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After carrying Bears, Cutler costs them this time

3 interceptions, fumble returned for TD costly in loss to Lions

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

8:56 PM CDT, September 29, 2013

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DETROIT — All the happy talk over Bears quarterback Jay Cutler's mechanics during his team's 3-0 start overlooked the fact that you can't change his wiring.

This is who Cutler is as a quarterback in Chicago, the reason the trains run on time one week and the cause of a derailment the next. You can win often in the NFL with Cutler and occasionally lose because of him, depending on the day. Good luck predicting when those days will come. Several smart football men have lost their jobs trying.

Sunday at Ford Field in a 40-32 loss to the Lions, Cutler proved how prone he remains to feast-or-famine performances by leaving the Bears starving for consistency. Without warning, the guy a football city got carried away calling Mr. Fourth Quarter after three impressive victories regressed to Mr. Four Turnovers.

Cutler's three interceptions and a fumble that defensive tackle Nick Fairley returned for a 4-yard touchdown led to 17 Lions' points. The defense gave up too many rushing yards due to shoddy tackling, the offensive game plan lacked coach Marc Trestman's trademark imagination, especially on third down, but there was no debate who let the Bears down most in the Motor City.

Even Cutler saw that easier than he ever spotted Lions safety Louis Delmas.

"If I played better, this is a different ball game," said Cutler, who completed 27 of 47 passes for 317 yards and had a passer rating of 65.6.

This wasn't a step backward anybody could attribute to Cutler backpedaling as pass rushers forced him to deliver the ball before he was ready. This was Cutler reminding everybody why, in his eighth NFL season, people still wonder whether he ever will lead a team to a Super Bowl despite undeniably enormous talent.

"Since day one, Monday, we knew that we were facing a strong, competitive quarterback who wasn't going to take no for an answer," Delmas said.

Translation: Opponents still think Cutler can help them as much as he can hurt them. That suggests perhaps Cutler hasn't changed as much as some of us have portrayed and his biggest strength — boldness — still mirrors his biggest weakness. The only difference this year might be Cutler's increasing awareness of that reality.

"I've just got to give us a better chance at winning," he said.

His willingness to accept responsibility and explain each error displayed noticeably improved maturity that has been well-documented. The underthrown floater that safety Glover Quin easily picked off happened due to bad footwork. The third-quarter interception by Delmas, the safety's second of the game, sailed on Cutler. On the fumble, Cutler acknowledged holding onto the ball too long — a chronically bad habit — so that unblockable beast Ndamukong Suh could strip the quarterback.

Both Cutler and Trestman went out of their way to make clear that the mistakes were more physical than mental, blaming poor throws more than decisions. Nobody argued. But is that the good news or the bad news about a supposedly polished veteran quarterback?

"We can't turn the ball over, but it wasn't decision-making as much as fundamentals," Trestman said. "I thought he threw the ball well if you take those three plays out of the game."

Yeah, the Bears would have stopped the Lions if you take away Reggie Bush's three longest runs too. Football doesn't work that way. Nothing works that way. Denial seldom has sounded more eloquent from a football coach, but it still sounded like denial.

"I thought he played tough and courageously," Trestman said of Cutler.

Indeed Cutler did. He always does. Toughness and courage aren't issues with Cutler. Consistency and accuracy are.

Cutler simply helped the Lions out-Bear the Bears. On a day Matthew Stafford was average, the Lions combined an opportunistic defense and clutch special-teams play with an offense that didn't get in the way.

Meanwhile, the Bears returned home with every reason to believe they still can contend in the NFC North. They weren't going to threaten the 1972 Dolphins and their first loss guarantees Trestman a more captive audience Monday morning.

They need to tighten up the tackling on defense — injured tackle Henry Melton wasn't dominant enough to be missed that much. They need to avoid abandoning the ground game when they fall behind so Matt Forte gets more than 14 carries. They need to avoid being fooled that outscoring the Lions 16-3 in the fourth quarter meant anything outside Las Vegas.

"That game could have gotten ugly," left tackle Jermon Bushrod said. "We fought back."

Congratulations, but there are no playoff tiebreakers for moral victories. The Bears' late flurry after falling behind 40-16 with 8:49 left made their early futility all the more frustrating.

The only thing more maddening was realizing the guy most responsible for creating the problem also represents the solution.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh