Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is known for a facial expression so sour that it's launched a website with a gallery of Photoshopped images of him smoking a cigarette. He has such a bad reputation that ESPN's Tom Jackson ripped him Sunday for not speaking to Soldier Field workers on his way into the stadium. He's known for calling off an engagement to a reality star and mother of his child only weeks after popping the question. He's even known for an episode of "South Park," when cartoon fans of his tell him "You kinda suck."
Cutler should also be known as something else:
An NFL MVP candidate.
Football fans and media are dying to hand this season's award to Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning after his inspiring comeback from multiple neck surgeries. But if "valuable" is the key word in the bestowing of this honor, Cutler should win it.
The Bears' eighth win, a decisive 28-10 victory over the division rival Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, is only a tiny slice of the evidence. Chicago was horrendous last Monday with Cutler out with a concussion, getting crushed in San Francisco, 32-7. Sunday, with Cutler back, the game was nearly as lopsided in the other direction. That's been the case with the Bears since Cutler arrived in 2009. Chicago is 31-19 with him starting, while his backups are 2-6 (with a 43.0 passer rating). Take out Cutler's dreadful '09 season, and his impact is more pronounced, with the Bears 24-10 with him under center. Last year, the team was on its way to the playoffs with Cutler and finished out of the postseason after he got hurt. This season, the Cutler-led Bears have only lost to the Packers and Texans – two of the best teams in football.
Cutler is, of course, partially to blame for being underrated. He's a notorious grouch and grump, appearing annoyed even in good situations. He looks like a spoiled athlete, which is about the worst thing you can be in American sports (other than a cheater). So the memorable moments from this particular Sunday will include him entering his workplace, head down, ignoring everyone, while cameras rolled. And then there was the stiff-arm he threw before tossing the ball at a Vikings defender and earning an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
"I was just trying to toss him the ball," Cutler said afterward with a laugh. Funny line, but it was only more evidence for those who long ago dismissed Cutler as a punk. "Unsportsmanlike" is a pleasant term for Cutler compared to other labels that have been slapped on him.
But his demeanor shouldn't impact his MVP candidacy. Cutler is playing behind a porous offensive line and supported by a star-caliber running back in Matt Forte who just got hurt again and a single star receiver in Brandon Marshall (talented targets Alshon Jeffery and Johnny Knox are injured). The play-calling in Chicago hasn't exactly been inspired, and it wouldn't matter anyway, as it seems every Bears play ends up broken after two seconds.
And yet the team is inching toward a division title. Only the Atlanta Falcons (10-1) and Texans (10-1) have more wins, and the talent differential between Chicago and those teams on offense is glaring.
Cutler's value is in a realm where even great quarterbacks often struggle. While Manning, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers make highlight reel throws every Sunday, Cutler makes effective throws in dire situations that rarely end up on replays. There were many of these Sunday against the Vikings: Cutler drops back, the pocket collapses, Cutler waits, a receiver gains a sliver of a step, and Cutler fires a rope into the tightest of windows. The result is usually a three-to-five yard gain. It's the equivalent of a handoff, really. But it keeps the drive going, eats up clock, and (at minimum) sets up that Bears defense in better field position.
On Sunday, Chicago had 12 conversions on either third or fourth down for a 60 percent efficiency. The dagger was a dart to Matt Spaeth that Cutler released a split-second before being decked by Jared Allen. Cutler explained after the game he got "a little bitty window" and let it go. He was actually looking for Marshall on the play, but adjusted and got it to Spaeth for six points. Cutler, by the way, gave his target all the credit after the game, even though there are probably fewer than five other pro quarterbacks alive who could make that throw under those circumstances. Cutler didn't even throw for 200 yards Sunday, but anyone who watched the game realizes how impressive those yards were.
This is exactly how the Bears beat the Panthers in late October after being down 19-7 in the fourth quarter. Cutler's game-winning drive was almost boring: a few yards here, a short route there, and a field goal to win. You can argue the Bears need a backup better than Jason Campbell or Caleb Hanie (last year's replacement), but the team's death-by-suffocation style doesn't work with any old backup. It works with Cutler.
This isn't to say Manning isn't MVP-worthy. He clearly is. But the Broncos won a playoff game without Manning last season. We all saw what the Bears looked like without Cutler. The WAR stat – Wins Above Replacement – is all the rage in baseball, and it helped vault Mike Trout into MVP consideration this season. However, it seems WAR was made for Jay Cutler, considering how irreplaceable he has proven to be.
The Bears look debilitated, even at 8-3. Chicago lost both guards to knee injuries Sunday. Offensive tackle Gabe Carimi, who was benched for poor play and replaced by Jonathan Scott, had to be shoved into guard duty. (Cutler even tied offensive lineman J'Marcus Webb's shoe during the game to try to save the team a timeout.)
"We just gotta see who's up, who's down," Cutler said after Sunday's game. "Who's playing guards for us, who's playing tackle." He also said "I don't think it's possible" to establish continuity with all the injuries.
Yikes. But as long as Cutler's active, he will give the Bears and their defense a chance to win. That's what he did in 2010, when Chicago made it all the way to the NFC championship game before Cutler got hurt and faced a barrage of ridicule from fans, media, and fellow players alike for not re-entering the game. It was way too easy to pile on Cutler then, and it is now. He's an easy target, both on and off the field, and he'll never win you any fantasy titles. So Cutler will never get a sniff of an MVP trophy this year or any other, most likely. But with that defense, he might just give his team and his city a sniff of a much bigger trophy.
Then maybe Cutler's true value will be clear to everyone.
Fantasy advice for Monday night's Panthers-Eagles game: