The NFL’s Most Valuable Player award tends to go to the quarterback of the team with the league’s best regular season record, running backs with outstanding statistical seasons and all-around good ambassadors for the game.
Embattled Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler doesn’t check off any of those boxes. Hell, he fits none of the criteria whatsoever.
His Bears won’t have the best record in football this season, his stats won’t win any fantasy football owners their league titles, and his surly demeanor and “blah, whatever” treatment towards the media will likely keep him from being the next Pizza Hut or Papa John’s spokesperson.
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But 12 weeks into the 2012 NFL season, Jay Cutler has to be in the MVP conversation.
Chicago is 8-3, atop the NFC North standings, and is a few wins away from a division title and a home playoff game. With Cutler in the lineup this season, Chicago is 8-1. Without him, they are 0-2. Point to the opponents in those two losses as points of contention if you’d like (10-1 Houston and 8-2-1 San Francisco), but it’s impossible to argue that this Bears team isn’t entirely different with Cutler under center than when he’s not.
Last season, Chicago was 7-3 and in sound position to secure one of the NFC’s two wild-card berths when Cutler was ruled out for the season with a thumb injury. The Bears finished the year going 1-5 the rest of the way, missed the playoffs, and spent a boatload of team funds on acquiring Jason Campbell as Cutler’s backup this offseason.
New understudy. Same story this season when Cutler went down.
The Bears were dreadful without Cutler in the lineup. With him back under center Sunday against the Vikings — 13 days removed from a serious concussion and playing behind arguably the worst offensive line in all of football — they were fantastic. Dating back to 2009, Chicago is 31-19 with Cutler starting at quarterback. They are 2-6 without him. His replacement quarterbacks have averaged a paltry 43.0 passer rating in those eight games.
Cutler’s a magician behind Chicago’s front five. Hobbled and devoid of top-tier talent, the Bears offensive line often looks to be undermanned or worse yet, playing on skates. Using the word “patchwork” to describe the unit is too complimentary. Hyperbole, really.
2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi was demoted from his right tackle position before Sunday’s 28-10 win over the Vikings. When starting guards Chris Spencer and Lance Louis (not exactly Larry Little and Gene Hickerson as is) both went down with injuries, Carimi stepped in and played right guard … for the first time in his life. Such “on the fly” changes are nothing new for the unit.
The line was already undergoing an “Extreme Makeover” entering Sunday’s game, starting journeyman Chris Spencer instead of Chilo Rachal at left guard. Rachal, reportedly disappointed with his midseason demotion, left the team altogether last week.
Jonathan Scott — a guy who started the season on the Lions practice squad — is the team’s starting right tackle. Edwin Williams — a former undrafted free agent who was cut by the offensive line-starved Redskins — will likely be the team’s left guard without Spencer in the lineup.
Want to call the Bears offensive line a M*A*S*H unit? It’s more like an American Horror Story. And yet, there’s Cutler, with no time to get his feet planted, avoiding pressure and throwing laser beam passes to his receivers.
After a magnificent Week 4 performance in which Cutler lit up a good Cowboys defense in an impressive Bears win on national television, the big storyline was Cutler’s treatment of offensive coordinator Mike Tice.
When Tice tried speaking to Cutler on the sideline, Cutler shrugged him off and walked away.
Ross Tucker, an ex-player who’s now a host on SiriusXM’s NFL station, tweeted: “Must be so hard for Mike Tice to not just choke slam Jay Cutler. I bet 20 years ago he would’ve smoked him.”
Choke slam him? Mike Tice should be sending Jay Cutler bouquets of flowers and boxes of candy every Monday morning. Without Cutler, Tice’s offense is one of the worst in the NFL. We know that. We saw it.
On Sunday, ESPN’s Tom Jackson oddly took Cutler to task for not greeting Soldier Field employees on his way into the stadium. There was no such criticism when Aaron Rodgers put a gym bag in front of a camera when one of the networks filmed him walking into a stadium in a similar shot a few weeks back.
Earlier this season, Cutler told reporters, “If I yell on the sideline, I get killed. If I don’t say anything I get killed. If I walk away, I get killed. It’s a no-win situation.”
But who cares? As long as the Bears are winning games, does Cutler’s treatment of beat reporter X or radio host Y or offensive coordinator Z really matter?
Define “Most Valuable Player” however you’d like, it’s open for interpretation. But watching the Bears with Jay Cutler in the lineup and watching the Bears without Jay Cutler in the lineup, I can’t imagine a single player (outside of Ben Roethlisberger) who has more of a direct impact on his team’s success.
