Commentary

Identity crisis

Even Bears quarterback Jay Cutler sounds unsure what to make of team's offense

Updated: September 26, 2011, 9:44 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Jay Cutler has had the kind of week that can make a quarterback consider a career change. Just as he was beginning to get his voice back after having his throat stepped on by an unruly New Orleans Saint last Sunday, he was hit low by one Packer, nailed high by another and had his spine contorted in a way that had those watching in almost as much pain as he was.

If that wasn't bad enough, his team was outmanned, outcoached and out-franchised Sunday by the same division rivals that put him out of the NFC Championship Game last winter in a fashion that blurred all lines between insult and injury.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJay Cutler was protected better Sunday, but he did take his lumps.

Cornerback Charles Woodson called his club's 27-17 victory at Soldier Field an "ugly win," for the Green Bay Packers, which says all you need to know about the Chicago Bears' loss.

And at the center of it all, as is usually the case, was Cutler, looking more and more like a player stuck in an agonizing no-man's land of personal development, every good throw negated by a bad one; every flash of brilliance wiped out by a drop or a penalty or a play call that did just as much damage.

For the second week in a row, the Bears finished with just 12 rushing plays, which isn't as appalling as their 13 yards gained. Cutler actually had time to throw this week and was sacked only three times, an improvement over the offense's two-game average of 5.5 per game. But the most troubling part of it all at this point is that for all of his ability, his arm strength and his perseverance, Cutler is starting to seemingly sink to the level of his offense.

And maybe worse is that he sounds demoralized by the very system that was supposed to lift him to his peak potential but clearly cannot.

Asked if the Bears can start installing more plays in which they excel, the quarterback seemed thoroughly perplexed.

"I don't know," Cutler said. "It's so hit-and-miss of what we're doing well and what we're not doing well that I don't even know where to begin."

One thing, however, was clear to him.

"We're 0-2 like this, so it's not looking very good," he said.

Cutler led exactly one decent drive Sunday, highlighted by a 37-yard catch by Devin Hester, another short pass to Sam Hurd that went for 17 yards and a deep throw to Johnny Knox that went for 24 yards and landed the Bears' on the Packers' 3-yard line, setting up a 4-yard touchdown pass to Dane Sanzenbacher.

The second-quarter drive also included a delay-of-game penalty on the Bears, a drop on the goal line by Roy Williams and a carry by Matt Forte that went for minus-1 yard. In other words, it was typical of the entire day.

"There were spurts, things we did well, clicking. And then other things; penalties, interceptions, penalties, interceptions, missed cues, missed blocks," Cutler said. "If you go down the line, everyone probably had a [mental error], so until we put together a full game and we're consistent and we're balanced, it's going to be tough for us to win, even though the defense is playing lights out."

In Cutler's case, the mental errors are unacceptable, particularly in a sixth NFL season that should be showing a pronounced upward climb. Instead, on his only other trip inside the red zone, at the end of the first half, he took chances with passes on first and second downs at the Packers' 7 before throwing away a third, and looked stiff and off-balance.

But the third quarter was even more troubling. With the score, if not the overall feeling, indicating that the game was well within reach, the Bears began the second half with three consecutive three-and-outs that included eight straight Cutler incompletions and resulted in a combined minus-20 yards. On the day, the Bears converted on just 3-of-12 third-down opportunities.

To be fair to Cutler, his receivers are not doing him many favors these days. Williams looks like he needs every ball to hit him in the numbers; Knox made the rookie mistake of failing to secure a pass before turning around and facing a defender; and Hester showed flashes of poor judgment all day with a costly false start and another later for unnecessary roughness.

"It's unacceptable," Knox said of his drop. "I play receiver, I have to catch the ball, simple as that."

"We just have to connect and make the play," echoed Williams. "The ball can't be perfect. I have to catch it wherever it is in my radius and just make the play. [Cutler's] good. I have to do a better job."

The blame extended to the Bears' offensive line, which on a day when it provided above-average pass protection, also produced a host of costly penalties, including three on one drive by three different linemen. That followed a Brian Urlacher interception that gave the Bears hope, down 10 points with 9:27 remaining in the game.

Cutler It's so hit and miss of what we're doing well and what we're not doing well that I don't even know where to begin.

-- Jay Cutler

It was the same drive during which a Cutler interception was called back after a vicious hit by Packers linebacker Erik Walden.

"It was a critical moment and we just didn't get the job done," center Roberto Garza said. "Obviously they're pinning their ears back and trying to get at the quarterback and we have to do a better job of protecting him at that time and not make those mistakes. We can't shoot ourselves in the foot continually. That's what loses football games."

It was the same drive that saw Hester called for unnecessary roughness.

"You're never happy with that, especially post-play penalties," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Again, that's all a part of us not playing our type of football today. We'll clean those things up."

They are obviously going to have to with two games against division opponents in the next two weeks and a fired-up Ron Rivera bringing his Carolina Panthers to town next Sunday. And they're going to have to do it with a quarterback who looks and sounds the part of a confident leader.

As of Sunday, Cutler couldn't even say for sure if a Bears' offense with 19 regular-season games under the current system has an identity.

"The first game we were clicking and the next two we were kind of misfiring, and here and there," he said. "So until we're more consistent, I guess we don't."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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