SAN FRANCISCO -- Jay Cutler is sorry. Even he can't believe he played so poorly in Thursday night's 10-6 loss to the 49ers. The golden-armed franchise savior turned in a clunker in the Bears' biggest game of the season by tossing five interceptions. His performance was awful and he knew it.
"I got to apologize to the defense," a somber-looking Cutler said after the game. "I think the offense as a whole has to apologize. [The defense] played a great game. They kept us in there even through all the turnovers, so you got to lead a lot better."
That's the thing that Cutler hasn't been able to do as well as everyone thought he would since he came to town: lead. There's no doubt that Cutler plays hard and there's little doubt he wants to win, but leaders are the players who elevate themselves to a different level in the biggest games. The 26-year-old quarterback has yet to prove he can do that.
Yes, you can blame the Bears' supporting cast all you want. The offensive line is not very good. The receivers still haven't proven themselves. The running game seems nonexistent. Trust me, there's a lot of blame to go around. But the problem is we were led to believe that Cutler was so good that everyone around him would get better by merely being in his presence. That simply hasn't happened.
There are times when you want to buy into all the hype. His rocket arm creates plays that few other quarterbacks can make. At other times -- like Thursday night -- he makes the types of throws that leaders simply don't make. He forces passes into spaces that are completely covered. He makes decisions that big-time quarterbacks simply don't make. He did it in Week 1 against the Packers (four interceptions), in Week 7 against the Bengals (three interceptions) and once again against the 49ers (five interceptions).
"An interception is an interception to me," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Jay is trying to make a play on every one, but you just have to use a little bit better judgment on some of them, just trying to make a play. Especially ones in the red zone. We just can't have it."
Nickel and Dimed
Jay Cutler and the Bears' passing game have struggled when the defense drops more players into pass coverage (13 of Cutler's 17 INTs this season have come when the defense has five-plus DBs). Even when opposing defenses send just four pass-rushers, Cutler has been unable to take advantage, which was very apparent against the 49ers.
Cutler was at a loss for words when it came to his turnovers.
"I don't know," he said. "[I've] got to go back and look at it. I've got to play better. I've got to take care of the ball."
While Cutler remained confident, at least publicly, that he and his teammates would bounce back, Smith admitted that Cutler's interception problems are probably starting to wear on his star quarterback.
"I think it knocks you back a few steps when you throw that many interceptions," Smith said. "Yeah, it hurts you. Jay realizes what that did for the team. This is a loss. We have a team loss is what we have. Jay and the rest of the group, all of us are going to have to regroup and get ready to go. There's a lot of football left to go still."
That was a mantra that was echoed throughout the Bears' locker room after the game. If the Bears are losing any confidence in Cutler, they certainly aren't showing it.
"We know what Jay has," defensive tackle Alex Brown said. "Everybody has a bad day at work. That's just it. We've got to be there to have his back, and we do. So, as a defense we got to play better. We can't give up seven points right there before the half. We got to hold them to three. That's our job. That's what we can do. So Jay and them will go back and they'll correct the things they need to correct. We'll keep moving forward."
"There are no apologies needed on this game," linebacker Lance Briggs said. "We win and we lose as a football team. Next week's going to be another week. Jay's going to throw the winning touchdown."
DT Tommie Harris, of all people, also came to Cutler's defense.
"He doesn't have to do that at all," he said of his quarterback's apology. "We have a lot more games left. We just have to make up for it next week on both sides. An apology is not necessary. We know what kind of quarterback Jay is. Jay can play. And we look at him as our leader. He doesn't have to apologize. Everybody makes mistakes. What's the use of having teammates if you can't make mistakes?"
Putting aside the irony of Harris' last statement, maybe that's one of the main problems with the Bears this season. The players do consider Cutler to be their leader, but he has yet to prove that he has the ability to lead on the field. He has yet to prove that he can consistently win games on his own, when everything else around him is falling apart. He has yet to prove that he can refrain from making a throw when there isn't one to be made. In short, he has yet to become what everybody thought he would be when he was traded to the Bears.
Is it just his fault? Of course not. But if Cutler played as well as everyone thought he would, then he wouldn't have to say he's sorry.