Bears Issue No. 2: Not 'Cutler-specific' so much as 'Quarterback'


Bears Issue No. 2: Not 'Cutler-specific' so much as 'Quarterback'

Second of a series

During the death spiral that was the 2014 season, the offensive coaching hierarchy of coach Marc Trestman and coordinator Aaron Kromer grew weary and wary of Jay Cutler’s play at quarterback. There had been more than a passing desire to stay with Josh McCown during his career year of 2013 but the decision was to return Cutler to No. 1.

Last year the frustration with Cutler was enough to bubble over from Kromer to an NFL reporter after the latest in a run of dismal performances. Cutler failed to top 80.0 passer rating in three of his last four games, the other one being against the Dallas Cowboys in which the Bears fell behind 35-7 after three quarters before Cutler posted a stat burst in garbage time.

A change to Jimmy Clausen was made after 14 games. The surprise of this season will be if the new coaching staff stays with Cutler through another 3-6 start.

“We’re in a performance-based business,” Fox has said. “I understand that and you have to perform.”

[MORE: Bears Issue No. 1: Reshaping a losing culture]

This is probably just coincidence — probably — but after his benching in favor of Clausen, Cutler had one of the only two games over his final nine without an interception. Meaning: Maybe a little job jolt is a good thing where Cutler is concerned.

Cutler will not have the general manager resolutely in his corner as he did with Phil Emery, who used words like “elite” and “franchise quarterback” to describe Cutler when not even the head coach or coordinator were so inclined.

For Clausen, why Chicago?

Best guess is that Clausen will post better preseason numbers than Cutler; backup quarterbacks frequently do, if only because they’re playing against backups.

But the Bears re-signed Clausen to a one-year deal for a reason, and Clausen chose Chicago over some other options.

“I just felt comfortable here,” Clausen said. “I came here, met with the coaches, and love the offense and what they’re planning to do.”

Exactly how the quarterback situation was presented to Clausen is between organization and player. But Kurt Warner chose to sign elsewhere when told that Rex Grossman was not going to be dislodged as the Bears’ starter. Clausen may not have had the options a Warner would have, but enough teams have unsettled quarterback situations such that he did not need to settle for one where the starter was untouchable.

“That’s not up to me; it’s up to the coaching staff,” Clausen said. “We’re just trying to get to where we go out there and play fast and react, not think too much.”

Two Cutler questions

Cutler has remained with the No. 1 offense through the offseason. No surprise there.

But word around the NFL is that new coordinator Adam Gase will be limiting Cutler’s audible options. Cutler’s decision-making was a major issue with the previous staff, and that weakness in his game and makeup contributed to the interceptions that have come to define him as a quarterback.

[RELATED: Fox's coaching tree growing and will be on Bears ’15 schedule]

Not entirely coincidentally, Cutler’s best quarterbacking stretch as a Bear came in 2010-11, with Mike Martz as his coordinator. The two increasingly clashed, in part because Martz did not allow extensive audibling, but Cutler’s career-low interception rate (2.2 percent) came in his 10 games of 2011 before the season-ending broken thumb.

The previous year Cutler threw seven TD passes and seven INT’s through his first six games under Martz. When Lovie Smith intervened and directed that the offense become more balanced, Cutler threw 16 TD passes vs. nine INT’s.

Fox’s history is that his offense will have balance, taking some pressure off his quarterback. Whoever that is.

The first question is how Cutler will take to a system and coordinator without the play calling freedom he exercised. He annually says the right things about his new bosses, but rarely have things worked to a playoff level. He has some familiarity with Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains, but he had history with Jeremy Bates and that netted nothing.

Year Off. Coordinator QB coach
2008 Mike Shanahan Jeremy Bates
2009 Ron Turner Pep Hamilton
2010-11 Mike Martz Shane Day
2012 Mike Tice Jeremy Bates
2013-14 Aaron Kromer Matt Cavanaugh
2015 Adam Gase Dowell Loggains

Still Cutler’s job to lose

Bears senior management said early this offseason that the incoming GM and coach were not locked into Cutler because of contract commitments. The organization did put itself on the hook last March for $15 million this year and $10 million in 2016.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

But “it’s all an open competition,” Fox said. “Obviously you’ve got to start somewhere and my experience in football, really in anything, it’s not where you start a competition; it’s where you finish it… .

“I kind of have it in my brain and then they compete.”

That competition may not end even when the season opens in September.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl.