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Bears-Panthers preview: The trouble with Jay Cutler

Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler waits out decisiwhether or not DevHester crossed goal line for touchdown third quarter Bears 30-12

Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler waits out a decision whether or not Devin Hester crossed the goal line for a touchdown in the third quarter of the Bears 30-12 victory over the Atlanta Falcons September 11, 2011 at Soldier Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Time: Noon Sunday at Soldier Field.
Records: Panthers (1-2), Bears (1-2).
TV: Fox-32 (Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick, Laura Okmin).
Radio: 780-AM, 105.9-FM. • Line: Bears by 61/2.

Updated: January 23, 2012 3:28AM

It happens almost every time someone tries to convince us the Bears have, as Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera put it, ‘‘tremendous personnel’’ on offense.

‘‘A lot of it starts with Jay Cutler’s arm,’’ Rivera, a former Bears linebacker, said last week in a conference call with Chicago media. ‘‘He’s got an NFL arm.’’

What is it with ‘‘Jay Cutler’s arm’’? He’s 28 years old. He’s in his sixth NFL season. At what point does ‘‘Jay Cutler’s arm’’ become an insult instead of a compliment? It’s like calling Ashton Kutcher ‘‘cute.’’

By now, shouldn’t it start with ‘‘Jay Cutler’s poise,’’ ‘‘Jay Cutler’s leadership’’ or ‘‘Jay Cutler’s ability to lift a team on his shoulders’’?

The Bears’ problem is that while a lot of it starts with ‘‘Jay Cutler’s arm,’’ that’s where a lot of it ends, too. The Bears traded quarterback Kyle Orton and first-round draft picks in 2009 and 2010 for Cutler and a fifth-round pick they turned into receiver Johnny Knox. Are they getting their money’s worth?

Cutler has been under duress since the time he arrived in Chicago, thanks to shaky protection, a subpar running game more often than not, inexperienced receivers and two offensive coordinators. But for the price they paid, shouldn’t the Bears have a quarterback who can rise above the muck better than Cutler has?

Reliant on comfort zone

Maybe it’s the Bears’ fault for putting a big-block engine in a jalopy. Cutler seems to be wearing down under the stress rather than rising above it. In his last nine games in Mike Martz’s offense, he has completed 53 percent of his passes. His career average was 62.3 percent before the downturn.

Asked about Panthers rookie Cam Newton this week, he sounded almost jealous when he said: ‘‘That’s pretty impressive. They’ve done a good job protecting him, and he’s got some playmakers on the outside.’’

And it was even more obvious when he was asked about the cumulative effect of enduring 71 sacks in his last 20 games.

‘‘You talk to any quarterback, whenever you’re getting a lot of pressure and you’re getting flushed and you’re getting hit a lot, that clock in your head is going to start ticking a little faster,’’ Cutler said. ‘‘Even sometimes when you do have a good amount of time, you’re going to be feeling it even if it’s not there.

‘‘So it’s a constant battle. The more consistent we get up front and the more time I have and the more comfortable I feel, the more consistent I’m going to get.’’

Cutler seems to depend on that comfort zone more than most. He is without the two receivers he seemed to ‘‘connect’’ with best: Greg Olsen and Earl Bennett. It’s not easy to build that rapport.

‘‘It just happens over time,’’ he said. ‘‘In games, there’s a trust factor there. You know they’re going to be there when they’re supposed to be there. They make the catches; they make the plays. It doesn’t just happen overnight. You’ve got to go out there and rep it and just experience it.’’

Look at Fitzpatrick, Bills

Well, not for everybody. The first time Newton played with receiver Steve Smith, he threw to him eight times and completed only one in a preseason game. In three regular-season games, Smith has 16 receptions for 349 yards.

And in Buffalo, Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is as much a journeyman as Cutler is a commodity, has led a resurgent Bills offense that leads the NFL in scoring (37.7 points per game) yet is no better equipped than the Bears’.

The Bills are in the second year of coach Chan Gailey’s offense. They have a quarterback drafted in the seventh round throwing to a receiver drafted in the seventh round (Stevie Johnson). Their offensive line features two first-time starters and three players in new positions. Fitzpatrick has been sacked once.

Not that anybody in the NFL would take Fitzpatrick’s brain over Cutler’s arm. A great arm might be able to nudge you to the top. The Bears need a quarterback who can carry them there.

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