Commentary

Right time, right place?

Is Chicago's Jay Cutler finally poised to fulfill potential he showed in Denver?

Updated: October 18, 2013, 4:21 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

"Jay gives them the best opportunity [to win the Super Bowl]. If they can do it with anybody, they can do it with Jay. It's just going to take some time."

Those words belonged to John Elway. The Denver Broncos legend said them to reporters just after Jay Cutler's first-ever NFL start, way back on Dec. 3, 2006. At the time, Elway was running an Arena Football League franchise in Denver. (Now, he's the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations.)

Cutler was the next big thing, the next Elway, and the world was wide open for the young QB.

Time goes by quickly in the NFL.

The floppy-haired rookie with the big arm is now a stylish leading man, bruised by defensive linemen, the barbs of fellow players and reporters, and the weight of his own still-unfulfilled promise.

Now in his eighth season, Cutler is a family man, a veteran, an enigma. He is occasionally a punch line, but always a headline. He's no bust. But he's no Elway, either.

Cutler exists somewhere in the middle, which makes it fun when people try to rank quarterbacks. It feels like this season could define him. Given that it's a contract year, this season could be very profitable for Cutler.

Nearly seven years after his debut, Cutler has 99 starts under his belt. He is preparing to lead his 4-2 Bears against his former coach, Mike Shanahan, and young quarterback Robert Griffin III in suburban Maryland, while Elway roots for Peyton Manning to beat up his old team, the Colts.

[+] EnlargeMike Shanahan and Jay Cutler
Dave Einsel/Getty ImagesMike Shanahan and Jay Cutler once shared a sideline in Denver. On Sunday afternoon, they will face off at FedEx Field.

This start against the Washington Redskins is No. 100 for Cutler, the would-be heir to Elway's throne in Denver and the man who would finally break all of Sid Luckman's dusty records in Chicago.

"They go by fast," Cutler said on his ESPN Chicago 1000 radio show Monday. "Honestly, I can't believe it's been eight years and it's already been 100."

Cutler was selected in the first round of the 2006 draft, No. 11 overall, by a Denver franchise looking to recreate Elway's magic. Veteran Jake Plummer, who led Denver to the AFC Championship Game (a loss to the Steelers) the previous season, was benched for the rookie after 11 starts and a two-game losing streak.

"We made that decision because we made the AFC championship the year before, and I really felt at that time that was as far as Jake was going to take us," Shanahan said this week in a conference call with Chicago reporters. "I thought Jay Cutler had the intangibles and the skills to possibly take us to the next level. I felt he was experienced enough to go in that direction. That's why we made the change."

In that first start against the Seahawks, Cutler went 10-for-21 for 143 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown in a 23-20 loss. According to Stefan Fatsis' book about training with the 2006 Denver Broncos, "A Few Seconds of Panic," after the game Cutler told Plummer that Denver would have won if the veteran had played.

The Broncos went 2-3 after Cutler took over -- Plummer replaced him briefly during the final game of the season -- and missed the playoffs one year removed from a 13-3 season.

Plummer retired relatively young and Cutler never led Denver to the "next level," as the franchise missed the playoffs all three seasons he was with Denver. For all the talk of Cutler's Pro Bowl season in 2008, it didn't save the job of two-time Super Bowl winner Shanahan, who was fired in December '08. Cutler was traded to Chicago in April 2009.

Cutler is now on his third head coach and fifth offensive coordinator. He is 30 years old, and the teams he has started for have gone 55-44, 38-24 in Chicago. He is 1-1 in career playoff starts, both with Chicago in 2011. As you might've heard, he finished only one of those playoff games.

Not every win was his doing, nor were all the losses his fault. But it is clearly his time to seize the reins of his own career. There are no more excuses, valid or not. And he seems to realize that.

More importantly, he has meshed with first-year Bears coach Marc Trestman and his West Coast-style offense. Even more importantly, Cutler is surrounded by better players, from his old Denver teammate Brandon Marshall to the radically improved offensive line.

After an up-and-down first four years in Chicago, it looks as if Cutler is finally the quarterback whom general manager Jerry Angelo traded for in 2009. Angelo, of course, has been fired, along with coach Lovie Smith and three Bears offensive coordinators.

Cutler, however, survived. And now he's finally thriving. Not that Shanahan is surprised.

"Well, that's the way he played for me," Shanahan said. "He played at a Pro Bowl level going back to his first [full] year as a starter, his second year in the National Football League. I think he had well over 600 throws, and I don't remember what the sack amount was, but I think he had 11 or 12 sacks in all those throws. He got rid of the ball very quickly and he distributed the ball well. I really liked what I saw."

Shanahan's memory is a little off. He's thinking of Cutler's third year, the Pro Bowl year, when he completed 384 of 616 passes (62.3 percent) and was sacked only 11 times. Cutler did throw 18 interceptions that year.

The next season, his first in Chicago, was a disaster. Cutler threw 26 interceptions and was sacked 35 times.

But while his play was often uneven over the next three years, with varying failed plans and broken-down complementary players, the Bears still were 27-13 when Cutler started.

They've made the playoffs only once, however, despite a 7-3 start in 2011 before Cutler was injured, and a 10-6 season in 2012.

Through six games this season, Cutler is completing 65.9 percent of his passes (143-of-217) for 1,630 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. He has been sacked nine times. He's had one truly bad game -- a four-turnover performance in a loss to Detroit -- and overcame a three-turnover performance in a win over Minnesota.

Cutler has spread the ball around to his various targets and gotten rid of it quickly. Some bad habits remain, but he rarely looks out of sorts.

It's not hard for Shanahan to see the real cause of the QB's growth this season.

"Supporting cast," Shanahan said. "You've got to have a system that you believe in. Jay picks up any system very quickly. The supporting cast, you're trying to get the best supporting cast to give your team a chance to be successful. That's what I see that he's done to give him a chance to utilize his talents."

Shanahan, as you might have guessed, is an unabashed Cutler fan.

While his "that's the way he played for me" comment might be considered a jab at Cutler's old coaches in Chicago, Shanahan knows that if you build a team around a quarterback, it can take time, especially if you don't surround him with the proper help, from coaching to players.

"That's part of building a team around a quarterback," Shanahan said. "It doesn't happen overnight."

No, but after 99 starts, it's about time.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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