It was the middle of October when Dak Prescott, a rookie quarterback, showed up to Lambeau Field, threw for 247 yards and three touchdowns that I looked at his opposite, the Super Bowl champion, two-time MVP QB of the Green Bay Packers, and thought that maybe this was the truly the beginning of the end for the man who, as a Chicago Bears fan, had caused me more than a few nightmares over the last few years. I sat there with my friends, a few die hard cheeseheads, and actually had the audacity to doubt Aaron Rodgers since even they were wondering if their guy had lost whatever made him so great in the years prior.
That was dumb. I realize that now a few days after Green Bay came from the back of the pile, galloping past a Minnesota Vikings squad that showed early promise thanks to a strong defense and despite a number of key injuries, and beating out the Detroit Lions in the last game of the season to clinch the division title. The only team that never really had a chance in the NFC North this season was Chicago. Cutler was petty much out for the season by Week 2 after he sustained a thumb injury in a game where his team was routed by the Philadelphia Eagles. He tried to make a comeback, but then a shoulder injury sustained in a November game against the New York Giants put that to an end. Now, with the guaranteed portion of the seven-year extension contract he signed in 2014 running out, the team has a decision to make. Chicago would take a hit in the ballpark of about $2 million if they either trade or release the QB, but Chicago would also free up around $13 million worth of cap space.
Does Jay Cutler stay or does he go?
Chicago doesn't have many options unless they can score a quality QB in the draft. One of the oldest and most storied franchises in the NFL wants to be relevant again, but it's obvious they're not going to do it with the quarterback situation staying the same. The Jay Cutler experiment that has seen a number of coaches and coordinators, wide receivers and running backs try to turn the historically defensive-minded Bears into an offensive powerhouse, has failed. Cutler, a talented player who broke plenty of team records at his position, could never quite deliver his team to the promised land. He came close, in 2011, but then he had to watch from an exercise bike on the sideline as Rodgers and the Packers ran away with the game and into the Super Bowl that they'd end up winning.
That one year was the closest thing we had to a truly great rivalry in the last decade between the two Midwestern titans. Sure, there were a few good games here and there. Even this season saw Chicago almost ruin the Pack's streak during Week 15, only to be vanquished, once again, by Rodgers, who hurled the ball to Jordy Nelson for a 60-yard gain to the Chicago 14-yard line. Rodgers let the clock run down, Mason Crosby kicked a field goal, and that that was it. He did it again.
The rivalry between the Packers and Bears used to be something you looked forward to, but in the era of Cutler and Rodgers, who are both 33 years old, it has felt lopsided. Chicago's QB has shown time and time again that he has plenty of skills and, despite the complaints that he's injured too much, the guy is gritty. Sure, Jim McMahon was fun; he had cool hair and won a Super Bowl. But Cutler is the best play caller the team has had since Sid Luckman revolutionized the position in the 1940s.
Yet for every flash of brilliance, there's always been the Cutler factor. That feeling that he's going to throw the ball to an opposing player, fumble it or go rogue and end up getting injured by not sliding correctly on a play that didn't go according to plan. You always have that worry when things start looking up, and then something bad ends up happening. And when it's all done, he slinks away with his shoulders hunched, a look of disdain on his face. Somebody screwed up, and Cutler never looked like he thought it was him who was at fault. Simply put: Jay Cutler has been really frustrating to deal with. I've said plenty of bad things about the guy, but I've never wanted a player from my team to succeed so bad. Yet at some point, maybe a year or two ago, I found myself saying something I thought I'd never let pass from my lips: "I wish he played more like Aaron Rodgers."
The Bears and Packers rivalry hasn't been that great for a long time. Sure, the lowly 1999 Chicago team won by a point in their first game after the team's greatest player, Walter Payton, passed away, and the Packers have built momentum off wins agains the Bears a few times. I've seen the Bears win one Super Bowl and lose another, while Green Bay has been to three in my lifetime and won two of those. I never envied Rodgers' predecessor, Brett Favre. I just never enjoyed watching him play. Yet with Rodgers, I've had to admit to myself that few quarterbacks have excited me in my lifetime the way that he does. It's a feeling a Boston Red Sox fan friend once conveyed to me and a New York Yankees fan friend about Mariano Rivera, saying he just loved watching the closer walk to the mound and shut the other team down. A few seconds later, the Yankees fan friend admitted, "I really love Big Papi. I wish that dude was on our team." It's really hard to admit that your team's rival has a player you're really jealous of. It might hopefully happen once in your lifetime, and for me, everything that Cutler has ever done to make me worry about putting the ball in his hands, Rodgers is the exact opposite.
It's a disappointing thing, coveting the other team's success as well as their leader. Yet what's even more difficult to swallow is that over the course of the the two QBs being at the helms of their respective teams (Rodgers took over the starting job from Favre a year before Cutler made the move from Denver to Chicago), is that there hasn't been much a rivalry to speak of. Cutler is 2-11 agains Green Bay. While Bears fans can gripe about the team not making the playoffs again or the state of the defense, the fact remains that a record like that is unacceptable. If you get beaten that many times by the team you're supposed to despise the most, it isn't a rivalry anymore. The Green Bay Packers own the Chicago Bears at this point. Sure, the all-time record between the two franchises is currently tied at 94–94–6, but that's not gong to be the case for much longer.
As of this moment, it isn't certain whether or not Cutler has played his last game as a Chicago Bear. Like I said, the team doesn't have that many options, and a Tom Brady or Dak Prescott later-draft round success story doesn't happen very often. Some people think the Bears could use the number three spot to grab Josh Allen out of Wyoming, but drafting a quarterback with such a high pick, especially one that isn't a huge name, could be risky. But really, what do they have left to lose? As long as they can put a team out on the field that can compete, and hopefully beat their rivals in each of the two games they'll play next season, that's a sign that the team is on the right track.