Commentary

Cutler's legend grows from the sidelines

When the Bears' injured field general returns, he has much to prove

Updated: December 14, 2011, 9:32 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST -- Rumor has it that the Nobel Prize panel is considering Jay Cutler as a recipient. The Presidential Medal of Freedom can't be far behind.

But really, after they write songs about you, how much better can it get?

Seldom has a football player's stock shot up higher while inactive than Cutler's has over the last year.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler, Caleb Hanie
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireCaleb Hanie has struggled mightily while trying to fill Jay Cutler's shoes.

First there was the circling of wagons locally in the months following the NFC title game. In a classic example of "Only we can do that to our pledges," Cutler's popularity soared in Chicago, fiercely so, after the initial rush of national criticism over his sideline body language and questions regarding his toughness following his knee injury in that game.

Not only was Cutler now viewed as up to the task of quarterbacking the team, but he now ranked only slightly behind Aron Ralston on the toughness meter.

Currently he is being lauded in some circles as one of the top quarterbacks in the league; his injury considered the biggest reason the Bears are not Super-Bowl bound, and Bears fans are literally singing his praises with the amusing if somewhat annoying "Cutty Come Back" parody.

"It just goes back to, you don't know how good you've got it until it's gone," said receiver Roy Williams. "I don't think it would be that way if we were 3-0. It would be like 'OK, we're biding time until Jay gets back.'"

To a large extent, this is true.

Now that we see Caleb Hanie running for his life, it is apparent that Cutler was just as responsible for overcoming the offensive line's deficiencies as there was a case of the line vastly improving.

It is easier to discount Cutler cursing out offensive coordinator Mike Martz as not such a big deal. Also easier to understand why Cutler might have been a little peeved after one more seven-step drop and one more dropped pass.

"When we are smart ... we are more than likely going to be successful," Cutler said at the time, eight weeks ago, in a not-so-subtle dig at Martz.

When the Bears reeled off five victories in a row, it was apparent that Cutler and the offense were finally coming together, that when he had time to throw, a reasonable game plan and his receivers held on to the ball, the Bears looked very much like a playoff team.

Cutler played through a thumb injury that Sunday against the Chargers that would require surgery, once again reinforcing his now-tough image, and turned in one of his best games with a quarterback rating of 97, his fourth-highest mark of the season.

"He's a perfectionist," Williams said of Cutler afterward. "He does what he's supposed to do and he expects everybody to play at his level."

To Cutler's credit, he never has played the martyr, has become even easier for the media to deal with, and has just generally been more pleasant over the past month. But it is still pretty amusing how much better he has become for what he has not done. He was on such a roll there for a while that even his love life got better after he went away.

While Peyton Manning has half-jokingly been referred to lately as an MVP candidate sitting out the season with a neck injury, proof of how much he obviously means to his winless team, Cutler's ranking among the NFL's best seems to inch up with every Hanie miscue.

And this is where it starts to veer toward the ridiculous.

While Cutler was always viewed as a talented, professional quarterback, being held up next to a guy with three NFL starts has suddenly elevated him to one of the elite passers in the league.

Among Cutler's best games this season were victories over the then 3-5 Eagles, who lost three of their next four games beginning with 2-6 Arizona, and over San Diego, which was the Chargers' fifth loss in a row.

Though you figure the Bears would have beaten Kansas City and Denver with Cutler under center, Cutler would have been just as capable of throwing an interception on that screen pass on second-and-1 at the Oakland 7 and a win would not have been a gimme in the asylum they call the Coliseum.

Cutler certainly deserves to be appreciated now, but more as a future measuring stick of how much better and more consistent he can become.

Not as a candidate for sainthood.

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.