At 29 years old, Jay Cutler is far from the days when his memory might fail him.
So even when he thinks back to Nov. 19, 2005, a day he admits “seems like forever ago,” one aspect of Vanderbilt’s 28-24 victory over Tennessee immediately comes to mind.
“I think the last drive, I threw the ball to Earl [Bennett] four straight times,” he said. “We kept dialing his number up, and he kept making plays for us.”
That was the last time those two played together as college teammates but the connection they had that day — and throughout their time together at Vanderbilt — is an important element of the quarterback’s current success.
Cutler has had better numbers in his career than those he’s put up through the first seven games of this season. When the games have been at stake, though, he has been at his best.
His fourth-quarter passer rating coming into Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field (noon, Fox) is a league-best 132.0. He has completed just shy of 74 percent of his throws and has averaged 11.24 yards per attempt — both also are No. 1 in the league — in that quarter. Six of his nine touchdown passes on the season have come in the final period.
That has a lot to do with the fact that the Bears are tied for the league’s second-best record at 6-1. Their last two victories have been by less than a touchdown, including last Sunday’s 23-22 come-from-behind triumph over Carolina.
“I think he’s a tough quarterback, he plays hard and the game means a lot to him,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “They could be sloppy and not look like they’re doing much on offense, and then he could do like he did last week and take the drive down the field and win the football game. That’s what he’s capable of doing.”
It helps in those moments that Cutler has receivers he knows and trusts.
There is Bennett, his preferred target during his senior season at Vanderbilt, and there is Brandon Marshall, his first go-to guy as a professional. The Bears drafted Bennett in 2008, traded for Cutler in 2009 and dealt for Marshall prior to this season.
“I think that helps a lot, just [having] people you are familiar with, because it takes a while for a quarterback and receiver to get on the same page,” Chicago coach Lovie Smith said. “So that has to help when you’ve been through just about every situation that can come up for a long period of time. … We see that chemistry really paying dividends for us.”
Marshall, in particular.
One of three receivers to top 1,000 yards in each of the last five seasons (Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald and Atlanta’s Roddy White are the others), he leads the Bears with 50 receptions for an NFC-best 675 yards and four touchdowns. That puts him on pace for his best statistical season yet.
No one else on the Bears has more than 18 receptions or two touchdown catches.
“I know it’s hard without him,” Cutler said. “I was without him for three years. He just changes games because you know you have that guy over there that if you get one-on-one coverage, he’s going to win 100 percent of the time. As a defense, you have to account for that.”
Bennett missed two games recently with an injury but has 12 receptions for 156 yards.
“He’s in there every down with me,” Cutler said. “He’s my rock out there. He can play all the positions. He’s a smart player. He’s tough. I trust him out there, and it’s good to have him out there again with me.”
The Titans were familiar with Cutler when he came out of Vanderbilt. They worked him out several times prior to the 2006 draft but ultimately used the third overall pick to select Vince Young. Cutler went to Denver 11th overall, one spot after Matt Leinart went to Arizona.
Seven and a half seasons later, Cutler’s career is — by far — the best of the group.
“The draft and drafting quarterbacks in the first round is such a crapshoot,” he said. “Once you get in the NFL, there’s a lot to it. It’s not whether you just play well. You have to be in a good system. You have to have some guys around you. Your offensive line has to play well.
“It’s a lot of chance and a lot of luck as well as your skill level.”
It also doesn’t hurt to end up with wide receivers you know well.