Bears

Can Bears trust what they’re seeing from Jay Cutler?

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Can Bears trust what they’re seeing from Jay Cutler?

The first faint indicator of what was to come may have been as far back as the first two weeks of training camp this year when Jay Cutler went 11 straight practices without throwing an interception. Something appears to have been happening.

Practice success, particularly training-camp practice, doesn’t always correlate to actual success. But for a few memorable departures, Cutler has stayed that course into what is to this point nothing less than Cutler’s finest sustained stint as an NFL quarterback. He has impressed a hard-scrabble veteran defensive head coach, teammates and his primary mentor, not all of which were predisposed in his favor.

Cutler has been good in small doses and spurts in the past, only to back-slide. The question now, again: Is it for real this time, long-term?

Is the new INT-lite Cutler and his personally historic low turnover rate to be believed? Or Cutler’s clear rapport with offensive coordinator Adam Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains? Cutler's relationships with coordinators have come with expiration dates in the past; his starts with Mike Martz and Marc Trestman/Aaron Kromer were excellent through a season, then descended into acrimony by the middle of their second seasons together. Cutler/Gase would not be the first to implode.

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But certain elements of Cutler’s game under Gase say this isn’t like those false starts of Cutler’s past. One indicator is consistency, not only performances at a career-high level, but also with a regularity unlike anything Cutler has exhibited in his career.

Using a variation of the James Bond gauge – once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action – one good Cutler game can happen; two is encouraging; three times, very promising…but six times? More on that shortly.

The key lies in the plan Gase laid out for Cutler from virtually the day the former was hired, which was forming in those interception-free days in Bourbonnais.

“Statistically, we've got the turnovers down,” Gase said on Thursday. “We got a long way to go. I think we've made some strides as far as our ball security in the pocket.

“I think a lot of it has been he's getting the ball out quick. He's been decisive. There's no hesitation, and I think he and Dowell [Loggains, quarterbacks coach] have done a great job within practice being conscious about it and working on drills to make sure that we're better in that area.”

Looking at Cutler up close

Cutler, whose relationships with previous offensive coordinators have rarely been positive for more than a season-and-a-half, is indeed seeing quantitative payoff from the work he, Gase and Loggains have put in on reducing turnovers and other of Cutler’s failure patterns.

After nine seasons never topping 89.2 for passer rating, Cutler’s season rating now stands at 95.3. The foundation is an interception rate of 1.8 percent, significantly below his previous career-low of 2.2.

The rating isn’t really the central point. Rex Grossman in 2006 had as many 100-rating games (seven) as Peyton Manning, but never more than two in a row, with epic “Bad Rex” lapses sprinkled in, akin to “Good Jay/Bad Jay.”  

Considerably more significant than just a summary statistic is the consistency context. Cutler is on a run of seven consecutive games with a rating no lower than 88.0 – not bad for someone whose best whole-year mark has been 89.2. Cutler’s best previous run of consistency was the first six games of last season, but then only at the rating of 82.0 or better.

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(For reference purposes: The only quarterback with a current stretch better than Cutler’s this year is Tom Brady (nine). Just for purposes of unfair comparison, Brady’s interception percentage is 0.8 and he has led the New England Patriots with a rating of 92 or better in all nine of their victories.)

The fact that Cutler has authored two runs of this magnitude and duration in consecutive years hints at a repeatable consistency from a quarterback who was shown anything but for virtually his entire NFL career. Using the 88-rating simply as a reference point for Cutler:

Before this year, Cutler never achieved enough consistency to have more than three straight “88” ratings, something elite quarterbacks do routinely. Cutler’s seasons, most consecutive 88 ratings and how many 88 ratings for the seasons):

Year "88" streaks
2006 3 (3 of 5 games)
2007 2 (8 of 16)
2008 3 (8 of 16)
2009 3 (7 of 16)
2010 2 (7 of 15)
2011 2 (5 of 10)
2012 2 (6 of 15)
2013 3 (7 of 15)
2014 2 (7 of 15)
2015 7 (7 of 8)

Cutler and the Bears have put less of the game on Cutler’s arm and more on the overall. Cutler’s new-found efficiency and success “has to do with Adam, the offensive line, play calling, guys around me,” Cutler said, downplaying the numbers.

