These days when Chicago Bears fans hear the name Jay Cutler mentioned, they suffer a mixture of emotions. It comes in stages. Awe for his incredibly gifted right arm. Excitement for some of the crazy plays and comebacks he was able to pull off. Then a sour turn of anger and frustration at his constantly reckless decision-making.
In the end, one thing people can say about the Cutler era? It wasn’t perfect. The quarterback had great highs and great lows. This is exemplified by his rather fitting 51-51 record as a starter in Chicago. It’s easy to forget that there was a point in time where fans would’ve given almost anything in their possession to have him back on the field.
This is the story of how that time came to be and the tragic stroke of misfortune that led to it all. In this, it is hoped people will gain a better understanding and appreciation of how much Cutler meant to the Bears franchise and their hopes for a championship.
Jay Cutler doomsday clock begins: October 16th, 2011
Things were starting to look dire for the Bears by the start of October 2011. Green Bay was already running away with the NFC North by that point. They were undefeated and won their first meeting in Chicago handily 27-17. Things only got worse from there. By October 16th, a Sunday night meeting with the Minnesota Vikings, the Bears were in dangerous territory at 2-3.
Their season was teetering on the brink of getting out of control. Cutler himself hadn’t enjoyed the experience much either. In those first five games, he was sacked 18 times. It was a continuation of the beatings he took throughout much of the 2010 season when he suffered 52 sacks. It was wondered how long his body could hold out under the punishment.
Either way, the team needed a win and needed it badly.
As had been the case for much of the previous year, Cutler and the defense delivered. Minnesota managed just 10 points all night while the Bears quarterback had one of his best games of the season. He finished with 267 yards and two touchdowns and a season-high 115.9 passer rating.
November 7th, 2011
After defeating Tampa Bay in London the next week, the Bears escaped into their BYE with a 4-3 record. Their biggest tests were still to come though. Their first game out of the break was a trip to Philadelphia against an Eagles team that also seemed to have found their stride.
After a 1-4 start, they’d won their last two including a 34-7 trouncing of Dallas the previous week. It was anything but certain Chicago could get out of there with their third-straight win. Things got off to a good start though as Cutler staked them out to a 10-0 lead. The Eagles battled back to tie it and from there the two teams exchanged blows.
Then with six minutes left in the third quarter, Philadelphia struck what looked like a mortal wound on a 33-yard touchdown run by LeSean McCoy. If that weren’t bad enough, a penalty on the subsequent kickoff forced the Bears back to their own 6-yard line. The offense took the field with no momentum, the raucous Philly crowd in their ears, and 94 yards to go.
Aided by two big Cutler passes that covered 46 yards, the Bears drove into range for a 36-yard field goal by Robbie Gould to cut the lead to 24-20. Then after a three-and-out forced by the defense, the quarterback delivered the most clutch drive of the season.
That would prove the difference in the game. Chicago prevailed 30-24 and returned home to Soldier Field with all sorts of momentum. That quickly carried into a 37-13 crushing of the Detroit Lions the next week, revenge for their loss earlier in the year. The Bears were getting hot, and Cutler was one of the biggest reasons why.
November 20th, 2011 (Kickoff)
Next to visit Chicago on the schedule were the San Diego Chargers. It was a late afternoon start at 3:25. By this point, expectations were significantly elevated. The Chargers were reeling after four-straight losses. They also hadn’t won a game in Soldier Field in their history. This was one the Bears knew they should have. Blowing it now could end up costing them down the stretch.
The game turned into one of the most exciting of the season. Cutler and old rival Philip Rivers traded big plays throughout the first half. Chicago though took a 17-10 lead on a TD pass to Kellen Davis with 20 seconds left. Undeterred, Rivers struck back with a drive to tie the game at the start of the 3rd quarter. What followed was the peak 15 minutes of Cutler’s season.
November 20th, 2011 (the 3rd quarter)
After two runs to open their next drive, the Bears quarterback took matters into his own hands. He threw four consecutive passes that went for 11, 12, 11, and 42 yards to get down to the San Diego one-yard line. That first completion was truly memorable as it came on a 3rd and 4 while a defender was in the midst of dragging him to the ground.
