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Jay Cutler should take a significant step toward NFL quarterbacking greatness this fall.
He should, that is, unless his supporting cast, from general manager Jerry Angelo on down, fails him.
That much was actually clear at the end of last season.Cutler didn't play well in the playoff finale against Green Bay but he was great against the Seahawks in the first round and he did enough - despite a terrible line and mediocre receivers - to lead the Bears to a division title. Anyone who paid even a little bit of attention to the season as a whole knew the chatter at the end about Cutler not being tough enough was idiotic at best.
Nothing that has happened since has diminished that view in any way. As always, we begin with the disclaimer that preseason games are downright deceptive if not completely meaningless. Then we point out that:
A. The Bears' second exhibition game (the big loss to the Giants) was notable primarily for the fact that Cutler felt pressure coming better than he did last year and smartly dumped the ball to hot-read receivers a half-dozen times in the first half. He did so a couple times even when those receivers had very little chance to get the first down. But he can't worry too much about receivers getting first downs in those situations. If the blocking isn't good enough and a blitzer is bearing down, Cutler has to just dump the ball and live to fight another day. If he continues to do that even a shaky offensive line won't doom him to another year of far too much punishment. If he takes that kind of pounding again this time around, he won't take that aforementioned step.
B. On Saturday, the quarterback simply made all the throws against Tennessee. He was especially impressive when he had to be to keep drives alive - the Bears converted five of seven first-half third downs. The Bears could only have dreamed of that kind of third-down success last year.
The question, though, is still whether Angelo has done enough to address the Bears' weaknesses. He didn't upgrade the offensive line in free agency and it will continue to be a huge question mark until a regular season game is played, a decent first-half performance against the Titans notwithstanding. And, if anything, the wide receivers are an even bigger unknown. Roy Williams finally managed to hold onto a few balls on Saturday but who knows if he really has anything special left in his tank. Earl Bennett looks like he's ready to take a step up but the Bears continue to try to force feed Devin Hester at wideout rather than in the slot and he was terrible against Tennessee.
The Bears need to be doing everything in their power to make sure they take advantage of the prime of Cutler's career. It sure would suck if Angelo failed again to do enough to give the quarterback a real chance to win a championship.
A few other thoughts heading into the final two weeks of the preseason:
* While Cutler had a strong first half in particular against the Titans, perhaps the best part of the first two quarters was the return of Matt Forte and the consequential return of the running game. Forte hadn't really been away but this was the first time in the preseason we were reminded of how well and how consistently he can carry the ball. And while I hated it when Lovie talked about the Bears getting off the bus running, any Bear fan who had the chance to thrill to Walter Payton pounding defenders a few decades ago thrills at the sight of an effective Bears running game.
* It is easy to forget incomplete passes when looking back at a team's performance in a game overall but the Bear secondary was torched twice early by Tennessee speedster Nate Washington and only avoided two embarrassing long touchdowns against by the grace of Matt Hasselbeck's inaccurate throws. Hard to believe this group of defensive backs is anything close to championship ready.
* After the game that was some big news about Lance Briggs wanting to renegotiate his contract, wasn't it? Just as Dan Patrick (or was it Keith Olbermann, or Charley Steiner?) once said that the prognosis for the return to full health of a sports figure who had suffered an infirmity was "day-to-day, but aren't we all?" so too must the only reaction to Briggs wanting more money be, but don't we all?
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