“The Rams game – the rating is high [151.0] – [but] I didn’t do anything. I dumped a few balls off, managed the game and your rating is high. You hand the ball off from time to time, you’re going to get games like that. There’s been other games – on first and second down, Adam has done a really good job of play-calling; running the ball efficiently; getting to third-and-manageable. I think we’ve stayed in third-and-manageable a lot this year. When we are third-and-long, we call appropriate plays and try to stay out of some danger zones. Guys around me have played really well, no matter who it is.”

As Cutler goes… .

The Bears are 4-4 in Cutler starts this season. They trailed Green Bay 17-16 at the end of three quarters before losing by eight points. They were toe-to-toe with the Arizona Cardinals (28-20), the NFL’s No. 2 scoring offense, in week two before Cutler was sidelined with a hamstring strain. Of the six games since Cutler’s return, only last Sunday’s in St. Louis has been decided by more than three points.

Neither GM Ryan Pace nor coach John Fox committed initially or automatically to Cutler as their quarterback when they were hired in January. Neither Chairman George McCaskey nor President Ted Phillips mandated that the new football staff keep Cutler because of money already sunk into him via guarantees.

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Fox’s praise now is strong, not insignificant from a defense-based head coach who despises turnover and referring to a Cutler who led the NFL in interceptions in two of his first six Bears seasons.

“I’ve seen him grow,” Fox said. “I’ve seen him be all-in from when we first came here in the offseason. I think he’s done a tremendous job. I’ve never seen a guy work quite that hard.

“Buying into something and learning it...it takes countless hours. It’s not just practice time or offseason conditioning time; he put a lot of extra time into it and it’s always good to see people that worked really hard improve and reap the rewards of it.”

The Bears have options but no easy decisions on tagging Kyle Fuller

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USA Today

The Bears have options but no easy decisions on tagging Kyle Fuller

The Bears need long-term solutions at cornerback, and have one of the NFL’s most reliable players at that position in 2017 about to hit free agency. But that doesn’t mean Ryan Pace has an easy decision on his hands when it comes to applying the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller. 

Fuller was one of four players with at least 20 passes defended (breakups plus interceptions) in 2017, and also played well in run support. For a guy who not only had his fifth-year option declined last April, but had to play his way onto the Bears’ 53-man roster in training camp, it was an impressive year that should set Fuller up for a sizable payday. 

“(I’m) very proud of Kyle Fuller,” Pace said last month. “He went through some adversity the last couple of years and how he responded this year, his ball production was outstanding. A lot of PBUs. His preparation was outstanding. I think you can tell when a corner is prepared to play. And he can anticipate routes and things of that nature. Just a very professional approach. Very even-keeled approach. I think it started really with the way he attacked the offseason. And he had a good season because of that.”

That adversity Pace alluded to is another factor in the Fuller decision — was he a one-year wonder in 2017, and will the injuries and inconsistencies that plagued him from 2014-2016 return? 

The injuries are harder to predict, though it’s worth noting Fuller re-gained the trust of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in 2017 after sitting out the entire 2016 season due to a knee issue. The inconsistencies, logically, shouldn’t return as long as Fuller remains as dedicated to film study and preparation in 2018 and beyond.

“(It was) definitely a different kind of season,” Fuller said on locker cleanout day in January. “Definitely feel good about what I was able to do. You always feel like you could do better.”

Fangio, importantly, consistently praised Fuller's play last season — and Fangio rarely entertains empty platitudes in his media sessions. 

"I think he’s come back with purpose," Fangio said in December. "He’s been very mature the whole year with his work ethic and habits and I think he had a mindset to go out and play better than he had in ’15 because you can’t compare it to ’16 and I think he’s achieved that. I just think he’s in a better frame of mind, more competitive. He knows what he wants and he’s got it narrowed down.”

