COMMENTARY | This proved nothing about Jay Cutler. No one should look at Sunday's 24-21 comeback victory by the Chicago Bears as verification Cutler can still become an elite NFL quarterback in his 30s, or even that he deserves a new contract.
Often labeled a front runner or lacking toughness, the Bears QB turned around a game the Cincinnati Bengals had completely owned, and led an opening-day comeback from an 11-point second-half deficit in Marc Trestman's debut as Bears coach. For Cutler to lead late comebacks in Chicago is rare. He had been part of a better late Bears comeback before -- last year from 12 points down against the Carolina Panthers in the fourth quarter -- but the defense almost completely triggered that rally.
This time, Cutler more or less willed the rally after cornerback Tim Jennings forced a fumble and recovered it himself. The Bengals had outgained the Bears by a 3-1 margin after taking a 21-10 third-quarter lead.
Then Cutler essentially scrapped the three-step and five-step timing passing game and resorted to what had worked in the past. He moved around a little and threw it downfield, usually to wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Coming off a team-record 118-catch, 1508-yard season, Marshall caught eight passes for 104 yards while the rest of the wide receivers had six catches for 48 yards. So much for the balance and rhythm Trestman sought with his system. He seemed to even admit as much afterward when asked which plays stuck out in his mind after his first head coaching win. "The two plays that really resonate with me offensively were Jay scramble (and) hitting Martellus (Bennett) for the big gain and then Jay scrambling," Trestman said.
The pass to Bennett, Cutler's new tight end, went for 30 yards following a short scramble. It started a nine-play, 80-yard TD drive to make it 21-17. In the fourth quarter, Cutler scrambled up the middle 18 yards one down after a holding penalty and made it possible for his own 19-yard, game-winning TD pass to Brandon Marshall with 8:06 remaining.
"I thought no one got frustrated early on with us and the way we were playing," Cutler said. "We stuck to the game plan. The fourth quarter -- that's when you've got to win ballgames in this league."
Cutler did pull it out in the fourth quarter, but hardly stuck to the game plan to do it. He always had been able to move and throw, or lead the occasional rally.
The truly elite NFL quarterbacks have a system that they run efficiently and often to perfection. They'll occasionally deviate from the plan. What Cutler did Sunday had absolutely nothing to do with the new West Coast attack Trestman installed. Deviation proved the norm, just as it did when Cutler ran offenses under Mike Martz and Mike Tice.
Cutler pointed out that his scrambling came about largely because Cincinnati played his receivers with a defender on top and one in a close trail technique, a "two-man" pass coverage approach similar to what Green Bay used to shut down the Bears last year.
"There's more two-man in this league over the past couple years," Cutler said. "Defenses like it, especially on third down. It's just part of the league now. We just need to be ready for it."
Running or running and throwing are not the way the truly elite quarterbacks consistently beat such defenses. It has to be done with precision passing within the framework of the offense, and by a quarterback knowing and recognizing all his options.
Cutler obviously doesn't know this yet. It has been apparent since day 1 of training camp in Bourbonnais, when Cutler struggled with interceptions and tipped pass early in practices, and continued in the first two preseason games.
Cutler posted a 92.3 passer rating, well above his 81.3 rating last year and 84.0 career rating. Still, the passing game looked sloppy and unorganized much of the day. They wasted three timeouts much like they often had under Tice, and five of their first seven possession were three-and-outs.
"It wasn't pretty, it wasn't perfect," Cutler said. "We didn't think it was going to be. "We made plays when we had to make plays. In the fourth quarter the line played great. So there were a lot of positives, there's some stuff to build on."
There was plenty for the Bears offense and Cutler to build on, and the one saving fact -- the most important one -- is they won despite still having an offense in an embryonic state against a very good Cincinnati defense.
Gene Chamberlain is a freelance writer who has covered the Chicago Bears for 19 years for the Associated Press, CBS Sports.com, Suburban Chicago Newspapers and Copley News Service. Follow him on Twitter@thatbearsguy.
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