After Chicago paired the headstrong Mike Martz with the equally headstrong Jay Cutler this offseason, there was much … head-scratching.
The thinking among Bears officials was that Martz's aerial creativity as offensive co-ordinator would dovetail with Cutler's powerful arm. It made sense.
Still, concerns remained: possible incompatibility, the revolving-door nature of the co-ordinator position and whether a weak group of blockers in front of Cutler would prohibit Martz from unleashing a 2.0 version of the offence known as "The Greatest Show On Turf" when he coached the St Louis Rams.
The Bears, at 8-3 entering today's game against the Lions in Detroit, are one of the NFL's surprises because Martz and Cutler have changed their stripes. Temporarily, at least. For now, both have seen the benefits of short, safe throws as an alternative to flinging it far down the field.
"Winning games and just moving the chains," Cutler said after a mid-November victory, referring to an emphasis on first downs as a means to touchdowns.
Three years a Bronco, Cutler wore out his welcome in Denver and landed in Chicago before last season. His dubious league-leading statistic: 26 interceptions, a figure attributed to bouts of Brett Favre-itis - the tendency to make lots of high-risk, high-reward throws.
Now, Martz has Cutler making short drops from centre, allowing the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly, which translates into the lowest rate of completions exceeding 20 yards among NFL quarterbacks.
"He did a good job taking what was there," Greg Olsen, the Bears tight end, said on a recent Sunday.
The short-and-fast passing game does not yield yardage in chunks, but it aids in efficiency. Cutler has reduced his interception rate (10 through 11 games) and bumped his quarterback rating to 90.4, up from 76.8 a year ago.
Nothing less than a play-off run, this season or beyond, will convert the Cutler critics.
His reputation for stubbornness precedes him and his supreme self-confidence in his arm can cause trouble, too, as none other than Favre acknowledged when discussing Cutler.
"I see that in him," said Favre, an avowed admirer. "You kind of take the good with the bad."
Cutler is exercising patience, a virtue rarely associated with him, and Martz, too, is showing restraint. Think of a person with hands tied behind his back, gradually untangling the ropes.
"It'll happen," the coach said of dusting off his Greatest Show playbook. "It's just a step-by-step process … You just have to choose your spots."
Olsen concurs. "He's that kind of guy who can make those special plays," he said. "We don't want to take that away from him."
Today’s top games
• Washington at NY Giants: The renewal of a classic rivalry has one team (Redskins, 5-6) with little room for error against one (Giants, 7-4) trying to keep pace with NFC North leader Philadelphia. The Skins, an older bunch, are showing their age. The Giants rise and fall weekly on their turnover frequency; with 30 this season, they lead the league.
• Atlanta at Tampa Bay: The Falcons, unbeatable at home, venture south for the first of three consecutive road games. They are operating on all cylinders offensively, and while their defence is 20th in yards allowed it is No 7 in points permitted. The Bucs are 7-4 despite being outscored this year but lost only by six in the Georgia Dome.
• Pittsburgh at Baltimore: Ben Roethlisberger was suspended when the Ravens won 17-14 in Pittsburgh. Iffy for this game, he has worn a boot on a foot rumoured to be broken; the Steelers deny it, calling the ailment a sprain. The Ravens have won eight straight at home and should get the after-dark cold weather that they relish.
Today’s other games
Jacksonville at Tennessee
Cleveland at Miami
Chicago at Detroit
Buffalo at Minnesota
New Orleans at Cincinnati
San Francisco at Green Bay
Denver at Kansas City
Oakland at San Diego
Carolina at Seattle
St Louis at Arizona
Dallas at Indianapolis
NY Jets at New England
Stat of the week
The Dallas Cowboys were 14-3-1 on Thanksgiving Day leading up to 1985, but since then the holiday has not been as merry; they are a modest 13-12.