Jay Cutler proves toughness but hurts himself in process
By Rick Telander firstname.lastname@example.org November 20, 2011 10:30PM
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler chats with receiver Earl Bennett in the fourth quarter of the Chicago Bears 31-20 win over the San Diego Chargers Sunday November 20, 2011 at Soldier Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: January 20, 2012 1:54AM
If last season’s humbling NFC Championship Game loss to the Packers was Jay Cutler’s low point as a Bear, the 31-20 victory Sunday over the Chargers at Soldier Field might have been his highest.
Not only did Cutler win his personal battle with Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers — 286 passing yards to Rivers’ 280 yards, two touchdown passes and one interception to Rivers’ two touchdown passes and two interceptions, a 97.0 passer rating to 90.8, five rushes for 11 yards and a touchdown — but he also passed the needed tough-guy test.
He got knocked all over the field, once having his helmet kneed off his head, and he broke his right thumb somewhere in the collisions he was involved in.
After he knocked a Chargers cornerback partly out of bounds on a desperate interception stop late in the game, he seemed to hurt his right shoulder or his thumb — or both.
Where that puts him for next week’s game against the Raiders, no one knows. But a thumb in a cast is not something a quarterback can do much with. It’s visible, and it can’t be ignored.
But when Cutler left that Jan. 21 NFC title game shortly after halftime, seemingly unbloodied but bored and blank-faced, with six completions in 14 attempts for no scores, an interception and a 31.8 passer rating, he had lost a lot of Chicago fans.
His skill was apparent.
His will was not.
He was an odd, inscrutable dude.
He had survived a lot of sacks, true, but it wasn’t clear if he had rapport with anybody on his team, anybody in the organization, let alone the leadership authority all good quarterbacks must have.
Could he crank up his fellow players or only whine at them?
On Sunday, he got everyone’s attention and showed why the Bears are 7-3 and have won five in a row.
That his injured thumb — which was unbandaged after the game when he spoke to the media — might be his undoing this season and ruin the victory streak is a sad irony.
His laser-beam throws were on target, including a lightning flash that somehow zipped between two defenders to tight end Kellen Davis in the end zone for a four-yard touchdown pass just before the half.
That put the Bears ahead 17-10, and it was but one of the throws he made that most other quarterbacks cannot.
‘‘It’s a window, and I know where to fit it in there,’’ Cutler said, not lacking in confidence, of course, and never mentioning the thumb. ‘‘I never questioned it, and I never will.’’
But it was the next touchdown, the winning one, that told more of a Cutler rebirth story. After completing three consecutive short passes to wide receiver Roy Williams, then lofting a 42-yard beauty to wide receiver Johnny Knox, Cutler dove up and over the pile for a one-yard touchdown run and a 24-17 lead.
Quarterbacks sneak the ball all the time, but this jump had the appearance of hellbent-for-leather aggressiveness, as Cutler reached forward while his body was unprotected, then tucked the ball back in to protect against a fumble. Teammates notice sacrifice. They notice successful sacrifice most of all.
‘‘Jay Cutler was outstanding,’’ coach Lovie Smith said after the game, seemingly unaware of — or playing coy about — his quarterback’s injury.
‘‘Maybe Jay’s biggest play came on that interception,’’ Smith said.
He meant the interception that Cutler threw. And it happened only because his open receiver, Knox, slipped and fell down.
For on that pick-off play, Chargers cornerback Antoine Cason, the interceptor, took off upfield, and behind a series of blocks, flew up the right sideline. Cutler blasted into the melee, stretched out prone with his right arm and hand extended and derailed Cason enough that running back Matt Forte was able to knock Cason out of bounds at the Bears’ 16.
Without that effort from Cutler, Cason likely would have scored, and the Bears’ lead would have been just 31-27 with 10 minutes to play.
Williams praised Cutler afterward.
‘‘He has the best arm in the NFL,’’ he said. ‘‘There were a couple of times where he almost got sacked and still got rid of the ball. A lot of quarterbacks can’t do that. A lot of quarterbacks would roll out and just throw the ball out of bounds. But Jay’s arm is strong enough that he can throw the ball 100 miles an hour while he’s falling down.’’
Sadly, after such a game, the question now is: Can Cutler throw it at all?