Cutler beating a reminder of Martz system flaws

·NFL columnist

For a moment, Jay Cutler(notes) looked slow. Maybe lost. More likely, what we thought was lethargy was simply the case of being shelled one too many times.

We all saw this coming, didn't we? We kept watching the Chicago Bears quarterback take it on the chin, in the ear, up the nose. Eventually, something was going to rattle loose. This is what happens when you marry a terrible offensive line with a scheme that exposes a quarterback to the maximum punishment – the guy with the ball crumbles. And that's what Cutler did Sunday night – a little bit mentally and whole lot physically.

Cutler was sacked nine times in the first half of Sunday's 17-3 loss to the Giants, the last of which left him concussed and knocked out of the game. Some of the sacks could be attributed to slow decisions on his part. Some could be blamed on poor protection. Some were simply the Giants featuring a pair of Pro Bowl defensive ends who decided to show up on the same day.

Jay Cutler was sacked by the Giants for an NFL-record nine times in one half.
(Alan Maglaque/US Presswire)

But I think as Cutler accrued hits on Sunday, some of his lethargy might have been from simply being beaten like a burlap sack. It is a reality that if you hit a quarterback often enough, it impacts his decision-making in the pocket. He becomes distracted, makes the wrong reads, or stops looking downfield altogether. And eventually, he is shell-shocked. That's how Cutler looked by the end of the half, like he wasn't all there mentally – and not in the usual mopey Cutler way. For that, Cutler and the Bears are this week's biggest loser.

What Sunday's half of football reminded me of is actually far more frightening. It reminded me of Kurt Warner(notes) talking about his head not being entirely right after suffering so many hits in the system of Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Go back to 2002 and 2003 and look at the film of Warner getting constantly decked. Years later, Warner would look back with a strong feeling that those hits, and some of the resulting concussions, accounted for the five-year donut hole in his career, when he inexplicably played like a middling journeyman.

It wasn't until 2006 that Warner felt completely healthy and simply "all there" again. And the result was him returning to his Hall of Fame-worthy form. It's worth thinking about in terms of Cutler. Anyone who watched him for his first 3½ games this season knows that despite the early success, he has already taken a significant amount of punishment. At first, it seemed admirable. But after seeing him look so physically odd in the second quarter against the Giants, I'm beginning to wonder if maybe it's just plain dangerous.

The Bears need to think long and hard about their investment and realize that something drastic has to change. Either Martz has to change what he does schematically for the sake of his quarterback (he won't … ask Warner and Marc Bulger(notes)), or the Bears have to pray for some offensive line help off the street, from the sky, or lord forbid, the UFL. One way another, something has to change.

Now on to this week's winners and other losers …


Philadelphia Eagles fans
You had to wonder how they were going to receive former quarterback Donovan McNabb(notes), particularly after McNabb said he thought Eagles fans would cheer his return. That's exactly what they did, giving McNabb a standing ovation prior to Sunday's game against Washington. McNabb did a lot for the franchise, and his departure wasn't his choice. The Eagles fans did right by him (until, of course, kickoff).

Terrell Owens caught 10 passes for 222 yards and one TD vs. the Browns.
(Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Cincinnati Bengals wideout Terrell Owens(notes)
His 10 receptions and 222 yards were his biggest day since a 20-catch, 283-yard effort back in 2000. This is exactly what the Bengals envisioned when they signed Owens – a dynamic second option to Chad Ochocinco(notes) who could help open up the running game. Unfortunately, the running game isn't holding up its end of the bargain.

Cleveland Browns
The Browns got their first win of the season, surprisingly knocking off Cincinnati. Maybe I've been too hard on the Browns this season. They held a fourth-quarter lead in their three previous games, only to lose all three by a total of 12 points. So it appears they are legitimately playing teams tougher than in the past, and doing it without a legitimate starting quarterback.

New York Jets tight end Dustin Keller(notes)
I still remember all the predraft buzz about Keller back in 2008, when multiple executives were saying he was a "franchise" tight end. But while Keller was solid his first two seasons, only now is he looking like a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Two of his four catches on Sunday were for touchdowns, giving him five in four games. Only Antonio Gates(notes) (six) has more this season.

Atlanta Falcons wideout Roddy White(notes)
White made coaches everywhere proud on Sunday when he stuck with the play after a Nate Clements(notes) interception and forced a defining fumble. The Clements pick should have iced the win for the 49ers with just 91 second left. Instead, it gave the ball back to the Falcons and set up Matt Ryan's(notes) defining drive and a game-winning field goal. Soon, people will wake up and realize White is one of the top three or four wideouts in the NFL.

