Monday, April 6, 2009

Bears sign QB Jay Cutler

Call it Da Deal.

Not since the beer-and-brats days of Jim McMahon, Saturday Night Live spoofs and the Super Bowl Shuffle in the mid-1980s have the Chicago Bears fielded a bona fide star quarterback. They will now.

It took a king's ransom — including two first-round draft picks and incumbent starter Kyle Orton — but the Bears outmaneuvered a slew of suitors Thursday to land Denver's Jay Cutler.

Suffice to say, all the criticism being heaped upon Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo for his team's free-agent inactivity this offseason has ended. Angelo knew he had to offer a better package than quarterback-starved teams like Tampa Bay, Washington and the New York Jets. He did exactly that.

After wasting years trying to develop youngsters like Orton and Rex Grossman with only a modicum of success, Chicago finally has the real deal under center. Say what you will about how Cutler handled the rift with new Broncos coach Josh McDaniels that led to his departure, but there's no denying Cutler is magic on the field and has the arm strength to thrive at windy Soldier Field.

In 2008, Cutler reached the Pro Bowl in just his third NFL season. He almost single-handedly carried a team with a porous defense and decimated running back corps into the playoffs.

Cutler now faces a similar challenge in Chicago. This deal betters the Bears, no question. But improvement from last year's 9-7 record isn't a given.

While he will be working with an outstanding young running back (Matt Forte) and a decent enough offensive line after Thursday's free-agent signing of tackle Orlando Pace, Chicago still fields one of the NFL's worst wide receiver corps. Devin Hester has blazing speed but isn't nearly as complete a wideout as Brandon Marshall, Cutler's favorite target in Denver. Rashied Davis and Brandon Lloyd were mediocre at best in 2008. Earl Bennett — a 2008 third-round pick who didn't have a catch last season — was working with the starters during a recent Bears minicamp.

The defense isn't what it once was either. The Monsters of the Midway were more Mothra than Godzilla in 2008. The Bears ranked 21st and 16th respectively in yards and points allowed. Chicago was especially poor against the pass, which explains why opponents attempted more throws against Chicago (622) than any other NFL team.

The Bears struggled to pressure quarterbacks, exposing an injury-riddled secondary that wasn't all that great even when healthy. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher — the face of the franchise before Cutler's arrival — looked old. Oft-injured safety Mike Brown broke down again and was released in February. And defensive tackle Tommie Harris has yet to prove worth the four-year, $40 million contract extension he signed last offseason

The fact Chicago almost reached the playoffs last year was largely a testament to the NFL's best special teams units, Forte's production and Orton's efficient quarterbacking until a midseason ankle injury.

The drop-off from the Super Bowl defense Chicago fielded two seasons earlier was so great that some Bears fans can still be justifiably upset at Angelo for not acquiring a quality quarterback when the unit was in its prime.

Angelo still has plenty of time for more personnel upgrades before the regular season begins. Maybe the Bears will continue dipping into free agency — cornerback Ken Lucas took a visit Monday — or can strike gold in the draft like in 2004 when Harris, defensive tackle Tank Johnson, wide receiver Bernard Berrian and cornerback Nathan Vasher were the team's first four picks. Maybe the defense will rebound with head coach Lovie Smith now calling the plays. Maybe an aged starting roster has enough left in the tank for a championship run in what is considered a wide-open division.

I just wouldn't be expecting a Ferris Bueller-like parade down the streets of Chicago in February quite yet, even though the Cutler acquisition itself is reason to celebrate.


Alex Marvez