GREEN BAY, Wis. -- You can assemble all the shiny new toys in the world, all the pass catchers and runners and freakish athletes. But an offense, any offense, is only as good as its quarterback. And Jay Cutler was awful against the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night.
This isn't a discussion about Cutler's overall worthiness; he won six straight games coming in and in doing so was becoming most everything the Chicago Bears had hoped a franchise quarterback could be. No, this is specifically about Thursday night in Lambeau, about an opportunity squandered. Against a Packers defense that was there to be deep-fried, Cutler made bad decisions, repeated bad throws off his back foot, was late with passes when receivers had been open.
He publicly and animatedly ripped teammates when they made mistakes even though he committed a shopping cart full of his own and did not take back one word or gesticulation afterward. Cutler, for the record, had the same number of touchdown passes Thursday night as the Packers punter, Tim Masthay, in a loss much more humiliating than 23-10 makes it sound.
And with Cutler, his linemen, his receivers and maybe even his coordinator laying a big fat egg, an offense that just a week ago looked like it might be the best the Bears had fielded in the past 50 years, stunk the joint out. No, it wasn't your daddy's offense; it was your granddaddy's offense. Actually, George Halas might have turned up his nose at this. When the Packers put the game out of reach with a 54-yard field goal to make it 16-3 early in the fourth quarter, the three Bears receivers -- Brandon Marshall, Earl Bennett and Alshon Jeffery -- had a grand total of two receptions. Marshall had none. The only pass thrown his way to that point of the game he dropped in the end zone.
Charles Woodson, the Packers Hall of Fame-bound safety, didn't even bother to spread the blame around, telling ESPN's Rachel Nichols after the game, "Same old Jay." Wow. The Packers' defenders were expecting the interceptions they took off Cutler, perhaps all four of them. You know the last time a Bears quarterback threw four interceptions and was sacked seven times in a game? Bobby Douglass in 1971, back when the Bears set the standard for bad offense.
But Cutler had no support, to be sure. There were coverage sacks, suggesting the receivers couldn't get free, and those who had questions about the Bears' offensive line have plenty of "told you so" ammunition now. One issue worth watching going forward is how Cutler's teammates, particularly the struggling linemen, take to him ripping their heads off publicly. Asked why he did it so openly, Cutler very calmly defended his approach, saying, "I care about this. This isn't just a hobby for me. I'm not doing this for my health. I'm trying to win football games. I'm trying to get first downs and when we're not doing the little things and not doing things the right way consistently I'm going to say something. If they want a quarterback that doesn't care they can get somebody else."
Those of us who wondered aloud if the Packers were on the verge of trouble need to wipe the egg from our faces, because they're not not after the Bears' visit amounted to a delivery of chicken soup. In fact -- and here's how quickly things change dramatically in the NFL -- the Packers now have another victory over the Bears, who appear as though they ought to pull the car back into the garage and have an overhaul since they don't play again for 10 days. To put even more stink on it, Matt Forte injured his ankle and had to leave the game.
Of course, the Packers' defense was going to be better Thursday night than it had been Sunday against the 49ers, who did about whatever they wanted, especially run the ball. San Francisco ran for 186 yards on the Packers, who looked both confused and, well, physically overmatched in the opener.
The reason for all the optimism surrounding the Bears' pregame wasn't just the shiny new offense, but Green Bay's inability to stop anybody the past four games, three of which saw opponents produce 108 points at Lambeau Field. It's unthinkable for a contender, a recent champ, to get slapped around like that. The Green Bay defense was 32nd -- dead last -- in yards allowed last year and appeared to do nothing to change that over the summer.
The combination of factors led Cutler to essentially dare the Packers to employ press coverage of his new receivers, Marshall and Jeffery (which they didn't, though it hardly mattered). But the Bears did nothing to back up the new vibrato; in fact their first-half performance was as inept as the Bears' offense traditionally is. The line, particularly J'Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi, made egregious mistakes. Cutler was surprisingly late on passes and appeared reluctant after being slammed a couple of times early. The Bears had this same issue to start last season but it seemed to disappear during the five-game winning streak.
