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Original Issue

Fear Factor

Chicago expected Jake Cutler to excel in the clutch, but the brash QB is struggling—and perhaps losing his confidence

After one of the five interceptions he threw in a 10--6 loss at San Francisco two weeks ago, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler walked off the field with an incredulous smirk on his face. "I'm snakebitten," he said, an admission that was picked up by the microphone beneath his white No. 6 jersey. ¶ The Bears have every right to feel the same way after Cutler, who was acquired for a king's ransom in an April trade with Denver, played like a pauper in squandering another winnable game on Sunday. The numbers suggest that he was average in the 24--20 loss to the Eagles at Soldier Field, completing 24 of 43 passes for 171 yards and one touchdown and throwing one interception. But it was the third time in Chicago's six defeats that he ended a game by throwing an interception in the final two minutes while the Bears were within a touchdown. Put another way: It was the third time he has failed in the very situation in which many Chicagoans expected him to prosper.

Cutler has thrown a league-high 18 interceptions, but on Sunday the issue wasn't his turnovers so much as it was his lack of accuracy—and mounting fears that the normally brash gunslinger could be struggling from a crisis in confidence. On the Bears' second possession he overthrew tight end Greg Olsen and then wide receiver Devin Hester on consecutive corner routes from the Eagles' 27-yard line. Later, with Philadelphia leading by four with 3:57 to play, he overthrew wideout Johnny Knox on a deep route after Knox had gotten behind cornerback Sheldon Brown, who was nursing a strained hamstring.

"What do you want me to say?" asked Cutler, who has thrown for 15 touchdowns and 2,524 yards on the season, after the game. "It's a throw I should hit, but I didn't."

Earlier this season Cutler directed the Bears to two comeback wins during their 3--1 start. But Chicago has lost five of its last six in part because he has thrown nearly twice as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns (seven). His decline is stunning against the backdrop of last season, when he threw for 4,526 yards and 25 TDs.

Cutler was considered such a prize that the Bears surrendered two first-round draft choices, a third-round pick and an incumbent QB with a winning career record (Kyle Orton) to acquire him, then guaranteed him $20 million as part of a two-year contract extension. But the fit has not been good for either side, for several reasons:

• A porous offensive line. Entering Sunday, Cutler had been hit 70 times by defenders (including 19 sacks). Over the same period last year behind a talented Denver line, he was hit just 20 times.

• Trust issues. Cutler has yet to develop strong chemistry with his receivers. On one play against the 49ers, for instance, he expected Kellen Davis to cross in front of the defender's face and threw the ball to that spot. When the tight end went behind the defender instead, the ball was intercepted.

• More presnap thinking. In Denver's system Cutler was not required to identify the MIKE (middle) linebacker and rarely had to worry about hot reads, because the Broncos normally relied on max protection when using seven-step drops. Such is not the case in Chicago.

• An identity crisis. The Bears are a run-oriented team that hasn't fully committed to the passing game. In 2006, when their ground game helped carry them to the Super Bowl, they averaged 31.4 carries a game—nine more than this season—and had near-perfect balance, with 514 passes and 503 rushes. This year it's 383 passes versus 221 rushes.

After Cutler forced the ball among several defenders on his final pass of the Philadelphia game and it was picked off, his frustration was obvious, including to Eagles counterpart Donovan McNabb, who has gone through difficult stretches of his own. After the game McNabb whispered into Cutler's ear during a meeting on the field. "[I told him], 'Your team is looking to see how you're going to respond,'" McNabb said later. "Spend time with your receivers after practice; let the guys see you doing the extras to try to get out of the funk. If they see you doing it, then they do it. Then [even] if a ball's not [thrown perfectly], a guy makes a miraculous catch. That provides confidence for you, and the throws that you [once] made in your sleep start clicking and you're out of your funk."

In other words, you're no longer snakebitten.

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Photograph by JOHN BIEVER

BEARING DOWN Cutler has an NFL-high 18 interceptions, but against Philly the issue was his inaccuracy.