So it turns out the Bears aren’t the only team falling over itself to pick up a quarterback who has some Chicago football fans scratching their heads: Fox Sports has signed Jay Cutler as an NFL analyst for the coming season.
Cutler, cut by the Bears in March, has never done this sort of work but is slotted alongside rising Fox star Kevin Burkhardt, experienced player-turned-analyst Charles Davis and sideline reporter Pam Oliver on the network’s No. 2 crew.
“We’re very excited about the potential he brings to the booth and are looking forward to hearing his analysis,” John Entz, Fox Sports executive producer and president of production, said in Friday’s announcement.
Hey, everyone likes surprises. Right?
Even Cutler seems a bit stunned that he’s going into broadcasting. He told Tom Waddle and Marc Silverman on ESPN’s WMVP-AM 1000 he was initially reluctant to move to TV — “I was like, ‘There’s no way in hell I’m doing this’ ” — and fully expects some pangs of regret as the season begins.
If Cutler struggled to sell himself on his new role, imagine the challenge of selling everyone else on him in it.
“I want to have fun with it,” Cutler said. “I know Kevin and Charles do as well, and Fox does too. They want to put a good product out there.”
Chicago is a city that recognizes, celebrates and clings to sports figures with charismatic star quality.
Yet people here never took to Cutler, the Bears’ all-time leading passer and husband of TV personality, actress and designer Kristin Cavallari, the way they did Michael Jordan, Mike Ditka or Harry Caray, larger-than-life figures whose names, images and bankable popularity outlasted their glory days.
Cutler could prove the second coming of John Madden or Frank Gifford as a football announcer, but that will require qualities not readily on public display during his eight years with the Bears.
Some who have spent time with Cutler say he indeed can be thoughtful and funny. Bears Chairman George McCaskey, in a statement, cited Cutler’s “ability, toughness and intelligence” in saying “Jay epitomized what it was to be a Chicago Bear.”
But compare Cutler with Tony Romo, who’s also going straight from the field to TV this year, leaving the Cowboys for CBS’ No. 1 NFL broadcast team. Each quarterback experienced a full range of emotions during his playing career, but which conjures the image of a winning smile and which a sullen pout?
The Sun-Times’ Rick Telander, a columnist not typically given to harsh pronouncements, referred to Cutler last fall as “a strong-armed athlete with zero soul, zero charisma.”
By that point, Cutler had for years taken the brunt of criticism for the Bears’ offensive shortcomings, a pummeling that would make introverts of most men.
Just days before Cutler’s regular-season debut as a Bear after a 2009 trade with the Broncos, however, the Daily Herald’s Mike Imrem observed: “The Bears’ quarterback doesn’t seem to have a very sunny disposition. His smiles and humor appear forced.”
Among those less than awed, it may have been widely presumed Cutler was more charming than he tended to come across, if only because, well, how he could he not be?
Burkhardt, who said his first Fox national telecast with Cutler will be the Bears’ exhibition against the Titans on Aug. 27, told SiriusXM’s Adam Schein on Friday that Cutler’s audition preparation and performance impressed him.
“My gut, when we got done, I was like, wow, he can do this, and that’s not always the case,” Burkhardt said.
“So I’m really excited. I’m sure a lot of people said, ‘Wow, Jay Cutler, I didn’t see that coming.’ But I’m telling you, he’s going to surprise a lot of people. He’s smart. He’s engaging. And I really believe that … there is a good, dry, sarcastic humor there that’s going to make its way onto the air.”
As pregame and postgame host of Fox’s postseason baseball coverage last year, Burkhardt coaxed the best out of former Yankees star Alex Rodriguez during the Cubs’ championship run. After an inauspicious start, Rodriguez eventually came across as insightful and personable.
“A-Rod is a good comparison in certain ways,” Burkhardt said. “I’m not saying they’re the same person or anything like that. But what was the perception of A-Rod when we hired him? … He wasn’t a well-loved guy in the media. … But he came on, he was ultra-smart and good on the air, and, yes, he made fun of himself.
“People were like, wow. … I think Jay will (succeed too). Trust me, I saw the smarts and a lot of the things he brought to the table there, and he has that humor. I’ve seen it in text messages. So now it’s a matter of my job to bring it out on the air, which we will.”
Through Fox, Cutler issued a statement about putting his playing days behind him with thanks to his family and wrestling with the term “retirement.”
“I don’t feel that anyone ever really retires from the NFL,” he said. “You are either forced to leave or you lose the desire to do what’s required to keep going. I’m in between those situations at this point in my life.”
Ambivalent or not, this sort of network TV gig is as soft a landing as anyone could hope to win.
One factor in Cutler’s favor: There are few people whose dispositions wouldn’t improve immediately by no longer getting flattened by defensive linemen and linebackers, often in bone-chilling weather, by moving to the safe shelter of a broadcast booth as the second-guesser rather than the second-guessee.
As fate would have it, Cutler is taking the position that opened when John Lynch left Fox to become the general manager of the 49ers.
It was Lynch who pulled off the draft-day Jedi mind trick that compelled the Bears’ Ryan Pace to hand the Niners two third-round picks and a fourth-rounder so the Bears could take quarterback Mitch Trubisky 15 minutes earlier.
Getting Trubisky presumably sealed the Bears’ long-term plans to replace Cutler after also signing veteran Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million contract.
The second-guessing began immediately, as with Fox’s hiring of Cutler, but the true measure of these moves will require time to be proved. Everyone likes surprises.