PITTSBURGH – Jay Cutler is the coolest villain in football.
If he didn't have that title locked up after years of thrilling and enraging those both for and against him, he cemented it Sunday in the fourth quarter of the Bears' 40-23 thumping of the Steelers on their home turf.
And thumping is the key word. Cutler got the ball deep in his own territory with the Bears up four points and quickly faced third and 10. He tucked the ball, thundered upfield and, instead of sliding as every franchise quarterback is taught, lowered a shoulder and decked safety Robert Golden. The drive was saved, the Bears' swagger was restored, and less than five minutes later a 17-yard Cutler spiral landed in the arms of Earl Bennett and the game was basically over. Cutler came into the drive with only 98 yards passing and two third-down conversions. He finished the game with 159 yards passing and five third-down conversions. It was enough to drive Cutler haters crazy and drive Steelers fans to the parking lot.
In the locker room afterward, the Bears themselves were debating Cutler just like the rest of the football world does.
"It was a statement play for him," said defensive lineman Julius Peppers, cracking a grin. "Whether he meant to do it or not, it gave us a shot of confidence."
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"I thought he should've slid," said tight end Martellus Bennett. "We're all like, 'Slide, bro! Slide!' "
"That was sweet," said running back Michael Bush. "That's his attitude. You think he's out, and he lets you know he's not."
"I'd like to see him on the ground," said offensive guard Kyle Long.
Cutler himself, dressed to the nines in a suit after the game, shrugged it off as only he can. He said he simply didn't know where the first-down marker was, even though he was nearly 10 feet past it. "NotJayCutler," the satirical Twitter feed dedicated to the Chicago quarterback, had this comment:
Unfortunately for those who love trashing Cutler for his petulance and his playoff résumé (or lack thereof), No. 6 is slouching toward amazing. His fourth quarter on Sunday was reminiscent of the guy on the other side of the field, Ben Roethlisberger, who has often seemed vacant in the early parts of games only to save the day at the end. Cutler is doing that now. The Bears are 3-0 and all three games required key fourth-quarter touchdown throws from Cutler. He found Brandon Marshall with the game-winner in Week 1 after being down 11 to Cincinnati. He threw a last-second touchdown to Bennett in Week 2 to beat the Vikings. And now this against the Steelers. None of these three wins were scintillating, but all three were clutch.
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"This is as excited as I've seen him," said backup Josh McCown. "The feeling is we can do this all the time."
Part of that is certainly because of the offense of new coach Marc Trestman, but part of it is Cutler himself, who oozes with confidence and not just smugness. Yes, this is the same guy who once boasted that he had a stronger arm than John Elway "by far" and didn't see why his Broncos team couldn't score 30 points a game. Yes, this is the same guy who has a grand total of one playoff win and two playoff touchdown passes.
That guy, "Smokin' Jay Cutler," the apathetic-looking man who inspires anything but apathy, has as many fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives this month as he had in the previous two seasons combined.
"He's progressing into the guy a lot of us knew he could be," Peppers said. "That potential to be elite, he's fulfilling it."
"Elite" is a four-letter word in today's NFL, as it hung over Joe Flacco for so long before he won the 2013 Super Bowl. Peppers insisted he was "not anointing him," but Cutler is doing what Flacco has done: make key throws to win games. Cutler has what Long calls "poise in the noise." Long said Cutler came into the huddle on that fourth-quarter drive and banished any thought of protecting the lead. "The point of emphasis," Long said, "was we need to score now."
The Bears did, and rebuilt the momentum that had completely fizzled after a 17-0 first-quarter burst.
"I'm proud of him," said McCown. "He's consistently stepping up. That's what the best ones do."
Oh sure, there's still plenty about Cutler that can rankle. The best example came in the first quarter, when the Bears had first and goal on the Steelers' 1 and Cutler handed off to Bush. He raised his arms even before Bush got to the goal line, and Bush was stuffed. Then, after an incomplete pass, he handed to Bush again, and again he raised his arms before Bush got to the goal line. Still no touchdown. Finally, it was fourth and goal, and Bush got the ball one more time. Again Cutler raised his arms right away. This time, Bush got in, and Cutler punched the chilly air in front of him.
His bravado will grow even more tiresome to many as the Bears continue to win, yet Cutler will only get more allegiance in his locker room. Teammates believe in him as much as Cutler's always believed in himself.
"No matter what people say," Bush said, "We know he's there to win."
It should be noted that Cutler was downright gracious in his postgame news conference, lavishing credit on his offensive linemen, his receivers and even the Steelers. There was none of the impatience, none of the attitude. A man known for saying some of the wrong things said only the right things.
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"Offensively, I didn't play that great tonight," Cutler said humbly.
Did he really mean that? It doesn't matter. Jay Cutler is only getting better, and so resenting him is only getting worse.