Drew Brees is a wonderfully charming man who does a lot of interviews and throws a lot of touchdown passes. Tom Brady has three rings and great statistics this season. Aaron Rodgers, mustache and all, can really make things happen. Peyton and Eli are having big years in Denver and New York and J.J. Watt changes games in Houston.
But Jay Cutler could be the league’s most valuable player this season.
Chicago stars Matt Forte, Devin Hester, Charles Tillman, and multiple offensive linemen went down with injuries on Sunday. Cutler’s been without rookie wideout Alshon Jeffery for weeks. If this team continues to roll right along without these players in the lineup, I can’t imagine leaving Cutler out of the MVP conversation.
He’s surly, he’s unpolished, and his stats won’t wow you. Toss in that hideous “Movember” mustache and a disdain for attention, and there’s plenty of reasons why Jay Cutler isn’t a media or league favorite.
But man, he sure is valuable.
On to the Cheat Sheet! Week 12 record: 9-7 (8-8 if Philly wins) 2012 overall record: 100-75-1
Week 13 Cheat Sheet trivia question of the week
With another outstanding performance last Sunday in New Orleans, 49ers defender Aldon Smith has reached 30 sacks in 27 games, becoming the fastest player to reach 30 sacks in NFL history. Who held the record prior to Smith? (See answer below) Thursday night
New Orleans at Atlanta: The Falcons aren’t winning any beauty pageants this season, but they are finding ways to win. Last week’s 24-23 victory in Tampa Bay was Matt Ryan’s 21st fourth quarter or overtime comeback win of his career. The W was Atlanta’s seventh victory this season by seven or fewer points, tying an NFL record for teams that have started 10-1 or 11-0. Let’s be honest — there’s no buzz around this team. And there won’t be, even if they finish the regular season 15-1. All that matters for Matt Ryan and Mike Smith this season is winning games in January, something they haven’t been able to do in their four years together. Handle the Saints — a team that’s given the Falcons fits the last two seasons — with ease on Thursday, and it won’t move the needle much externally. But inside that Falcons locker room, it’ll be significant. I think Atlanta finds a way and keeps on rolling — unnoticed — towards the No. 1 seed and home-field throughout the playoffs. The Pick: Falcons 34, Saints 27
Sunday early games
Seattle at Chicago: If the playoffs were to start this week, the Seahawks and Bears would be squaring off in Chicago in the wild-card round. Though Russell Wilson has beaten the Packers, Patriots, and Cowboys in Seattle, he’s still just 1-5 in road games. The Seahawks — dominant in front of the 12th Man — just aren’t the same team outside of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle beat up the Bears in Chicago late in the season last year. I don’t see it happening again. Not with my man Jay Cutler working his voodoo in those swirling winds. The Pick: Bears 24, Seahawks 13
Houston at Tennessee: With consecutive overtime victories in Weeks 11 and 12, Houston played 10 quarters worth of football in a five-day span. The Texans need to keep winning to hold off the surging Patriots, Ravens, and Broncos and keep home-field advantage in the AFC, but the injuries are mounting and they’re mounting quickly. Brian Cushing, Ben Tate, Tim Dobbins, Shaun Cody, and Johnathan Joseph were already missing from the lineup before Thursday’s dramatic 34-31 win over the Lions. Brooks Reed, Bradie James, Garrett Graham, and Derek Newton all suffered injuries in the victory. Houston will find a way over Tennessee, but this is not the same team we saw beating Denver and blowing out the Ravens a few weeks back. The Pick: Texans 24, Titans 20
New England at Miami: Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle had a great response when asked about how he planned on stopping Tom Brady this weekend: “I’m open to anyone’s suggestions.” I’ve got none. Brady’s been lights-out since the loss in Seattle. The Patriots have put up 109 points the last two weeks, Vince Wilfork is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, and New England’s looking better each week. At 5-6, Miami’s still in the AFC playoff picture, but there’s a better chance of those sprinklers going off again than them beating the Patriots on Sunday.
The Pick: Patriots 35, Dolphins 17
Jacksonville at Buffalo: So, the Jaguars have a franchise quarterback on their roster, after all. His last name just isn’t Gabbert. Chad Henne’s been the real deal since replacing Jacksonville’s 2011 first-round pick in Indianapolis three weeks ago. In his first win as a starter since 2010, Henne completed 17 of 26 passes for 261 yards and tossed 2 touchdowns in a 24-19 victory over Tennessee last weekend. With Henne under center, Justin Blackmon suddenly looks like he’s worthy of the top-five pick Jacksonville spent on him in April and Cecil Shorts III appears to have Victor Cruz game-breaking ability. Buffalo’s D is playing better, and the thought of the 2-9 Jaguars up in the December Western New York cold doesn’t scream “Jaguars win,” but I’m riding the Henne train.
