Aaron Rodgers is chasing history, Matthew Stafford is establishing credibility and Christian Ponder is awaiting his opportunity. With so many quarterback developments here in the NFC North, it has been easy to overlook perhaps the most fascinating figure of them all.
Jay Cutler has put together his two best games of the season in consecutive weeks for the Chicago Bears, in the process arriving at nothing less than a career crossroads. In revealing he has at least as good, if not better, sense of the Bears' capabilities than offensive coordinator Mike Martz, Cutler has exposed himself to at least the possibility of a fourth new offensive coordinator in the past five years.
Yes, suggestions are mounting that Martz might not return to Chicago when his contract expires after this season. I know the next coach is always the best option in the minds of many, but I'm far from convinced that Martz needs to move on. In fact, Cutler's career might be best served by finding a way to make it work with him.
Martz has certainly had his share of stumbles since joining the Bears, and for many of you it's gone on too long already. ESPNChicago.com's Melissa Isaacson gave voice to that sentiment, advising the Bears to make Martz a lowball offer and promote offensive line coach Mike Tice in 2012. And without naming Martz, ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer wrote that Cutler "needs to be around a coach, someone he trusts, someone who can tap into whatever passion is there and bring it out."
Much has been made of the obscenity that NBC's microphones caught Cutler directing at the Bears' sideline during Sunday night's 39-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Cutler asked someone to "tell him I said [expletive] you." Martz sits in the coaches booth during games, leading to speculation that he was the target of Cutler's ire.
Afterward, Cutler reminded reporters about his public plea to scale back the Bears offense last week and notably spread credit for Sunday night's success.
"There's a lot of people involved in this," Cutler said. "Mike Tice, me, [quarterbacks coach] Shane Day, [tight end coach Mike DeBord]. Everyone has kind of a say in this and we are all trying to do the right thing and we are all trying to manage what we can and can't do on the football field. When we are smart about it and do the things we did tonight, we are more than likely going to be successful."
Yes, Cutler correctly assessed the Bears' offensive capabilities and shortcomings. That he went public with his ideas suggested he was at least concerned Martz might not oblige. Perhaps it was an end-around. More likely, it was an aggressive nudge. Regardless, you can't argue with the results.
According to film analysis by Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune, the Bears used at least six players in pass protection on 23 of their 31 passes. On both of Cutler's touchdown passes, they kept seven blockers in.
Those touchdowns also came on play-action, which the Bears used to near-perfection Sunday night. As the second chart shows, via ESPN Stats & Information, Cutler completed 8 of 9 play-action passes and had a perfect quarterback rating on them. With seven blockers in place, and Matt Forte in the backfield, it's not surprising the Vikings fell for run-fakes on those scores.
Martz also obliged Cutler on quicker passes, calling for five-step drops or shorter on 26 of his 31 passes, according to Pompei.
"We managed them," Cutler said. "A lot of five-steps and play-action, left some extra guys in, shift a little bit. Whenever we help them [the offensive line] out and get the ball out of my hands, it's going to be easy on me. It's not that difficult. Our game plan was really solid this week and we need to be very judicious going forward with what we can do and can't do."
You could interpret those quotes as Cutler propagating his personal preference over Martz's long-held theories. I see it as evidence of a compromise, uncomfortable or otherwise, that if managed correctly will put Cutler in position to maximize his success over the coming years.
One of the key ingredients in the success of NFL quarterbacks is consistency of scheme. It's no accident that the NFL's five highest-rated passers -- Rodgers, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Stafford and Drew Brees -- are in at least their third consecutive year in the same offensive system. Obviously the scheme must be sound, but talented and smart quarterbacks like Cutler can usually find a productive comfort zone over time.
That's what I see Cutler approaching at this point. What the Bears did Sunday night looked pretty sound to me, even considering it came against a Vikings defense that seemed slow and undermanned.
I don't know whether Cutler likes Martz personally or even if he respects him professionally. But if Cutler can nudge the scheme to his team's benefit, working or tugging with Martz along the way, the Bears would still be better off than if they started Cutler over with a new coordinator next year. Even if that new coach mirrored what the Bears are doing now, there would inevitably be a transition period that would set back Cutler's career.
Being a serial divorcee might work in Hollywood, but in football it stalls progress. As we've said from the beginning of this marriage, both men need each other to advance their careers.