CHICAGO – There's no truth to the rumor Jay Cutler is about to be charged with starting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
But everything else that's gone wrong here the last five years?
Feel free to pin it on the Bears' perpetually grumpy QB. Nearly everyone in town does — and has since Cutler slouched into the city of big shoulders in 2009 — despite knowing management just locked him up for three more years at a guaranteed $54 million. Depending whom you believe, even Cutler's favorite receiver and close pal Brandon Marshall got in on the act.
Reporters waiting outside the Chicago locker room after another baffling home loss Sunday heard someone who sounded like Marshall calling out teammates for a lack of effort after a 27-14 loss to Miami. Marshall didn't exactly deny it.
"Were you in here? Were you in this locker room?" Marshall said. "This is a team matter, nothing to do with you."
Marshall didn't name names, either, but he did use the word "unacceptable" at least 15 times in what amounted to a blanket indictment of the entire locker room. Whether he singled out Cutler is almost beside the point, because Bears fans had already laid the blame for the loss, like so many others, on Cutler and his decision-making.
Cutler turned up afterward in the interview room unfazed, looking like he'd just been awakened from a nap. Asked how he "specifically" planned to stabilize a team that's played smart in all three wins, but clueless in the four losses, Cutler began rambling: "There's a lot of things. We, ah, I don't know. I don't know."
Next he ticked off a generic list: protect the ball, convert third downs and establish a rhythm on offense earlier by giving all-purpose back Matt Forte more touches. "I've just got to lead this group and try to find a way," Cutler said finally, "to make sure we play clean football for four quarters."
If so, he knows where to begin. Cutler has zero turnovers in Chicago's three wins this season, but seven interceptions and three fumbles — which opponents cashed in for 37 points — in the four losses.
That maddening inconsistency is both a byproduct of Cutler's unshakeable belief he could squeeze a pass into the half-open window of a CTA train speeding by, and the hallmark of his nine-year NFL tenure. An analysis by Pro-Football-Reference.com shows Cutler's statistical performance at different stages of his career has mirrored quarterbacks as different as Johnny Unitas and Jake Plummer. Bears quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh, who began working with Cutler in 2013, takes the comparison farther afield.
"Athletically, you could pick any guy who had a big strong arm, from (John) Elway to Jeff George to (Andrew) Luck to Jay Schroeder — guys who could wing it. But the game is so much more than that. It's understanding the system you're in, what you're being asked to do, protecting the football, being mobile — all those things are starting to come together for him." Cavanaugh said last week. "And he appreciates how we build around the quarterback, the most important part of the puzzle."
Yet Cutler and the Bears have rarely been a good fit.
He arrived in a trade from Denver in 2009 to launch what was supposed to be a paradigm shift. From founder George Halas on, the Bears staked their reputation on a punishing defense and ground game. They rarely used trades or high draft picks on quarterbacks or receivers, arguing an offense that relied on the pass in the cold, wind and snow was a bad gamble. But that didn't stop rivals like the Packers, stuck in the same tough climate, from revamping their offense when the league changed the rules to foster more passing.
Enter Cutler, who was pegged as the Bears' savior and instead paid the price for their failure to upgrade the talent around him. Behind a porous line, with a not-much-better receiving corps, he spent much of his first four seasons running for his life. By early last season, Cutler's fifth in Chicago, he became the club's most-sacked quarterback ever.
By then, at least, the Bears had put some money behind their commitment to offense. Through trades and the draft, they added Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, shored up the line, brought in quarterback guru Marc Trestman as coach and signed tight end Martellus Bennett to start 2013. Cutler's progress on what was his fourth different offensive system was interrupted by injury last season. But expectations were raised after unproven backup Josh McCown filled in and ran the same scheme capably.
Fast forward to Sunday, when a team that's invested the lion's share of its payroll in an offense — at $18 million per year, Cutler alone represents 14 percent of the Bears' total — watched their opponents take it apart like they had a copy of the game plan. The Dolphins didn't, but they knew who to keep an eye on.
"After watching film all week, we saw (Cutler) was looking where he threw the ball. He was always looking at his receivers and never looking off," said safety Reshad Jones, who returned a Cutler interception 50 yards to set up Miami's second touchdown. "We tried to take advantage of that, and it paid off."