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Redemption Song

December 24, 2013

By Ross Mitchell

“Won’t you help to sing; These songs of freedom?; ‘Cause all I ever have; Redemption songs; Redemption songs.” -Bob Marley

January 23rd, 2011.  The day it all started.  Bears-Packers.  NFC Championship Game.  6/14, 80 yards, 1 interception, Quarterback Rating of 31.8.  Then the knee injury.  Then the players taking to social media.  Then the media scrutiny.  Then the questions surrounding his toughness.  Then the questions surrounding his drive.  Then the questions surrounding his leadership.  Then the fan backlash.  Then the questions surrounding his body language, his facial expressions, his decision making.  Then the thumb injury.  Then the sacks.  Then the “Push”.  Then the label as a coach killer.  Then the groin.  Then the ankle.  Then the backup.  That was then…

This is now…

Of course I’m talking about Jay Cutler.  Who in Chicago isn’t?  And of course the timeline isn’t that one-sided or negative.  There have been lots of positives as well.  Cutler has gone from being perceived as frail or fragile to having a reputation as one of the toughest players in the league.  He has gotten married.  He became a father with another child on the way.  He was reunited with his close-friend Brandon Marshall.  He endured a Swiss-cheese offensive line and stone-handed wide receivers only to command the third highest scoring offense in the NFL.  He became the Bears franchise leader in virtually every passing category.  He has gotten better, despite protests, despite denial, not just as a player, but as a leader, as a father, as a man (not that he was ever a bad man).

I know there are a handful of people out there, maybe at the moment the majority of people out there, who feel differently.  Who think I’m crazy for continuing to believe in a quarterback who has experienced just one division championship in his career as well as the same number of playoff wins.  A player who, statistically, has been outplayed by a man who now stands on the sideline holding a clipboard.  Look, I can’t argue, Josh McCown has been nothing short of miraculous.  There were times when he was simply playing at another level.  You can credit the offensive talent around him, you can credit the coach staff and the system, and you should.  But firstly, you should credit McCown.  Because for the month that Cutler was out with an ankle injury, McCown not only succeeded, he thrived.

So why would I be in favor of handing the keys to the car back to Cutler?  Why would I continue to have faith in a player who continues to turn the ball over?  Who led the Chicago Bears to 11 points against a mediocre-to-bad Philadelphia Eagles defense?  Why, when Josh McCown was so efficient and so careful with the football?

That brings us to Sunday.  Back to the Packers.  Back to Green Bay.  Back to starring the demon in the face.  Back to the monkey on your back.  Back to the elephant in the room.

Once again the season is on the line.  No, it isn’t for a shot at the Super Bowl.  Truth be told neither the Bears nor the Packers, even with Aaron Rodgers, have a sunny outlook after this weekend.  I’m not saying there is no chance.  Crazier things have happened.  Three seasons ago the Packers had to win back-to-back games just to get into the playoffs.  They did (including one against the Bears in the Week 17 season finale).  Two seasons ago the Giants were 7-7 going into Week 16 (I know, I make this point all the time).  Last year the Ravens fired their offensive coordinator after Week 14, lost the next week, their third in a row, and backed into the playoffs.  And all three went onto win the Super Bowl.  But the Super Bowl isn’t the issue here.  That’s weeks away, if at all.

What is here is a chance at redemption.  A chance for not just the Bears but Cutler to avenge the 2011 loss.  A loss that has lingered and festered and left a bad taste in the mouth of Bears players, management, owners, and fans alike.  A loss the Second City still hears about from Packers fans.  A loss that probably will never heal.  That will always sting.  And while the subplots are plentiful, there is one that dwarfs them all.

Not whether Aaron Rodgers will play.  Not whether Eddie Lacy will suit up.  Not how many rushing yards will the Bears porous defense allow.  Not any of these things.  It’s obvious.  In fact it was almost destined to end up this way.

How will Cutler play?  More importantly, will he lead the Bears to victory?  Because if he wins, even if he plays like shit, it won’t matter.  Division champs.  Playoff bound.  Season sweep on the Packers.

I’m going to address this first, because it is the most hotly debated topic in Chicago since Derrick Rose’s knee.  Or the implementation of the Ventra cards.  Yes, I think Cutler is playing for a contract on Sunday.  I have gone on the record stating I think the Bears and Cutler already have a contract worked out.  I came to this conclusion after General Manager Phil Emery said he was hesitant to use the franchise tag on Cutler (he later amended his comments saying he would use the tag to keep Cutler in a Bears uniform if need be), and after Cutler himself said, “I know Phil (Emery) has a plan.

