Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is no stranger to criticism after his years in the Windy City, but with a new seven-year contract and a bevy of weapons that would make any other signal-caller jealous in the NFL, things are even more heated this season.
That point was driven home in a big way last week when the Bears were knocked off by the Buffalo Bills in Week 1 action. Cutler had some great throws in the game, but once again it was his penchant for ill-advised throws and poor fundamentals that cost the Bears as they began the season 0-1 before a tough stretch of games.
On Sunday night against the San Francisco 49’ers, Cutler will face what is likely the biggest challenge of his career. No, it isn’t a game with a berth in the Super Bowl on the line (like the 2011 NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers), but the Bears are not only trying to avoid starting the season 0-2, but they’re doing so against an opponent that has had a great deal of success against them over the past three decades.
The San Francisco 49’ers may not be the same team that got to the Super Bowl in 2013, but they have enough of the components of their defense intact that Cutler will be given fits. Linebacker Patrick Willis is a tremendous athlete who could be a key to taking away passing routes to Matt Forte over the middle of the field, and the Niners’ pass rush is going to make sure that new starters Brian de la Puente and Michael Ola are tested sternly on the offensive line.
Complicating things for Cutler is that he may end up missing one or both of his primary receiving targets. Brandon Marshall (ankle) and Alshon Jeffery (hamstring) haven’t officially been ruled out of the game for Sunday, but even if one or both of them can play, they are going to be extremely limited. Add to that the fact that Josh Morgan won’t be in the lineup, and Cutler will be playing with one arm tied behind his back, so to speak.
Even with those limitations and question marks, this is the kind of game that a quarterback of Cutler’s skillset and paygrade simply has to gut through and win. The Bears have invested heavily in the notion that Jay is an elite NFL quarterback, and he has to repay their faith with a strong performance in this game. Even with his two best weapons either inert or just limited, Cutler still has plenty to work with, and the 49’ers defense is, while good, not elite-level right now either.
If Cutler can come up with a big game on national television, and if he can guide the Bears to a strong showing (or even a victory), it should go a long way toward silencing the growing storm of criticism around him. If he reverts back to bad-Jay and begins to throw balls into spaces they shouldn’t be thrown, then the frustration with him will only continue to grow.
Fan criticism obviously won’t direct personnel decisions, with Cutler guaranteed $54 million over the next three years, but it will cast a pall over the Bears’ season if he continues to struggle in the pocket. The Bears need their leader to play like one, and even without his best weapons, he will need to prove that he’s the man the Bears have told fans that he is.