The Pick: Jaguars 27, Bills 23
Indianapolis at Detroit: With consecutive losses at home in Weeks 11 and 12, the Lions are 4-7 and all but out of the NFC playoff picture. Since starting the 2011 season out 5-0, Detroit is 9-18, including their postseason loss to the Saints. You could hear the pin deflating the Lions’ playoff balloon when Jim Schwartz threw that controversial red flag on Thursday. Nothing’s gone right for the Lions this year. Meanwhile, there’s nothing but positivity and emotion spurring this dream season for the Colts. They could have very easily given away that game against the Bills last week, but they found a way. They always do. Give me Indy.
The Pick: Colts 27, Lions 24
Carolina at Kansas City: My favorite play of Week 12 was one that ESPN and the NFL Network neglected in their highlights on Sunday. Up 3-0 against the 7-3 Broncos and facing a fourth-and-2 inside their 10-yard-line, Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel didn’t think twice and sent out his field goal unit to give KC a 6-0 lead. Playing conservatively, settling for field goals when you’re 1-9, and giving the home crowd the same “by-the-binder” coaching decisions that have plagued your team the entire season — it was the 2012 Chiefs season in one play. Why not go for it there? Why not give the crowd something to cheer about? Naturally, the Broncos came back and beat Kansas City. Prior to a last second heave, Brady Quinn ended the game with a check down pass on third-and-5 with six seconds left from Kansas City’s 28-yard-line. Awesome.
The Pick: Panthers 34, Chiefs 20
Minnesota at Green Bay: Which version of the 2012 Packers are we going to get this Sunday? The one that sleepwalked through a 38-10 defeat in East Rutherford on Sunday night? Or the one that won five straight games — despite an injury report a mile long — leading up to that Week 12 loss? I’ll go with the latter. Aaron Rodgers rarely loses consecutive games. Green Bay has four games against division opponents in their next five weeks. Win out and they’ll be the NFC North champions. That run is only possible with a win over Minnesota.
The Pick: Packers 31, Vikings 23
San Francisco at St. Louis Rams: Though “Colin-sanity” will dominate headlines surrounding this matchup throughout the week, I love what the Rams got out of Janoris Jenkins and Chris Givens on Sunday. Two weeks ago, the young players were benched before the Rams’ first meeting with the 49ers for disciplinary reasons. With media well aware, Jeff Fisher had both young men running the stairs of Candlestick Park like they were high school freshmen. No worries. Givens caught five balls for 115 yards and scored a touchdown, while Jenkins became the first NFL rookie to return two interceptions for touchdowns since 1960 in last week’s 31-17 win over the Cardinals. Though they’re hanging by a string, the Rams are still alive in the NFC playoff hunt. This one’s my upset special. Give me Givens, Jenkins, and an inspired Rams team over their surging division rivals.
The Pick: Rams 20, 49ers 16 Arizona at New York Jets: “Fireman Ed” Anzalone “retired” from whatever it is he does on Sunday evening. The jokes were flying on Twitter on Monday, but my FOXSports.com editor Todd Behrendt had the best idea of all. Out of respect to Ed — because, you know, he’s done a lot to earn our respect over the years — Jets fans should no longer say the letter “E” in their “J-E-T-S” chant. Instead, they should just bow their heads. “J…bow head…T….S…JTS, JTS, JTS!” Incredible. What a week it’s been for the league’s silliest team. The Jets gave up 21 points in 52 seconds on Thursday night, Rex Ryan revealed that his backup quarterback had two broken ribs and there was no third quarterback dressed for the game, and Fireman Ed hung up his fireman’s helmet. Ryan Lindley isn’t exactly Kurt Warner — hell, he’s not exactly Max Hall — but I can’t pick the Jets. Not this week. Not when they’ll be dealing with the loss of Fireman Ed.
The Pick: Cardinals 20, Jets 15
Sunday afternoon games
Tampa Bay at Denver: If the playoffs were to start this week, Denver would be hosting Indianapolis in a wild-card game. Think an Andrew Luck-Peyton Manning matchup would generate a little interest? Tampa Bay won four straight games and made for a wonderful story in October and early November, but the road is anything but easy from here on out. Peyton Manning’s pretty good. The Bucs are last in the league in pass defense and 27th in sacks. That’s not going to cut it. Denver should have no problem handling the Baby Bucs in Mile High on Sunday. The Pick: Broncos 31, Buccaneers 24 Cincinnati at San Diego: Poor Takeo Spikes. The 14-year league veteran has made more than 1,000 tackles in his career, but has never played in a postseason game. He’s never even played for a team with an above .500 record. If San Diego could have beaten the Ravens last Sunday, there would have been a chance — albeit an outside one — that they could topple the Bengals and Steelers in consecutive weeks, and been a playoff team in 2012. Teams don’t rebound from losses like that, though. Maybe next year, Takeo. The Pick: Bengals 27, Chargers 17
Pittsburgh at Baltimore: “Fourth-and-29” will join “The hay is in the barn!” and “Ball So Hard University” as mainstays in Ravens fan lingo for years to come. The most amazing part of Ray Rice’s 29-yard catch and scamper last Sunday wasn’t Anquan Boldin’s bone-crushing block or Rice’s elusive moves — it was the fact Joe Flacco threw a 2-yard check down pass on fourth-and-29! These Ravens aren’t as dominant as their 9-2 record reveals, and they’re not nearly the same defensive team they once were. But they’re winning games. And that’s all that matters. A second straight season sweep of the Steelers? It sure looks like it to me.