Those comments lead me to believe that there is some kind of agreement already on the table and that sooner-rather-than-later an extension will be announced.  I know the Bears have stated publically that they aren’t negotiating with players during the season, but this is too important an issue to set aside for four months.  This signing/non-signing will literally shape not just Cutler’s career, but Emery’s and Head Coach Marc Trestman’s as well.  It is the most important single event Phil Emery’s has to make.  You don’t just shelf that.

Yet if Cutler falls flat on his face and the Bears lose there is always the possibility that the Bears franchise tag him.  It would be shocking to me if the front office lets him walk.  Not when Emery hired Trestman with the intention of maximizing the quarterback position (and Emery didn’t mean Josh McCown).  But if Cutler lays an egg perhaps this contract is put in a drawer for a year.  Until we see how Cutler evaluates after another season under Trestman’s tutelage, another year in the Quarterback Whisperer’s system, as the Bears continue to “evaluate”.

Quick tangent: Merry Christmas!  Happy New Year (if I don’t talk to you)!

Now…

Chicago is a city divided into four factions.  There’s the Cutler loyalists, the Anti-Cutler crowd (who just don’t like Cutler and probably never have, the group of fans that would rather have the Bears lose on Sunday rather than see Cutler play well, or bad fans as I like to call them), and the Josh McCown supporters (the fans who fell in love with McCown due to his performance and honestly believe he gives the Bears a better chance at winning than Cutler, or as I like to call them, people with a different opinion than mine, one that I can respect and appreciate).  There’s also Bears fans.  Who don’t care about all the hype and fanfare.  Who just want to see their Bears win.  Bless them.  I happen to be one of them.  Despite this article.

I’m writing this article for that fourth group.  For the Bears fans.  The ones who sat through every grueling play of the Eagles debacle.  Who have endured their friends and family and seemingly everyone else spew this complete and utter nonsense about a nonexistent quarterback controversy.  The ones who never wavered in their love for the NFL’s charter franchise.  You guys deserve this article, even though it feeds the fire and fans the flames.  You guys deserve recognition.  The ones who just want to see another notch in the win column.  The ones who remember how to be fans, an art that is rapidly fading throughout the country.  This article is about your perseverance as much as it is about Cutler’s redemption.

But this is article about Cutler.  This is about his shot at redemption.  This is about casting three years of scrutiny and ridicule aside.  This is about the contract and the future.  This is a lot of eggs in one basket.

I believe Cutler will play well.  Not because I’m wearing blinders.  Because the Packers defense is horrid.  Yes, so was the Eagles, but one doesn’t have to do with the other.  If you want me to justify that opinion, the Eagles are a unit which the past few weeks have been coming into their own and literally every player on the Bears took a deuce on the field.

I also believe Cutler will be able to overcome a slow start.  Even if the Soldier Field crowd turns on him.  I’d almost have this game be played on the road if Cutler wasn’t awful in Lambeau Field.  One interception, one three-and-out, one fumble, virtually anything but an opening-drive touchdown and it’s all but assured a chorus of boos will reign down in Cutler’s direction, deserved or not.  But I believe that won’t be an issue.

I believe Cutler and company will get off to a fast start.  I believe the line will block, that they will rebound from last week’s 5-sack embarrassment and keep Cutler clean.  I believe Forte will have lanes to run through and that Martellus Bennett, Alshon Jeffrey, and Marshall will impose their will on a struggling Packers’ secondary.  I believe Green Bay’s defense is in for a long day.  And I believe Cutler will be the best player on the field.

So why do I believe this?  Why do I believe the Bears will be successful against a team that has owned them the better part of twenty-years?  Why do I believe Cutler will rise to the occasion where he has faltered so many times before?  Maybe the fact that he’s a good player playing a bad unit and we’re all reading way too much into the sideshow and nuances.  Maybe this is one of the few things I can’t quantify.  But I have to believe that things don’t come full circle like this just to let us down.  I have to believe in happy endings.  I have to believe in redemption.

“All I ever had; Redemption songs; These songs of freedom; Songs of freedom.” -Bob Marley

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