If Fuller’s ceiling is higher than what he did in 2017 — he dropped a handful of interceptions, which stands as an easily-identifiable area of improvement - then perhaps he’d be a bargain with whatever contract he gets. 

But for now, we’re going to focus on the franchise tag. The Bears have the following options:

Place the non-exclusive franchise tag on Fuller. This would allow other teams to sign an offer sheet with another team, but the Bears would have the ability match the offer. If they didn’t, they’d be entitled to receiving two first-round draft picks from the team that signed Fuller. 

Place the exclusive franchise tag on Fuller. This would prohibit Fuller’s representation from seeking offers from other teams, and lock Fuller in to playing for the Bears in 2018 unless the tag were rescinded for some unexpected reason. 

Place the transition tag on Fuller. This would allow the Bears to match any offer sheet signed by Fuller, but they wouldn’t be entitled to compensation if they don’t match it. 

Decline to tag Fuller. This would mean he’d hit the open market once the league’s legal tampering period begins March 12 and free agency officially opens March 14. 

Let’s evaluate these options:

Non-exclusive franchise tag

The dance here would be if Fuller would quickly sign the one-year tag and begin negotiating a long-term deal — the two parties would have until July 16 to do so — or if he’d wait things out until the spring or summer to sign it. The Bears are in a healthy position salary cap-wise, so Fuller wouldn’t necessarily gain leverage by signing the one-year tender to guarantee him somewhere around $15 million (the NFL hasn’t released its official franchise tag figures yet, and won’t do so until sometime in early-to-mid-March. The Bears could afford to pay Fuller that one-year salary and still seek another top-level free agent, as well as other signings. 

It’s unlikely any team would be willing to part with a pair of first-round picks for Fuller, so effectively, this would be an exclusive tag. 

The calculation for Pace is this: Is Fuller really worth somewhere in the range of $15 million? That salary would make him the highest-paid player on the Bears, on an annual average salary basis, ahead of Akiem Hicks ($12 million annually), Kyle Long ($10 million), Charles Leno ($9.25 million), Pernell McPhee ($7.75 million, though he could be cut) and Mitchell Trubisky ($7.258 million — and this doesn’t include Mike Glennon, who all but certainly will be cut). 

In a multi-year deal, Fuller wouldn’t get an average annual value of $15 million — not when A.J. Bouye ($13.5 million) and Stephon Gilmore ($13 million) got less in free agency last year. Spotrac provided the following “market value” estimates for fellow 2018 free agent cornerbacks: $13 million annually for Malcolm Butler, $11 million for Trumaine Johnson, $9.3 million for E.J. Gaines and $6.9 million for Bashaud Breeland. How accurate those numbers are depends on your evaluation of each player — but for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 rankings have Fuller (No. 10 corner) as the highest-rated player of that bunch. 

If the Bears couldn’t work out a long-term deal with Fuller, he’d play out 2018 on the franchise tag, leading to Pace facing the same decision — albeit at a higher salary — at this time in 2019. 

Exclusive franchise tag

Fuller may be a good player, but he’s not *so* good that the Bears would want to place the exclusive tag on him. Some team may be willing to give up two first-round picks to sign Le’Veon Bell, but almost certainly not Fuller. 

Transition tag

If the Bears were to place this on Fuller, it would cost them less money in 2018 (it pays the average of the top 10 salaries at a position, instead of top five for the franchise tag) but wouldn’t entitle the Bears to compensation if they declined to match an offer sheet for Fuller. It seems unlikely the Bears would use this, given the defensive coaching staff and front office remain in place and have a strong and thorough evaluation of Fuller. Essentially: The Bears should know by March 6 at the latest if they're in or out on Fuller. If the Bears are going to risk losing Fuller to get him at a lower price, they’ll more likely…

Decline to place the tag

This would mean Fuller would be risked losing to the open market. Butler, Johnson, Gaines and Breeland comprise a solid crop of free agent corners, but that may not prevent Fuller from landing one of the three biggest contracts at his position. If the Bears went this route, they’d likely still try to re-sign Fuller while also putting forth competitive offers (as they did last year for Bouye and Gilmore) for Butler and/or Johnson. 

