destructing Lions.
"You need your special players to be special," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "I really thought today he stepped up."
More than anything, winners make sure their team wins. No player has more control over the outcome than a quarterback, and it's precisely what Cutler did after the Bears took over with 11 minutes, 55 seconds remaining. The Lions, hoping to seal their first NFC North victory in four years, had just failed to convert a fourth-down play and thus given up the ball at the Bears' 40-yard line.
It was that key fulcrum point that presents itself in most games. In this case, you sensed the Bears would either grab control or doom themselves to a damaging December upset. Cutler kept hope alive. Here's what he did on a six-play, 60-yard drive that won the game:
Play 1: A quick-hitting 20-yard pass to tailback Matt Forte.
Play 2: (A rushing play by tailback Chester Taylor that gained no yards.)
Play 3: A 6-yard pass to Taylor
Play 4: A 12-yard pass to receiver Earl Bennett, converting a third-and-4
Play 5: An 8-yard scramble, followed by a unnecessary roughness penalty on the Lions
Play 6: A 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brandon Manumaleuna
Cutler completed all four of his passes for 45 yards on the drive and accounted for 88.3 percent of the Bears' yardage. Then, after the Lions punted with 5:31 remaining, Cutler completed his next four passes -- incuding a 16-yarder to Manumaleuna on second-and-11 to seal the game. In total, Culter completed eight of eight passes in the fourth quarter in bringing the Bears from a 20-17 deficit to a 24-20 victory.
You might not view that performance as anything to write home (or an entire blog post) about. But clearly, it's the kind of thing -- making the plays in important situations -- that Cutler hasn't done enough of over the past decade. No matter what mitigating factors were involved, it's hard to go nine years without a winning season simply by chance.
Getting the Bears to nine victories marked a seminal point in Cutler's career, and afterward I asked him how big it was to him.
"It's huge," Cutler said. "With all of the turmoil we went through this summer, learning a new offense. Everyone was discouraged with it early on and we stuck it through. And we're starting to get some dividends now. We've just got to keep getting better. We can't be satisfied with where we are at now."
Cutler is smart but not particularly introspective in public settings, so I didn't think he would have an emotional breakdown while addressing the issue. But for some reason he made me think of a story about former NBA player Christian Laettner, whose boorish personality could be compared to Cutler's in his worst moments.
Laettner was particularly frustrated with a stretch of games while playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves. During a postgame interview session, he began pointing to the lockers of each teammate.
"Loser," he said about the first one.
"Loser," he said about the second, and so on, until he reached his own locker.
"Winner," Laettner said, espousing his career as a college player at Duke.
It was the kind of outburst I could imagine once coming from Cutler, based on what I observed of him as recently as last season. But at the risk of being too dramatic, it sure seems that something has clicked for him in 2010.
Cutler has finished each of the Bears' past two games with a passer rating of over 100. On Sunday, not a single of his 26 throws appeared forced or otherwise directed toward a player who wasn't open. His only mistake came when two Lions defensive linemen converged on him early in the third quarter, forcing a fumble that the Lions converted into a field goal.
I'm not sure if Cutler has found maturity or a new comfort zone in Mike Martz's offense or whether he has simply had a long stretch of really good games. But since his disastrous four-interception game against the Washington Redskins on Oct. 24, Cutler has thrown 10 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. Most importantly, the Bears have won five consecutive contests with him at quarterback.
He hasn't so much as broken the 250-yard barrier in any of those games, and Sunday his longest pass was Bennett's 33-yard catch-and-run. The Bears haven't asked him to be the 4,000-yard passer they once hoped he would be. All they've asked him to do is keep hope alive. This year, at least, Jay Cutler is a winner.