Cutler glad to be playoff-bound, says offense still needs work

The 2010 Chicago Bears -- imperfect, pockmarked by streakiness but promising -- mirror the play of their quarterback, Jay Cutler, working to shake off the ghosts of last season and rebrand himself a playoff winner.

Cutler, who sat down with NFL Network analyst Marshall Faulk on "NFL GameDay Morning," was asked where he ranked among the league's premier passers of today.

"Are you an elite quarterback," Faulk asked.

"Am I? You know, there are some guys that are playing (at) a really high level ... with (Tom) Brady and Aaron Rodgers and Matt (Ryan) down in Atlanta. Peyton (Manning)'s always there. Am I on their level right now in this offense? I don't think so," Cutler said. "Will we be there? Absolutely."

Not since he was a high school senior in Indiana had Cutler led a winning team.

Now, the Bears are in the playoffs after beating Minnesota 40-14 on Monday night to clinch their third NFC North title in six years, meaning Cutler will get his first taste of the postseason and maybe start to wipe out that underachiever reputation.

Faulk asked Cutler if this season's success comes with a sense of vindication.

"No. Not really. I don't think we've accomplished what we want to accomplish yet. And, I don't think we're where (we) should be as an offense yet," Cutler said.

"There's a lot of room for growth. There's a lot of missed opportunities out there. (Not) until we really get to that elite level, and accomplish the goals we're going to accomplish, will I really feel like that."

Cutler drew praise from around the league in 2008 after throwing for 4,526 yards with the 8-8 Denver Broncos. What happened afterward was well-documented. There was a major falling out with coach Josh McDaniels after he took over for fired coach Mike Shanahan, and Cutler wound up getting traded to Chicago in a deal that sent expectations soaring.

Cutler was viewed by many longtime Bears fans as the first proven, franchise-level quarterback to start in Chicago in nearly 25 years.

The list of Bears quarterbacks since Jim McMahon barnstormed Super Bowl XX offers few gems: Steve Fuller, Mike Tomczak, Doug Flutie, Mike Hohensee, Steve Bradley, Jim Harbaugh, Peter Tom Willis, Will Furrer, Steve Walsh, Erik Kramer, Dave Krieg, Rick Mirer, Steve Stenstrom, Moses Moreno, Shane Matthews, Cade McNown, Jim Smith, Jim Miller, Chris Chandler, Henry Burris, Kordell Stewart, Rex Grossman, Craig Krenzel, Chad Hutchinson, Jonathan Quinn, Kyle Orton and Brian Griese.

Cutler was expected to flip the lid on the Bears' conservative offense. Instead, in 2009, he threw a league-leading 26 interceptions and the Bears tumbled to a 7-9 finish.

When coach Lovie Smith hired offensive coordinator Mike Martz before this season, the switch marked Cutler's third new offense in five seasons -- and one that asked him to trust a group of receivers he'd failed to gel with.

"Coming off a year with all the interceptions, and all the pressure and the focus on that ... to go out there and be, like, 'Alright, just throw to this spot. That guy, he'll be there.' It was hard. It really was hard. You know, (I'm) still not there 100 percent. But, we're getting there," Cutler said.

Cutler expressed admiration for Martz.

"Just the amount of football knowledge that he has is incredible," Cutler said. "And the way he sees defenses, I think, is a little bit different from a lot of guys in the league. The way he's able to attack them. It's been fun."

Under Martz' watch, Cutler has thrown for 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He isn't trying to force as much lately.

"It took some time. You know, a lot of repetitions," Cutler said. "But, until you really go out there on game day -- and you really go through the motions, and you really experience the play, live -- I mean, you're not really going to gain that trust."

The Bears are moving the pocket better of late, and Cutler is taking less of a beating, even if his 44 sacks are a league-high. Still, protection remains an issue. In 29 games with the Bears over the past two seasons, Cutler has played behind a musical-chairs offensive line endlessly in search of itself. Cutler's paid the price, enduring 79 sacks (2.7 per game).

During that same span, Drew Brees (41), Brady (40) and especially Peyton Manning (25) have taken significantly less punishment.

"It's, like, five, six, seven games until we really get that front five that we really trusted and wanted to go with," Cutler said.

Cutler's 5-0 record in the NFC North has separated the Bears from the rest of the division. He had never won more than three division games in a season before 2010. Now the Bears can lock up a bye this week with a win over the New York Jets coupled with a Philadelphia loss and a loss or tie by the New York Giants.

It's a far cry from where Cutler stood a year ago, but, at 27, he's often bypassed in conversations about the league's best young quarterbacks. Cutler was asked by Faulk if he felt slighted to be left off that list.

"Yeah, it gets to you a little bit," Cutler said. "You know, 'cause very few guys are really under 30 at this point. There are some really good guys out there. You know, after last year, I don't ... I wouldn't expect anything but to be left off that list. So, the only thing you can do is go out there and play better, and hopefully prove some people wrong."

Cutler understands he's not viewed as the league's most charismatic signal-caller. He's battled the perception that he's cantankerous and disengaged, and his on-field body language has been a focal point of criticism since he was drafted by Denver in 2006.

"Do you watch you? Do you see your body language? Do you care about what your body language may say to the rest of your teammates?" Faulk asked.

"I think the guys know me well enough, you know, at this point, on our offense," Cutler said. "They know that whenever I throw a pick, I'm going to go back. I'm going to look at it. I'm going to talk to everyone that was involved with it. And, we're going to figure it out.

"If you start worrying about what everyone thinks, that's when you're going to lose some focus. I mean, we've got to concentrate. I've got to concentrate on this building," he said. "Keeping my teammates happy with what I'm doing. Keeping my coaches happy with what I'm doing. We'll work from there.

With the Bears about to play their first postseason game in three years, the spotlight on Cutler will only intensify. For a moment, he can breathe.

"It's huge for me," Cutler said of reaching the playoffs. "Clearly there's still a lot left. We've got to finish up these next couple games. And then, figure out what's going to happen in the playoffs. But, just to get in the first time, and to be 10-4 at this position we are right now, it feels good."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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