Cutler managed to get the ball out to Roy Williams at the last possible second as he was falling backward. Williams then scooted for the 1st down. After a run for no gain at the goal line, Cutler capped the drive with a QB sneak for the touchdown. He wasn’t done though.
Minutes later Charles Tillman forced a Ryan Mathews fumble, getting the offense the ball right back. Cutler hit Williams for 13 yards on the first play, then delivered a gorgeous 24-yard strike to Johnny Knox in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. That proved to be the decisive shot that broke the game open for the Bears, taking a 31-17 lead.
November 20th, 2011 (the play)
From that point on, the job of the offense became time management. At the start of the 4th quarter, Cutler began a march that would drain almost five minutes off the clock. The Bears drove to the Chargers 32-yard line. On 2nd and 8, he dropped back to pass. The play called for a slant to Knox, but the wide receiver slipped on his break.
This left only cornerback Antoine Cason in position who intercepted it.
Cutler was forced to give chase down the sideline. As he was attempting to make the tackle, he came down hard on the turf, his right hand reaching to try tripping Cason up. Though it didn’t succeed, it was enough to buy Forte time to force the corner out of bounds and prevent a touchdown. It proved a vital moment in the game because the defense intercepted Rivers in the end zone a few plays later.
Not that it mattered. What nobody knew at the time except for perhaps those on the Bears sideline is that Cutler was hurt, and hurt seriously. He was able to finish the game as if nothing was amiss though. A 31-20 win. The Bears’ fifth-straight. Thoughts of Super Bowl had returned to Chicago as fans joyfully left the stadium. They had no idea of the disastrous news that awaited them on the drives home.
November 20th, 2011 (postgame)
About 30 minutes after the Bears victory was complete, the news struck all the major media outlets that something had happened. Cutler may have suffered a fracture in the thumb of his right hand. The news struck people like a cold gust of wind. Head coach Lovie Smith soon appeared on WBBM-AM 780 to validate the news.
“Jay does have a right thumb fracture. He hurt it on the tackle on the interception. Of course, we took X-rays last night and he’ll be seeing specialists this morning and we’ll be able to tell you a little more after that.”
The final results confirmed the worst fears. Cutler required surgery and would be out for several weeks. This was awful timing. The team was 7-3 and the QB was playing the best football of his Bears career. There were even whispers of him entering the MVP conversation. Now he was out.
Smith still held out hope though.
If the surgery and recovery went well, Cutler could be back in time for the playoffs. The Bears had six games left. All they had to do was go 3-3. This would give them a 10-6 record and likely entry into the postseason. They still had a good defense and a strong running game. There was one problem though.
Caleb Hanie was the backup.
November 27th, 2011
At the time there was some confidence in Hanie. He’d come in as relief during the NFC Championship game back in January and played well. He threw for 153 yards and a touchdown, leading the Bears back into the game. Unfortunately, he also threw two costly interceptions including the pick-six to B.J. Raji that proved the difference in the game.
Could he keep the team on the tracks? Chicago got their answer in the first game post-Cutler. A road trip to Oakland against the Raiders. In many ways, this game was a continuation of what happened months back. Hanie threw for 254 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for another 50 yards. Yet none of that overshadowed three bad interceptions.
Amazingly those weren’t the worst plays of the game. That came in the final seconds. Trailing 25-20, the Bears were driving for a hopeful chance at a hail mary to the end zone. They’d just gotten a first down at their own 41-yard line. All Hanie had to do was spike the ball to stop the clock.
It looked like he was going to do that, but as he took the snap Hanie hesitated, almost like he was thinking about a fake spike. Only then did he drive it into the ground. This pause ended up proving disastrous. Officials flagged him for intentional grounding, resulting in a 10-second runoff of the clock. With only four seconds left, this ended the game
And with it, the Bears’ streak.
