Year 3 of the Cutler roller coaster begins

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Two years ago today the Chicago Bears made a trade that some in the media and many in the public considered the biggest deal in Chicago sports history. After two decades of a revolving door at the quarterback position and a franchise history of futility at the most important position on a football team, the Bears boldly acquired Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler from the Denver Broncos.

The move was supposed to finally bring an end to years of struggle and provide stability to an offense that consistently remained one-dimensional. Cutler, fresh off a season in which he threw for 4,526 yards and 25 touchdowns on his way to Honolulu, was supposed to end decades of talk about the Bears being a running team only.

The local product from Indiana, who grew up a Bears fan, came to Chicago with confidence and swagger and a certain toughness that his predecessors in the Windy City clearly lacked. In his two seasons as a starter prior to arriving in Chicago, Cutler never missed a game, something which could not be said around these parts where the Bears often started three different quarterbacks in a given season.

National pundits raved about the deal and lauded general manager Jerry Angelo for making such a bold move. Top flight quarterbacks are difficult to obtain and the Bears managed to get a Pro Bowler at the age of 25. Following a 9-7 season where it seemed the offense needed a little bit of a spark, expectations were that Cutler would put the Bears over the top and back into the playoffs.

On the local front, however, it wasn’t all hearts and flowers when the trade went down. After two years on the bench behind Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton finally got his chance to start in the 2008 season and while he didn’t put up gaudy numbers, he did what he did best in helping the Bears win games. Orton’s approach to the game won over a lot of Bears fans and his departure from town in the Cutler deal divided the fan base — maybe not evenly, but enough to tie up sports talk show phone lines for a period of time.

Orton’s leadership and humble nature also seemed to win him support in the locker room. It was most evident when his team voted him as a captain for the 2008 season and seemed to gain momentum when two of the faces of the organization, Brian Urlacher and Devin Hester, accepted Cuter into the fold but expressed disappointment in the loss of Orton.

Complicating matters further, former Bears wide receiver Bobby Wade — then a member of the Minnesota Vikings — was doing an interview with a Minnesota radio station prior to the 2009 training camp and claimed that Urlacher — Wade’s friend — told him that he thought Cutler was a wimp, although in a much harsher term. Urlacher was asked about the Wade interview and denied ever calling Cutler a wimp. Urlacher and Cutler then cleared the air as the team reported to camp.

In his first year with the Bears, Cutler struggled to adjust to his new offense and threw a league-high 26 interceptions compared to 27 touchdowns. Despite his costly mistakes, it was evident that the Bears had in their possession the best quarterback this town had seen in a long time. With subpar receivers, a hobbled Matt Forte, who suffered knee and hamstring injuries that year, and the loss of Urlacher to a season-ending injury in Week 1, the Bears finished just 7-9 in Cutler’s first season with the team.

The 2010 season brought much promise after the Bears splurged in free agency to try to upgrade a team lacking many pieces. One of the most dramatic additions to the team was not even a player but a coach. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz was brought in to energize an offense that got stagnant under Ron Turner and to help make use of Cutler’s rare talents. That experiment didn’t go so well as the Bears found out their offensive line — neglected in the offseason by Angelo — quickly became was one of the league’s worst.

After a mediocre 4-3 record to open the season, Martz changed his pass-first philosophy and adapted to the personnel on the roster and the Bears were on their way to what became a successful season, surpassing many expectations following an 0-4 preseason.

In the NFC championship game against the rival Green Bay Packers, emotions were clearly high for the fans. As such, I was not entirely surprised at the backlash that Cutler received after he was knocked out of the game with a knee injury. Fans like to make observations by whatever few sideline shots that television cameras pick up and they were not happy that Cutler was on the sideline for most of the second half of that game. The majority of fans who were angry with Cutler did not like that he didn’t try to “play through the pain” and claimed that if he wasn’t on crutches then he still could have played. And, at the very least, they felt he could have been more “rah rah” and supported his teammates in a vocal manner.

All of that was nonsense, really, but the select fans who chose to video tape themselves burning Cutler’s jersey after the game were just ridiculous. If anything else, it makes the rest of us Bears fans look classless.

What’s even worse was the stubbornness of fans after they had learned not only that Cutler’s knee injury was a tear, but also that Cutler actually tried to play on it for the first series of the second half and could not keep going.

As we now enter the third year of the Cutler era — assuming there is football in 2011 — this is the season we should see the biggest difference in production for Cutler. He’ll have his same offensive coordinator in place and won’t have to learn a new offense. The Bears should — one would think — upgrade the holes along the offensive line and possibly add a better receiver for Cutler.

Cutler’s personality clearly rubs some the wrong way. Because even through the struggles he’s endured in a Bears uniform, he’s had two seasons that not too many quarterbacks in Bears history have ever compiled, all of this while performing with inferior offensive talent around him. In Cutler’s 37 regular season games with the Broncos, he was sacked 51 times — about 1.37 sacks per game. In his 31 regular season games with the Bears, he was sacked 87 times — about 2.8 sacks per game. No wonder he was a Pro Bowler in Denver; he could get the ball away and had time to find his receivers.

Cutler will continue to have his supporters and detractors for as long as he’s a member of the Bears. The only way to gain back support will probably be to bring the Bears back to the Super Bowl.

For that to happen, Angelo will have to make a few more bold moves.

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