San Diego Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips(notes)
He had four sacks in a win over the Cardinals and generally hasn't looked this good since his Pro Bowl season in 2006. Granted, he splurged on an inept offense, but that hasn't always been a given the past two years. Indeed, Phillips and the defense have been better this season than scores have indicated. If the offense and special teams can find some consistency, this team will be fighting for the division at the end of the season.

Denver Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton(notes)
Orton's completion rate is inching closer to 70 percent on the season, and he's averaging 354 passing yards per game. And while you can keep rolling your eyes, get the film of his game against a very good Titans secondary. Orton was simply superb. And he's doing it largely with wideouts who likely wouldn't be considered even in the top 20 of the NFL's best.

St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo
Believe it or not, there are some significant signs of progress in this organization. Not just with the performance of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford(notes), either. The defensive front seven wreaked havoc on the Seahawks, and Mark Clayton(notes) has finally rounded into a very legitimate No. 1 wideout. They look mentally tougher, too. You have to wonder how much they'll regret losing their first two games by a total of six points, particularly when the NFC West champ may only need eight wins this season.

Baltimore Ravens passing game
One week it's up, the next week it's down. But if you saw the win over the Steelers, you can see why the Ravens' current collection of receivers could be devastating if they can find some consistency. I still think T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) has got something left, and Anquan Boldin(notes) is already drawing the extra attention that makes him worth his paycheck.

Charles Woodson runs an interception for a touchdown against the Lions.
(Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson(notes)
Yes, Calvin Johnson(notes) pogo-sticked over him for a touchdown, but there may not be a cornerback in the league that could have gotten high enough to take that one away. Woodson responded with his 10th defensive touchdown in what eventually proved to be the Packers' decisive score. He's not perfect, but he's playing pretty close to last season's defensive player of the year form.

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard(notes)
Just when you are ready to plunk him down on the bench, he flashes the versatility and skill that once earned him franchise quarterback money. Garrard's efficient passing and timely running – and three touchdowns – gave the Colts fits, yet again. But I still maintain this team is only as good as Garrard is consistent. And unless they are playing Indianapolis, that just isn't enough.

Houston Texans running game
Beating the Raiders isn't exactly a revelation, but running up 249 rushing yards with an effective three-headed rushing game is, particularly when Andre Johnson(notes) is down with a bum wheel. I still hesitate to get back on this bandwagon after so many late-season collapses in the past. But how can this team not be counted amongst the AFC Super Bowl favorites? Did I mention that the Texans have gone 3-1 and get defensive rookie of the year Brian Cushing(notes) back next week?

Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb
He was hardly great in his return to Philadelphia, but he got a show of respect from fans, and then a win for good measure. And in a Shakespearean twist, he got to do it against Kevin Kolb(notes) after all. Here's hoping he enjoyed it, because his receivers stink and that won't change by January.

• Giants defense
Ten sacks. Three each for defensive ends Justin Tuck(notes) and Osi Umenyiora(notes). The defense hasn't looked this good since pummeling the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. We'll see if it's a sign of things to come or merely a reality of playing an awful offensive line. You have to wonder when even the ridiculously overpaid Chris Canty(notes) gets in on the act. Next week against Houston will be a far better barometer.


Michael Vick is hurt while being tackled by cornerback DeAngelo Hall.
(Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

• Eagles quarterback Michael Vick(notes)
Just when everything seemed to be falling into place, he suffers an injury that knocks him out of one of this weekend's most anticipated games. And he does it on an electrifying run that was nullified by penalty. We'll see how long Vick is out with his latest unidentified injury (reportedly broken ribs), but one thing is certain: He can't take the beating scrambling the way he used to in years past.

• Cincinnati Bengals
Aside from a gritty win over Baltimore, Cincinnati hasn't consistently looked like a world-beater this season. Forget the issues with the running game for a moment, the defense has to find a way to finish pressure on the quarterback. The Bengals have four sacks, ranking amongst the worst in the NFL. The Cincinnati cornerbacks are top shelf, but they can't do the work all by themselves.

Buffalo Bills offensive line
The offensive line has to be one of the weakest units in the NFL. The Bills get almost no push at the line of scrimmage and aren't particularly athletic, either. The question is: With a likely high draft pick on the way after this season, do you dedicate it to that line, or a quarterback depth chart that lacks anyone to build around?

