Editor’s Note: With the Jay Cutler trade back in the news we wanted to share Robert’s fun look at what could have happened if the Bears would have never made the blockbuster deal.
April 3rd, 2009 was pure Chicago football nirvana. For the first time in a long time, the Bears had a legitimate Pro Bowl (alternate) quarterback in Jay Cutler. All for the meager price of two first round picks (2009 and 2010), a third rounder (2009), and Kyle Orton. After enduring years of Harbaugh, McNown, Stewart, Hutchinson, Krenzel, Grossman and on and on, Chicago finally had a player under center to build around. A welcome excited feeling of respite from years of ineptitude, but a strange one at that. Cutler was the anointed savior because he could throw the ball hard, and former general manager Jerry Angelo “had no concerns”. Here came a Bears dynasty in tandem with a re-birth of the modern “Superfans” from Saturday Night Live: with Cutler in front.
If only trades and plans always came to fruition the way they were originally envisioned.
A downward slope
For awhile, it looked like the Bears had something special with Cutler. His first season in 2009 was a mess as Chicago limped to a 7-9 record while Cutler led the NFL in interceptions with 26. 2010 was where the magic happened. Forget another merely okay year passing-wise: Cutler was the Bears’ offensive catalyst for a run to the 2011 NFC Championship Game. He was the engine somehow bringing Mike Martz’s archaic “seven step and get killed” offense back to life. That was the talent of Cutler. Nothing bridled, and enough to lift even the most incompetent of supporting casts and coaches.
The Bears would end up falling to the Packers at home that January, and still haven’t reached the same stage, let alone returned to the postseason since. 2011 seemed promising, but a Cutler broken thumb on a tackle during an interception return sunk those hopes. 2012 was the end of the Bears’ Lovie Smith backbone, their defense, and there was nothing Cutler could do. He wasn’t that kind of quarterback.
2013 to 2014 was what Chicago likes to call “It Never Happened” but in actuality, someone did let Marc Trestman coach a football team. And for 14 games, he seemed like he knew what he was doing. As did Cutler: mastering and lifting another off-kilter offense and scheme. That is, until the Bears once again lost to the Packers in what was effectively a playoff battle at Soldier Field. Rampant in-fighting then spread across the organization over the course of 2014 season. At this point, not all of the fault could be laid at Cutler’s feet for the Bears’ continual failures. He was merely surviving.
The John Fox era became Cutler’s one last shot to prove he could lead a team into prominence. 2015 was one of his career’s best in passer rating (92.3) and overall efficiency, and then he promptly fell off a cliff immediately after. 2016 was mired for Cutler by injury from the start, and his lengthy eight-year tenure with the Bears ended with the softest of whimpers. What were once lofty (and perhaps unfair) Super Bowl expectations, evolved into both sides (the Bears and Cutler) dysfunctionally loving each other, and needing a clean break. The most painful of breakups.
154 touchdowns. 109 interceptions. 57 wins.
Aside from an evident surly attitude, in terms of pure production and on-field results: that ended up becoming what the Bears received in trading for Cutler. A 1.41 touchdown to interception ratio and an average of seven wins a season (though, the latter in victories is more on the Bears for failing to properly build a team). Not the fall from grace that Angelo ever expected.
Picture this alternate history in your mind: instead of trading for Cutler in the 2009 off-season, the Bears had stuck with Orton for the time being. Instead of narrowly missing the 2008 playoffs, Orton led Chicago to an NFC North title, earning at least another year as the starter on the lakefront.
Here’s the alternate history of the Bears never trading for Cutler (timeline 2009 to 2016):
- Chicago uses the No. 18 overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft on Jeremy Maclin, giving Orton a legitimate young weapon to work with offensively. They use the No. 84 overall selection on T.J. Lang, bolstering their offensive front of a group that desperately needed a youthful infusion.
- In the 2009 season, they still don’t make the playoffs, but show enough rising young talent offensively to run with Orton for another year.
- In 2010, Chicago doesn’t make a run to the NFC Championship Game, yet does sneak into the postseason dance: booting the rival Packers. Green Bay doesn’t win Super Bowl XLV. Coming short two years in a row doesn’t sit well in Chicago, though, especially given Orton’s limitations. The Bears finally decide to draft their future, and with the No. 21 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, select Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick (No. 36 overall in reality).
- Kaepernick, as a young and raw passer, doesn’t play immediately and sits behind Orton who is extended for the sole purpose of acting as a bridge quarterback. Orton plays competently enough in 2011 to keep Kaepernick on the sideline until the Bears decide to cut their losses and run with their young passer in December. From that point on, it’s Kaepernick’s team or bust.
- Over the next few years, Kaepernick slowly develops and becomes a quality starting quarterback, even leading the Bears back to the postseason in 2012. This time around, the Bears are one of the teams with the mobile quarterback no one knows how to stop and they make a run to the 2012 NFC Title Game before eventually falling to the Giants. Chicago makes a few more vaunted runs over the next few years, especially as the offense is maximized to Kaepernick’s skill set, but is never able to climb the mountain with Kaepernick. The Bears become stuck in Purgatory much in the same way they were in 2017 anyway.
League defining decisions
Cutler never being traded to the Bears also has a profound effect on how parts of the league develops from 2009 to 2016.
- The Broncos stick with Cutler, Brandon Marshall, and Josh McDaniels and build one of the league’s consistent premier offenses. The Broncos become a consistent AFC contender from 2010 to 2015, but are never able to overcome the Patriots without an elite defense, as Denver never gets bad enough to draft Von Miller in 2011.
- Miller becomes a Bengal instead, where he is paired with Geno Atkins and turns Cincinnati’s defense into an elite unit. A unit that can overcome the faults of Andy Dalton at quarterback as it leads the Bengals to an eventual win in Super Bowl XLVIII over the Seahawks. Cincinnati does it by bullying Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game, just as the Broncos did in real life (albeit in a different year).
- Without an enthralling quarterback to build around, Jim Harbaugh doesn’t reach the same heights in San Francisco. The 49ers have a talented roster that everyone recognizes goes to waste under the guidance of Alex Smith at quarterback. They make no NFC Championship appearances and Harbaugh eventually leaves the NFL: without an NCAA head coaching gig.
- Tim Tebow is never drafted by the Broncos, and “Tebow Time” (mercifully) never happens. He never gets a contract from the New York Mets in the future either. The story actually goes away forever.
In hindsight, given the crapshoot of the NFL when it comes to developing and nurturing starting quarterbacks, most would make the Bears’ Cutler trade again without a second thought. He was one of the Bears’ best quarterbacks ever, certainly the most talented, and should be seen as more wasted potential than a complete waste of time.
There’s no denying the amount of fun hypothetical possibilities if the Bears and Angelo never pull the trigger, however. Possibilities that would have dramatically shifted a league and sport as we know it.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.