While answering Ravenous' question about Jay Cutler for the Windy City Gridiron mailbag, I tumbled down the rabbit hole. So the WCG editors decided it best to break this off as its own story. And away we go!
Ravenous asks: "Is Jay Cutler the quarterback to take the Bears where they want to be taken?"
Hoo boy.... this one will be tough.
My TL;DR answer to this question is: "Yes."
My juuuuuust a bit longer answer is: Don't ask "Is he?" Ask "Can he be?" The answer to that question is "Yes."
Okay. Marching on.
* QBs who won a Super Bowl: 31 (in 50 games)
* QBs who won a Super Bowl at or after age 33: 12
* QBs in their first Super Bowl start who won a Super Bowl at or after age 33: 4
* QBs in their first Super Bowl start who won a Super Bowl at or after age 33 without a Pro Bowl appearance in the 8 years prior: 1
Jay Cutler is 33. His last (and only) Pro Bowl was at age 25, his third year in the NFL and last before joining the Bears. When Bears fans express concern about the slim chance of Jay Cutler leading the Bears to the Super Bowl this year or beyond, they do so because of his age and his lack of Pro Bowls. The phrase that seemingly every Bears fan and analyst has uttered about Jay the past three years:
"At this point, Jay Cutler is what he is."
And that's true. But let's look back at the four bullet points above, namely the fourth one. The only man in the last category? The hypothetical Jay Cutler category? Jim Plunkett of the Raiders, who made his first Super Bowl in 1980 at age 33, and won, and made another Super Bowl three years later, and won that too, all without ever making a Pro Bowl.
If Bears fans want to point to a history lesson to make them feel better about Cutler, that lesson is undoubtedly the story of Plunkett. Given the right circumstances, a talented yet unsuccessful and maligned quarterback can become a champion, leading observers to reconsider everything they thought they knew about him and recast his narrative as one of redemption, not failure. Call it the Plunkett Principle.
Plunkett and Cutler share similarities. Both were high draft picks, Plunkett 1st overall in 1971, Cutler 11th in 2006. Both were known for their arm strength. Both struggled with ball protection. Both were sacked an ungodly amount. In Plunkett's worst three-season stretch, he was sacked 112 times. In Cutler's, 113.
Both, not surprisingly, battled injuries.
Here's the good news: Plunkett's 1980 season was a much crazier reversal than anything Cutler would have to do this year to win a Super Bowl.
Plunkett's five seasons prior to winning MVP of Super Bowl XV in January 1981: five games with New England, an 11-15 two-year record with San Francisco, and then 15 total passes in two years with Oakland at ages 31 and 32.
He won Comeback Player of the Year in 1980, but even that doesn't tell the tale. Sports Illustrated called Plunkett's '80 season a "resurrection."
What accounts for Plunkett's revival? Three things, as far as I can tell:
1. He stayed healthy
2. He played for an all-around strong team
3. He played with a top-10 defense
In 2011, former Raiders coach Tom Flores spoke with the L.A. Times for a 30-years-later look back at Plunkett's Super Bowl XV win. Flores' description of Plunkett fits Cutler nearly perfectly, depending on your opinion of Jay's capability to inspire teammates:
"Our type of system was almost perfect for Jim," Flores said. "He was tall in the pocket, very powerful, a strong leader. The players liked him. They rallied around him and he just rose to the occasion, making big plays in big games."
Now, because the Plunkett Principle applies to QBs at or exceeding age 33 who win a Super Bowl without any recent Pro Bowl appearances, Jim Plunkett is the only one to whom it applies. But taken more broadly, the Plunkett Principle applies to any highly touted quarterback whose misfires have outnumbered his successes, but for whom a big postseason run leads fans and critics to say, "See, we knew he had it in him!"
Doug Williams is probably the best example. He was drafted 17th overall in 1978, had some success in Tampa Bay but ultimately flamed out and ended up in the USFL while still in his prime, came to D.C. and had one of the all-time great QB performances in Super Bowl XXII, winning the game's MVP award with four touchdowns and 340 yards.
Trent Dilfer is another obvious choice, but lower than Williams on the Plunkett Principle scale because Dilfer did not show out in his run. But Kurt Warner making the Super Bowl with Arizona in 2008 at age 37 counts because his career had essentially reset after losing to the Patriots. From 2002 to 2007, no one thought of Warner as a Super Bowl quarterback. His best days were behind him and poor play in St. Louis, New York, and then a bench stint in Arizona had seemingly re-written his story.
And then boom! He was back.
No QB in today's game has Plunkett Principle potential quite like Cutler. In 2010, Plunkett discussed football's evolution into a "pass happy" game and said he would love to play in today's NFL, even describing his game in terms similar to Cutler's:
"I've always loved to throw the ball," Plunkett said. "The rules have all been in favor of the offense (and so) defense suffers a little bit. I would love to be playing today, and I think I would fit in quite well."
In Jay's most productive seasons -- 2010, 2011, 2013 -- he's dealt with injuries. He's played three seasons in Chicago with a top-15 defense -- 2010, 2011, 2012 -- two of which were top 5. His record in those three seasons was 27-13.
He is coming off the best year of his career.
And the defense is only getting better.
As it happens, age 33 is a key cutoff of Super Bowl success. Quarterbacks aged 28 to 33 have won 23 Super Bowls, at least 3 per age, with 5 QBs winning at age 33 (Starr, Plunkett, Montana, Theismann, Young). After that, eight QBs age 34 and older have won a Super Bowl. Only one, Brad Johnson, did so in his first championship game appearance.
While we're here, let's talk about John Fox, who went from 7-9 to 11-5 and a Super Bowl appearance in his second season in Carolina, and went from 8-8 to 13-3 in his second season in Denver (with the Super Bowl the following year).
Jay threw for 21 touchdowns against 11 interceptions last year. He posted his first ever 90+ QB rating. He threw TDs in all but two games. He led comeback wins against Oakland, Kansas City, and San Diego. He won his first ever game at Lambeau in five chances.
The downsides? Another new offensive coordinator. No Matt Forte. A reshuffled offensive line. Uncertainty in the receiving corps.
There will always be downsides. The above is what we're dealing with. There is precedent, but barely. He has the offensive help, but debatably. Ravenous, Jay Cutler CAN help us win a Super Bowl. That's the best I can say. The best I can ever say. But not something I can say every year.
Here's to it. Go Plunkett. Go Cutler. Go Bears.