Arizona Cardinals offensive line
It surrendered a ridiculous nine sacks to the Chargers and has generally been awful in pass protection. Derek Anderson's(notes) lack of mobility and Max Hall's(notes) general inexperience didn't help against the Chargers. It's simply amazing how this offense has fallen apart without Kurt Warner. It went from a playoff team to an expansion team.

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Nate Clements
When you snag a potential game-winning interception, fall down. Every year we see the scenario that Clements fell prey to on Sunday, when a defensive player tries to make a play and loses the football, rather than sitting down and taking the win. It wasn't the reason the 49ers lost, but it gave Atlanta a second bite at the apple that never should have been. Take a look at Houston's Troy Nolan(notes), who intercepted a game-sealing pass against Oakland on Sunday and purposely went down for the win.

Detroit Lions
With Sunday's loss to Green Bay, Detroit has now lost 23 consecutive road games. That's one short of its own record, which was set from 2001 to 2003. It really makes you realize how awful this franchise has been when it could potentially break that record twice in a 10-year span. Surely, some of it has been some bad luck (like Matt Stafford's recent shoulder injury), but I will always place this at the feet of ownership. Teams that are bad over a 50-year span have nobody to blame but those who own them.

Tennessee Titans offense
The Titans ran 11 plays for 11 net yards in what has to be one of the worst fourth quarters since last season's catastrophic start. Vince Young(notes) has his issues, but I still look at the wideouts and don't see a single dynamic player. Imagine DeSean Jackson(notes) in a Titans uniform. Or even Anquan Boldin. I could probably name 40 receivers I'd take before getting to Nate Washington(notes), Justin Gage(notes) or even Kenny Britt(notes). And I'd still take Derrick Mason(notes) over all of them. Remember him?

Seattle Seahawks
The offense isn't as good as the box scores have looked this season, particularly the past three weeks. I keep waiting for Matt Hasselbeck(notes) to snap back to his Pro Bowl form, but he looks like a fairly middle of the road 35-year old quarterback. I just don't see a Kurt Warner or Brett Favre(notes) late-30s flourish coming. And with no dominant running back to carry the load, what you see is what you get: maddening inconsistency.



Loved: The touchdown scored by 49ers safety Taylor Mays(notes) against Atlanta. I can't comprehend how Mays had the presence of mind to both catch the blocked punt and still get his toes in before falling out of the back of the end zone. It's one of the best plays of the young season.

Loathed: Cedric Benson's(notes) hands. The Bengals running back only lost one fumble in 552 touches over the last two seasons. He has just one so far this year, but he should have been charged with the one credited to Carson Palmer(notes) during a handoff Sunday.

Derrick Mason (85) catches a first-quarter pass in front of Ryan Clark.
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Loved: Derrick Mason's juggling catch at Pittsburgh's 27-yard line in the first quarter. Mason turned an errant Joe Flacco(notes) pass into an amazing grab. There are few veteran receivers who are more reliable possession guys than Mason.

Loathed: Watching as Carolina wideout Steve Smith was carted off with a leg injury Sunday. Smith's body has taken a lot of punishment in recent years, and this injury looked serious. That's not a good development for rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen(notes).

Loved: The blitz packages being drawn up by Tennessee defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil. The Titans are getting pressure with a lot of relatively little-known players, and Cecil is quietly becoming one of the better coordinators in the game.

Loathed: Seeing Cecil lose his cool and flip the bird at officials after a penalty was called on his unit. The gesture was caught in an embarrassing zoomed shot by CBS. Last year, Titans owner Bud Adams was fined $250,000 for making the same gesture in a game against Buffalo. Cecil's wallet will be lighter, too.

Loved: The super grabby gloves worn by offensive skill position players. Check out the one-handed catch by Tomlinson in the first quarter against the Bills; the fingertip, first-quarter catch by Pittsburgh's Antwaan Randle El(notes) against Baltimore; and the sick one-handed second quarter catch by St. Louis' Danny Amendola(notes) against Seattle. Gloves are playing a huge role in some spectacular plays.

Loathed: Watching San Francisco's "new look" offense score seven points against Atlanta. There isn't a bigger disappointment in the NFL right now than the 49ers' 0-4 start.

Loved: The Wildcat option run by the Jets' Brad Smith(notes) and LaDainian Tomlinson(notes). The Jets are finding creative ways to move the ball, and breathing life back into Tomlinson's career in the process.

Loathed: Knowing that Chris Johnson's push for 2,500 rushing yards has already been sunk. We all knew the Titans running back was never going to hit the number, but it would have been a fun storyline to watch. Now Johnson needs to average almost 179 yards per game the rest of the season to hit his goal. Not going to happen.