Is this the year? Does Jay Cutler turn the corner and become the top-10 quarterback he is supposed to be?
Beyond that, how 'bout we ratchet this conversation up a notch and tackle the question people in Chicago really want to know: Will Cutler ever win a Super Bowl?
The Bears' immense investment in their "franchise" quarterback can be matured most effectively with, well, a shot of maturity. But don't be quick to judge Cutler personally, because the lion's share of his development must come in his game, not what his character is perceived to be.
Ringing endorsement hard to earn
Cutler's persona has frequently come into question over the last several months. No one knows for sure what makes him tick. What we can say is that it looks bad to remove one's self from a game with a knee injury, then be walking around while window shopping with a starlet in Beverly Hills, Calif, days later.
Maybe the criticism that stemmed from that series of events was just window dressing for people's dislike of Cutler?
Either way, Cutler's responses to myriad salvos from reporters haven't exactly promoted a player ready to be a leader of a proud franchise or helped his public image. But putting his maturity on the sideline for a moment -- a place where many of us remember Cutler all too well during the NFC Championship Game -- it's not what is holding him back from success.
Cutler still throws off his back foot too often. Despite having a great release, he manages to hold the ball a bit long (particularly noticeable with the "Olé!" protection he gets from his offensive line). Both are issues that will occur less frequently as he develops on the field.
Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry always felt a quarterback was most effective north of 30, almost a decade into an NFL career. By that time, the game slows down enough to allow talented passers to pick apart defenses. That is, if their body doesn't break down in any number of ways -- reduced mobility, arm strength or their ability to withstand injuries.
That's where the organizational investment in Cutler could pay off. His arm strength should be there in spades at 33 or 34 years old, much like Roger Staubach (Landry's quarterback), Terry Bradshaw or John Elway, all of whom were better in their 30s than in their 20s.
Some players take time to become great … Drew Brees won a Super Bowl in his ninth season. Ditto Peyton Manning. Ditto Bradshaw, whose first two Super Bowl rings were more the result of a legendary defense than his own play. Staubach's best seasons were at the end his career. Cutler, now 28, might be on the same timeline.
That's not to say a younger quarterback can't succeed. Ben Roethlisberger won the Super Bowl in his second season, Joe Montana his third. But you can't tell me Big Ben isn't a better player now than he was in 2005. Montana -- while great in 1981 -- might have been the best quarterback ever in 1989, his 11th season.
One thing those two quarterbacks had that Cutler does not is a strong supporting cast, starting with the offensive line. Until Cutler gets some kind of protection, he'll be forced to throw off his back foot or get face-planted. Not to mention that he still has no real No. 1 wideout. I'd like to see Montana or Aaron Rodgers win Super Bowls with Roy Williams as their top target.
Hired help aside, there's no use ignoring Bears fans or the critics in the media. Cutler can certainly afford to grow up -- as could all of us. Yet, his progress inside the lines is even more important than outside. With a couple more seasons and some better components around him, there's no reason everyone's whipping boy can't win Chicago its first Lombardi Trophy since 1985.