Bears

Bears: Gase's changes to Jay Cutler's game more significant in hindsight

jaycutlerbearsinsider032216.png

Bears: Gase's changes to Jay Cutler's game more significant in hindsight

BOCA RATON, Fla. – The improvements quarterback Jay Cutler made in his game during the 2015 season are well documented: best passer rating of his 10-year career, tied for best yards per attempt, second best completion percentage.

But the size of Cutler’s step forward was greater than most realized even at the time.

It began with then-offensive coordinator Adam Gase canvassing a number of Cutler’s former coaches to find out something, anything, as to how Cutler thought.

Because as coaches told Gase, they weren’t always sure, particularly when Cutler was under pressure and forced into sped-up decision-making.

Gase processed the information and the sign of what was to come began unfolding in training camp. As CSNChicago.com reported at the time, the one-time interception machine went practice after practice, the first 11 in all, without throwing an interception, whether in full-team sessions, seven-on-sevens or anywhere.

What that told Gase was that something in his quarterback, even with a new offensive system and what would be a revolving door of wide receivers to throw to, had changed that had baffled so many of his previous mentors.

Cutler went on to post the second-lowest interception percentage of his career, coinciding with an overall directive that ran contrary to his nature as a big-throwing quarterback.

“We were trying to shorten the game up (in Chicago), and that’s what everything called for,” Gase said on Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings. “When you’re told, ‘go eight or nine possessions,’ (instead of the NFL average of 12 per game), it’s hard to hold back sometimes when you’re trying to keep Aaron Rodgers off the field.”

(Note: The Bears did in fact hold time-of-possession edges in both their meetings with Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers last season)

“A lot of it has to do with – and I know you’re not going to believe this – (Cutler) doing a great job of being patient,” Gase said. “I know that was hard for him in the past. But he really had a great mindset going into the season.

“It started in training camp where I think he went 11 practices before he threw an interception. He did a great job of practicing taking care of the football and he didn’t force throws. For him to do that, he gave me the feeling that we were headed in the right direction.”

[WATCH: Kyle Long, Bobby Massie get to work together for Bears]

Gase remembered when the pick-free practices count reached eight or nine, thinking that Cutler had indeed internalized the change. “The narrative for some people was, ‘Oh, it’s just practice,’” Gase recalled, “But then he carried it over into games.”

Cutler had developed a reputation for “patting the ball,” holding it while waiting for receivers to come cleanly free and resulting in sacks. Despite the constant upheaval at receiver due to injuries, and dealing with lower-tier receivers who simply don’t get open as well, Cutler stayed on message.

The interception reduction in training camp was only part and the beginning of the story.

“When we got in games, he did a good job and very rarely made mistakes,”Gase said. “As the season went on and he got more comfortable, it really came together. He knew exactly where he was supposed to go with the ball, didn’t hold onto it long, and he really did a good job knowing exactly where the ball should go and getting it out.”

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.