The Pick: Ravens 24, Steelers 16
Cleveland at Oakland: Is there an amount of money — a million dollars? A trillion dollars? — you can be paid to watch this one, uninterrupted, from start to finish? I’m not sure there is. I’ll take the Browns over the Raiders, but I’ll be honest — I probably won’t watch very much. Someone e-mail me about the details on Sunday night before “Homeland”. Thanks.
The Pick: Browns 9, Raiders 6 Sunday night
Philadelphia at Dallas: Jim Schwartz’s errant challenge flag and Mark Sanchez’s “running into my lineman’s butt” fumble got more airplay, but I also got a kick out of Tony Romo hurrying to the line and running a quarterback sneak for 1 yard on … first and 10. Romo and Jason Garrett (presumably in his ear) must have thought it was third-and-inches. It wasn’t. The play summed up all you needed to know about the 2012 Dallas Cowboys. They’ll win on Sunday night, Dez Bryant will go bonkers, and you’ll wonder “What happened this year?” before you go to sleep. Quarterback sneaks for a yard on first-and-10. That’s what happened.
The Pick: Cowboys 34, Eagles 23
New York Giants at Washington: A week after being dealt a Carolina-Philadelphia matchup in Week 12, the Worldwide Leader gets an actually watchable game between the Redskins and Giants. RG3 and the ‘Skins have recovered from a midseason slump to win two straight games over divisional opponents. At 5-6 with tiebreakers over the Saints and Cowboys, they’re still very much alive in the NFC playoff hunt. It’s a great story for a city that needs a great sports story this winter (have you seen the Wizards? Or the … Capitals?), but I don’t see the Giants losing this one. Eli Manning, Victor Cruz, and Hakeem Nicks should have no problems tearing up that Redskins defense. The Pick: Giants 36, Redskins 24
And, oh, by the way
1. Call me a good company soldier if you must, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Charles Davis some love for calling UCLA-Stanford late Saturday night and being on the ground, in Tampa Bay, calling the Falcons-Bucs game at 1 p.m. on Sunday last weekend. Another impressive travel schedule from last week? Ian Eagle’s. The voice of the Brooklyn Nets did Nets-Lakers in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Nets-Warriors in Oakland on Wednesday, Patriots-Jets radio in New Jersey on Thursday, Nets-Clippers in Brooklyn on Friday, and Ravens-Chargers in San Diego on Sunday. Naturally, that one went into overtime.
2. I grew up listening to Mike Francesa on WFAN. I’m addicted. I love it when he calls LIPA “Liper”, when he says Victor Cruz does “da salzer,” and when he goes off on a two-hour tangent about some Judy Garland concert he saw when he was a kid. But he might have topped himself on Monday afternoon, opening his show by asking listeners how the Jets would possibly go on without Fireman Ed. Amazing radio.
3. After knocking Brady Quinn and Joe Flacco’s notable check down passes on Twitter Sunday, I got a lot of replies about the “King of the Check Down pass.” Ex-NFL GM Mike Lombardi said Matt Leinart’s “never met a check down he’s never liked”, while other Twitter followers gave some love for Rex Grossman, Todd Collins, and Mark “Sanche-ckdown”. Remember the old “NFL Quarterback Challenge” shows they used to have after the season? The NFL should broadcast a “Check Down Challenge” this summer. Just 5-yard dumps to targets made to look like burly fullbacks and scat backs.
4. Find me a better half-hour comedy on TV than “The New Girl.” You can’t. And that’s coming from a huge “Parks and Recreation” and “Always Sunny” fan. Nick Miller and Schmidt are this generation’s George and Jerry.
5. I still don’t think Gronk should have been in on that extra point. Week 13 Cheat Sheet Trivia Answer: In his first two years on the Philadelphia Eagles, Reggie White reached 30 sacks in 28 games.