Line of Scrimmage: How Good Is Cutler? We'll Soon Find Out

By Tony Moss, Sports Network

The Sports Network

In a sense, the classic chicken-or-egg argument is about to be answered, finally.
If the Chicago Bears' dismal luck at the quarterback position over the better part of the last half-century was really due to the lack of talent at signal- caller, then the acquisition of disgruntled ex-Bronco Jay Cutler should - at last - provide relief to the organization.
Cutler, with a cannon for an arm and accuracy, poise, and confidence to burn, is unquestionably a top-tier NFL quarterback.
But even the best of the best find it difficult to win without suitable weapons, and that is where Cutler's challenge will reside.
By any objective measure, the receiving corps of the Chicago Bears is among the worst five in the league - as it often has been since the end of the Sid Luckman era - and even Cutler might have some trouble squeezing these lemons into a lemonade and vodka on the rocks.
Devin Hester? Like another great NFL return guy, Dante Hall, Hester showed last year that his talents don't quite transfer to offense. Hester caught just 51 balls for 665 yards in 2008, and what's worse, his three touchdown catches on the year seemed to come at the expense of his production on returns.
After scoring 11 touchdowns off of punt and kick returns in his first two years in the league, Hester had zero last year. He's not Cutler's Brandon Marshall, or even his Eddie Royal.
But for the time being, he's the best Cutler has at the wide receiver position.
Chicago also trotted out the likes of Rashied Davis, Brandon Lloyd, and Marty Booker as wideout targets last year. Combined, that trio had 75 catches, 1,020 yards, and seven touchdown catches. Those numbers would be about three- quarters-of-a-season for Marshall. (Lloyd and Booker are not under contract for 2009, and not expected to return to the team).
Cutler does have two very good tight ends - Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark - at his disposal in his new home, but the quarterback was never able to find a consistent chemistry with Tony Scheffler in Denver, so it remains to be seen whether that position will continue to be a focal point of the passing game.
In fact, the 25-year-old quarterback could find his top target in a second- year player who has never caught an NFL pass - Earl Bennett. Bennett was Cutler's top target in his final years at Vanderbilt, but couldn't get on the field as a rookie last year. The third-round pick touched the ball once, on a punt return, but certainly he'll have a better rapport with Cutler than he did with the jettisoned Kyle Orton.
Another Vandy guy (and rookie disappointment), left tackle Chris Williams, will be expected to protect Cutler's blind side, with another Thursday signee, former No. 1 pick Orlando Pace, presumably serving on the right.
On balance, Cutler won't have the supporting cast he had in Denver, but he will certainly be comfortable in the role of franchise savior.
Just as he was anointed as the next John Elway when the Broncos drafted him in 2006, with Chicago, he's already being called the best quarterback in team history, before he's donned his first piece of Bears-related apparel.
One thing's for sure - the confident Cutler isn't going to cower under the pressure.
It's safe to say that Broncos fans aren't exactly giddy with anticipation for the start of the Kyle Orton era. As bearded washouts go, well, Denver has already had its Jake Plummer, and Orton - who is almost certain to be the Broncos' Week 1 starter in 2009 - is clearly not in Cutler's stratosphere.
But there are a couple of sparks of hope here. First, Orton does have experience, and at this moment, he's better than some of the other options that could have landed in Denver (Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Daunte Culpepper, etc.). Though Redskin and would-be Broncos Jason Campbell has a better upside than Orton, as a former first-round pick it might have been tough for the team to justify parting ways with him if he proves to not be "the answer." There's no such expectation, or risk, with Orton, who will be allowed to succeed or fail in Denver based solely on his play.
Also, Orton fits the mold of the tall, strong-armed, low-round draft choice with which head coach Josh McDaniels worked well in New England. The Purdue product is not Tom Brady, but with a little seasoning and time in the offense, is there any reason he couldn't be Matt Cassel?
Which brings us to the backup plan if Orton falls flat on his face...there isn't one, unless you consider Chris Simms, who hasn't taken a meaningful NFL snap since September of 2006, to be a true competitor to Orton.
Denver now has both the No. 12 and No. 18 picks in the first round, but it seems highly doubtful that either of those selections will be used on a quarterback. Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez are likely to be gone by the time the Broncos are on the clock, and the consensus No. 3 quarterback - Kansas State's Josh Freeman - is too much of a question mark for McDaniels to effectively name as the franchise's quarterback of the future.
It is more plausible that the Broncos will use their second- or third-round pick on a quarterback and bring him along slowly without saddling him with the kind of expectations that would burden a first-rounder (and his new coach).
So, soap opera over...for now. But the TV ratings, at least in Chicago and Denver, are going to take a big leap once these teams hit the field in August.