PFW observations: Cutler and a new NFL reality

There remain pockets of disbelievers around the Windy City, jaded skeptics with weathered, furled brows. It’s the Chicago Bears’ pricey acquisition of Jay Cutler(notes) on their minds.

Fine, we have the QB, the macho arm, but who’s he going to throw to? Who are the targets, the payoff men? Where are the hands?

I’ve got to be careful here, hoisting Cutler into the company I’m about to mention, but you have to believe – and history has shown – that the big-time passer does a better job of elevating average wide receivers than vice versa. Imagine Trent Dilfer(notes) or Mark Malone throwing to Jerry Rice(notes), Paul Warfield, etc. Or, as we will see in Buffalo, Trent Edwards(notes) trying to throw somewhere near Terrell Owens(notes) and keeping him happy. I mean, it’s not nearly as productive the other way around.

Photo Cutler is the Bears’ centerpiece on offense.
(Jim Prisching/Getty)

John Elway gunned the Denver Broncos to three Super Bowls in the 1980s, throwing to the trio of Vance Johnson, Mark Jackson and Ricky Nattiel – “The Three Amigos,” they were called. Shifty, point-guard types who could burn and break some things open, but certainly not a bunch worthy of a nickname. In the stretch from 1986-89, Elway’s first glory run, the most TDs caught in a season by any Amigo was seven (Johnson).

In 1992, Dan Marino led the league with 4,116 yards passing, and his recipients were Tony Martin, Freddie Banks and a pair of creaky 30-something Marks (Clayton and Duper). Martin and Banks were inconsistent for Marino – catch-one, drop-one characters. Duper and Clayton were getting old, the RPMs waning and both playing their last season with the Miami Dolphins.

And can anyone name the New England Patriots wideouts huddling with Tom Brady(notes) as he went to work in the 2006 AFC title game? Probably not. Unknown soldiers, only their names were Reche Caldwell(notes), Jabar Gaffney(notes), Troy Brown(notes) and Chad Jackson(notes). Caldwell and Gaffney were free-agent signees, curbsiders looking for work. Brown was a 14-year vet, Jackson a rookie. The Pats scored 34 points that day in Indy.

Again, it’s not fair to bunch Cutler in a conversation that includes three present or future Hall of Famers, but the point is, if the arm and accuracy are now present in Chicago, sufficient hands will eventually arise. From surprising places … and not-so-surprising ones – and quicker than you think. Colleges are pumping out more quality receivers than at any time in history. All the Bears need to do is some gathering and let Cutler take it from there.

One of the places from where Cutler won’t be getting much help, I’m guessing, is Devin Hester(notes). Mr. Lakeshore Lightning. Everyone loves Devin the Returner’s speed, but Devin the Receiver plays with eight fingers, and he typically had trouble managing the softer, touchier throws of Rex Grossman(notes) and, later, Kyle Orton(notes). Now it will be Cutler firing his way, a Wehrmacht 88, and I see Cutler cutting him in half. Seven fingers.

Last November Donovan McNabb(notes) was on the bench, and in January he was in the NFC title game. The Eagles have forgiven all sins and are now arming him for one final thrust at a Super Bowl. The thrusters: WR Jeremy Maclin(notes) of Missouri and RB LeSean McCoy(notes) of Pitt, their top two choices in this April’s NFL draft – speed-and-explosion guys. And it’s a shocking departure from history here. The Eagles hadn’t taken offensive skill players with their first two picks in more than 20 years. Not since ’86, in the midst of the Buddy Ryan reign, when the team fed its starving ground game a 1-2 punch of backs named Keith Byars and Anthony Toney. The Byars choice paid off for Philly; Mr. Toney did not.

For the purists, puffs of irritant were released during the appearance of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Patriots owner Robert Kraft on CNBC last month, their chat on “Squawk Box” concerning the NFL’s position in this mega-recession – the painful business-speak of pro football.

“One thing that’s clear in this kind of environment is there is a flight to quality,” the commissioner said, “and we only have 10 home games, and the quality of what we offer will hold us well. We’re in this for the long term.”

I.e., we can only soak you a handful of days per year, but we still plan on wetter days ahead.

Then New England’s Kraft, chiming in with his bit of uplifting news:

“We were very worried about our season renewals,” he said. “I mean, we’re up in the mid-90 percent now, and they had to have their money in by March for the season, which is a real commitment. … I think we [the NFL] have the chance to become more important, as long as people are comfortable branding with us, becoming emotionally connected to us. Thank goodness that’s happened. When you stay with quality, the fans come.”

So says the National Football League Corporation and its unending flight to dollars. The blocking and the branding. And now the talk of moving the Super Bowl to London. Makes you want to fly out for more of those $10,000 PSLs, doesn’t it? You know – buying the right to buy all that quality? The gouge in its purest form.

Don’t kid yourself, gents. This econo-plague recognizes no titles or addresses. It bypasses no arenas. It kisses no rings.

Welcome to the age of the empty seat.

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