December 4th, 2011
Things only got worse from there. A return home to Chicago saw them host the Kansas City Chiefs. These were not the Patrick Mahomes or Alex Smith era Chiefs, mind you. The starting quarterback for this game was Tyler Palko. A guy who was starting just his third career game. Going against the Bears defense at Soldier Field? It felt like a slam dunk.
Everything proceeded to go wrong. Early in the game, the team lost Matt Forte to an injury that would end his season as well. Without him, Hanie was a deer in headlights. He threw another three interceptions and the offense managed to muster a meager three points while Palko put a stamp on the humiliation with a hail mary touchdown to end the first half.
The same type of play the Bears hadn’t been able to run a week earlier. A surefire sign that the football gods were starting to turn against them.
December 11th, 2011
Even with those two losses, the team wasn’t panicking. They were still 7-5. If they could go into Denver and win, they’d have strong odds for completing their mission to reach the playoffs. The problem was their two best offensive players were out of action and the Broncos were riding a tidal wave of momentum orchestrated by the late-game heroics of Tim Tebow.
The game proved to be a defensive slugfest. With time winding down though, the Bears were in control. They had the ball with two minutes to go and were up by three. All they needed was another first down and the game was effectively there’s. Then? Marion Barber happened.
The veteran running back took a handoff on 2nd down and ran left. He picked up about five yards, but completely lost his sense of the moment and allowed himself to get knocked out of bounds, stopping the clock. This kept Denver’s hopes alive. Chicago punted the ball back to them two plays later. Tebow then quickly drove them down the field for a game-tying field goal.
Despite all that, the Bears still had a chance. They got the ball right back in overtime and began to march down the field, covering 47 yards and entering field goal range. On 3rd and 7 they went for a safe running play to see if they could give Robbie Gould a couple of extra yards. This would prove to be their final mistake.
At that point, the result felt inevitable. Denver drove down the field and won the game on a 59-yard field goal. The Bears were 7-6, having lost three games to three of the easiest opponents on their schedule.
After that, the death march began.
Seattle clobbered them the next week 38-14 and then they had to go up to Green Bay after that and were decisively defeated 35-21. The playoff window had slammed shut. The only thing left was to play out the string. Cutler? He was held out the rest of the year. There was no point in him returning anymore.
Yet there was still one cruel trick left to play. In the final game against Minnesota, star linebacker Brian Urlacher tore up his knee while breaking up a pass in the end zone. Though the Bears won the game, the middle linebacker was never the same after that injury. He would retire a year later.
January 3rd, 2012
In cannot be understated how much the loss of Cutler killed the Bears’ season. Not to mention their Super Bowl hopes. The offense averaged 231 passing yards and 26.8 points per game. When he broke that thumb, those numbers dropped to 141.8 and 14.1 respectively. There is no way around the reality. It was a disaster, and repercussions were only growing.
Two days after the final game of the year, offensive coordinator Mike Martz agreed to resign from his position with the Bears. This was mostly due to the offensive collapse down the stretch. This despite clear evidence that he and Cutler seemed to mesh well on the field.
They’d gone 17-8 together over the past two years and were averaging just over 30 points per game when the quarterback got hurt. It was a move that would prove the undoing of Lovie Smith. He promoted offensive line coach Mike Tice to replace Martz the next season. A move that former Bears receiver Earl Bennett revealed years later was a joke.
True enough, Jay Cutler took a step back that year. This despite gaining Brandon Marshall as a new wide receiver. He threw just 19 touchdowns in 15 games with an 81.3 passer rating. The second-lowest of his Bears career. Chicago finished 10-6 but offensive ineptitude saw them lose five of their remaining eight games after a 7-1 start. Again, they missed the playoffs.
Smith was fired and the era of Marc Trestman was ushered in.
Everybody remembers what happened after that. The Bears would not have another winning season for the next five years. Trestman and Cutler would grow further apart until the desperate coach benched the quarterback late in 2014. He too would be fired after the end of that season. Any optimism that had survived in Chicago fans by that point was snuffed out.
Whatever magic Cutler had shown during that wonderful win streak in 2011 was gone. It would never materialize again, leaving many to wonder what could’ve been had he not taken that fatal fall against San Diego.