Meanwhile, it's fair to question Mike Tice's judgment, given the promises of quick-strike passes that were rarely if ever called Thursday night. Why have Cutler take deep drops if the line can't hold off the Packers' pass rush? Why not call more runs early, before the Packers pulled away? Why not throw more screens to Forte (before he got hurt), Michael Bush and Devin Hester to slow down a ferocious pass rush or make it pay? Why not call more quick slants to receivers as big and as physical as Marshall and Jeffery? This was like Mike Martz and Caleb Hanie. (Can't you picture Martz at home laughing his head off over this?)
The place where Lovie Smith is totally underrated is how well the Bears are so consistently well-prepared coming into games. But by halftime Thursday night they'd made two or three weeks worth of bonehead plays, including the 12-men-on-the-field penalty that put the Packers back on the field and led directly to a Green Bay field goal and being suckered on a fake 45-yard field goal that produced a Packers touchdown.
Turns out the Bears were trying to block the field goal with all 11 men on the line. The Packers recognized it and went to their trick play to counter. Ooops. Peanut Tillman was one of several Bears who said a blocked field goal there could have been a "game-changer," but why do you need a game-changer down 3-0? What it was, in hindsight, was a stupid gamble. You've got the best special teams in the business. Why gamble when you're down 3-0 and your defense is playing damned well?
As bad as the physical mistakes were, it was the lack of intelligence the Bears played with throughout the game that ought to be alarming, especially since it came against the Packers. And yes, the questioning of the team's decision-making extends to Smith for having Cutler in the game, getting smashed like a piñata, with eight minutes to play, down 20, and his offensive players lost.
There were times last year and in 2010 when Cutler had no chance because the offensive line was so absolutely dreadful. And the video will ultimately tell the Bears coaches Friday just how over-his-head Webb was, particularly when the job called for getting in the way of Green Bay's Mr. Clay Matthews, who looked like Lawrence Taylor on Thursday night. But there are coaches and players who look at the sacks in real time and swear Cutler undermines his own case by holding onto the ball far too long.
The only thing that should have been more embarrassing than having to hear Packers fans sing "The Bears Still Stink" in the fourth quarter was wondering how true it is, at least as it plays out every time the Bears visit Lambeau.
What appears likely, even though the season is only two weeks old, is that the Bears, improved personnel or not, really can't be counted on to compete with the elite teams, with the Packers and 49ers in the NFC. They didn't have to win Thursday night, but they had to show up and play a stronger, smarter game than they did.
Maybe it's one game against a great, resourceful opponent that was even a bit desperate to rebound. Maybe that's all it is.
Maybe Jerry Angelo's line is seriously leaky and is really, more than anything, what ails Jay Cutler. When Cutler said, "You can't get behind like that and into situations where you have to pass" he wasn't making excuses or looking for blame. He was accurately diagnosing a problem the Bears absolutely have to solve. Maybe the Indianapolis Colts are a lousy last-place team, just like they were last year, and hanging 41 on them at Soldier Field is nothing to pop your jersey about.
You want a silver lining, here it is: A humiliating loss -- and everybody should be able to agree that's what this was -- now sends the Bears into the kind of self-examination the Packers went through after losing to the 49ers last week. And here's another place where Smith doesn't receive nearly enough credit: for being really, really, really calm, especially after losses. Serene, almost. It angers a lot of folks who want Lovie to go Ditka in the middle of the week, but it serves the team well in the vast majority of cases. When Smith reminded reporters, "A lot of times you see improvement from Week 1 to Week 2. We have to really see progress from 2 to 3," he said perhaps the most important thing uttered in the postgame analysis.
And the coach added that as bad as the loss is, it counts for one loss, just the way an epic or an overtime loss would.
The head coach, his lieutenants and his quarterback had better figure out something because, even though a whole lot of football remains, no team with real aspirations wants to deal with too many evenings like this.