Let's play a game of addition.
The starting quarterback is the most important player on any football team.
The Chicago Bears finished the regular season 11-5, won the NFC North division title and will host the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at Soldier Field.
Jay Cutler is the biggest reason why.
So, in this case, does 1+2=3? Did the Bears need Cutler as their quarterback to advance this far? Was he the key to their resurgence this season? Or could they have followed the same path without making the 2009 blockbuster trade that cost them three high draft choices? In today's Double Coverage, ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson and ESPN.com NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert discuss that very question.
Kevin Seifert: Jeff, you've been covering the Bears for years. You saw them go to Super Bowl XLI with Rex Grossman as their quarterback. You've lived through Kordell Stewart, Craig Krenzel, Chad Hutchinson, Brian Griese and Kyle Orton. You've seen a team win in spite of its quarterback, and you've seen quarterbacks single-handedly lose games. Let's start it off this way: How much credit do you think Cutler should get for the Bears sitting one step from the Super Bowl?
Jeff Dickerson: Cutler deserves plenty of credit, Kevin. As much as we want to hammer Cutler for his mistakes -- more on that later, I'm sure -- you can't overlook the fact his quarterback rating was above 100 six times in the regular season. And you guessed it: the Bears won all six of those games.
So if the most important player on the field was arguably the best player on the field nearly half the time, I find it impossible to minimize the positive impact Cutler had on the Bears' playoff run. Is he going to run for public office after he's finished playing football? No. Does he care that we're talking about him today, either good or bad? No. But to sit back and say Cutler was simply along for the ride wouldn't be doing his contributions much justice.
And by the way, thanks for bringing up Chad Hutchinson. I was trying to suppress that memory. What's next? Are we going to break down the NFL career of Jonathan Quinn? I could talk bad Bears quarterbacks all day.
KS: Any time. How about this: Cade McNown, Henry Burris, Shane Matthews and Steve Stenstrom. That pretty much covers it for our generation, I think.
Anyway, I agree it would be wrong to overlook some of Cutler's individual performances this season. He bounced back from some early hits in Week 2 to throw three touchdown passes against the Dallas Cowboys in a 27-20 victory. He forgot about the early interception against the New York Jets and went on to throw for another three touchdowns in a 38-34 victory. His performance against the Philadelphia Eagles -- four touchdown passes, 146.2 passer rating -- was superb. And don't forget his late-game drive against the Detroit Lions in Week 13, the one that locked up the division title.
But I think the question at hand is whether the Bears would have won 11 games with, say, Orton at quarterback. To me, Cutler was not among the top two reasons for the Bears' success this season.
More important was the defense, which limited opponents to 17.9 points per game, and the best special teams in the NFL. As a result of those two factors, Cutler and the rest of the Bears' offense had the best head start in the NFL. No offense had a better average start of its drive (33.7-yard line) than the Bears'.
Do you think the Bears win those games with Orton?
JD: I must first admit to being a card-carrying member of the Kyle Orton fan club. Is there a more underappreciated quarterback in the NFL? That being said, I think you could make the playoffs with a guy like Orton, but the Bears are in a better position to potentially win a Super Bowl with a guy like Cutler.
Let me explain.
I firmly believe if Orton quarterbacked the Bears in 2009 they probably would have won three more regular-season games (against the Packers, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers). They would have finished 10-6 and perhaps earned an NFC wild-card playoff berth. Cutler cost the Bears those games because of a barrage of turnovers and terrible decisions. But that's where the ride would've ended with Orton, in my opinion.
Could Orton have beaten the Cowboys, Eagles or Jets in 2010? Maybe. But with apologies to Jim Mora, we're talking playoffs, Kevin, playoffs!
Believe me, I know Cutler's only career postseason victory came against Seattle this past weekend, and he could easily go out Sunday and throw five interceptions against the Packers. But he could just as easily throw five touchdowns.
That's why the Bears are better off with Cutler -- because Orton hit his glass ceiling as an NFL quarterback. Cutler has not. Look at how Cutler tore up the Jets. The defense struggled, and it needed a lift from the quarterback position to beat a tough opponent. Cutler delivered. I'm not saying Orton is incapable of leading a team to victory over playoff-quality teams, but the chances Cutler can do it are greater.
Sorry, Kyle. I loved your neck beard. But I have to go with Cutler on this one.
KS: It's all fantasy talk, of course. We'll never know if Orton would have played well enough last year to compel the Bears to keep offensive coordinator Ron Turner this season. We also don't know if Mike Martz would have wanted Orton this season.
But the Bears gave up two first-round draft picks and a third-rounder for Cutler. Has he provided them enough value for those picks? Or could they have used those draft picks to improve themselves in other areas?
It would be wrong to say that Cutler hasn't had a positive impact on the Bears this season, but I'm not willing to say he was the key to the Bears' division title, either. But if the Bears go to the Super Bowl, no one is going to care about that distinction.
JD: And you know Cutler is happiest when nobody cares!
I guess it's possible Jerry Angelo would have turned those two first-round selections into starting-caliber players. But I've seen the Bears use high draft choices on the likes of Michael Haynes, Roosevelt Williams, Mark Bradley, Dusty Dvoracek, Dan Bazuin, Michael Okwo, Jarron Gilbert and Juaquin Iglesias. So to assume Angelo would've waved his magic draft wand and taken the right guys? Well, that would be misguided, to say the least. Despite all the warts, I'm happy with Cutler and feel the Bears are now in a better position to win their first Super Bowl since the 1985 season because of him.
I could talk bad Bears draft picks all day.
KS: Spoken like a longtime Bears follower. Basically what you're saying is that while Cutler has demonstrated some flaws, his acquisition nevertheless prevented the Bears from making another series of draft mistakes! Perfect. I love it.
On that note, Jeff, this has been fun. I think we can agree Cutler has made a positive impact on the Bears' run to the NFC Championship Game. Could they have done it without him? That's up for debate.