Letting Fuller hit unfettered free agency could mean the Bears are confident in their ability to sign at least one top cornerback, though that’s a dangerous game to play after Bouye turned down more money from them to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars a year ago. But perhaps Pace feels more confident this year in his team’s ability to lure top free agents, thanks to consistency in a well-respected defensive staff, a young and energetic head coach, a hopeful franchise quarterback in place and significant improvements to Halas Hall in the works. 

Pace has two weeks to make his call; expect him to use up most of that time to calculate the decision on Fuller. The Bears could opt to go a route that keeps Fuller in Chicago, then re-sign Prince Amukamara (who’s an unrestricted free agent) and Bryce Callahan (who’s a restricted free agent) and keep the top of their cornerback depth chart steady, and then draft a cornerback — either a top one, like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, or a more developmental one in the middle rounds. Or the Bears could blow up the depth chart, letting Fuller and Amukamara walk and looking to sign and draft players to fill out the position. 

But the decision on Fuller is the first step. What it is will start to bring the Bears’ offseason into focus. 

Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record

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USA TODAY

Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record

When John Fox succeeded Marc Trestman in 2015, neither he nor the Bears were looking at the situation and Fox as any sort of “bridge” hire – a de facto interim coach tasked with winning, but just as importantly, developing and getting a team turned around and headed in a right direction.

The heart of the matter is always winning, but in the overall, the mission statement also includes leaving the place better than you found it. Fox did that, which is very clearly the sentiment upstairs at Halas Hall as the Bears move on from Fox to Matt Nagy.

“It would’ve been nice to see it through,” Fox said to NBC Sports Chicago. “That’s kind of a bitter pill but you sort things out and move forward.

“I do think it’s closer than people think. We inherited a mess... but I felt we were on the brink at the end. I think that [Halas Hall] building is definitely different; they feel it. I do think that it was a positive.”

(Fox is probably not done coaching at some point, but that’s for another time, another story, and anyway, it’s his tale to tell when he feels like it. Or doesn’t.)

One measure of the Bears change effected: Virtually the entire Trestman staff, with the exceptions of receivers coach Mike Groh and linebackers coach Clint Hurtt, was jettisoned along with Trestman. By contrast, Nagy has retained not only virtually the entire Fox defensive staff under coordinator Vic Fangio, but also arguably the single most important non-coordinator offensive coach by virtue of position responsibility – Dave Ragone, the hands-on mentor of quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

Obvious but extremely difficult decisions are coming, as to shedding personnel and contracts – Josh Sitton, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young being among the most difficult because of tangible intangibles that no organization wants to lose.

“Bridge” results

Fox was never intended as a bridge coach but the results point to that function having been served. To exactly what end remains to play out under Nagy and the quarterback whom Ragone and Fox’s handling began developing.

Rick Renteria was one of those “bridge” guys for the Cubs, intended to be part of pulling out of or at least arresting the slide into the Mike Quade-Dale Sveum abyss, and leaving something for Joe Maddon. The late Vince Lombardi effectively served as that, at age 56 and for an unforeseen one-year for a Washington Redskins organization that’d gone 13 years without a winning season before Lombardi’s 1969 and needed a radical reversal. The culture change was realized over the next decade under George Allen and Jack Pardee, much of the success coming with the same players with whom Washington had languished before the culture change.

The Bears were in that state after the two years of Trestman and the three years of GM Phil Emery, certain of whose character-lite veteran player acquisitions (Martellus Bennett, Brandon Marshall) and high-character launchings (Brian Urlacher) had left a palpable pall over Halas Hall. A Fox goal was to eradicate that, which insiders in Lake Forest say privately was accomplished even amid the catastrophic crush of three straight seasons of 10 or more losses, and with injuries at historic levels.

What happens next is in the hands of Nagy and GM Ryan Pace, after a third John Fox franchise turnaround failed to materialize. Or did it? Because much of the core, from Trubisky through the defensive makeover, came on Fox’s watch, like him or not.

“You wish some things would’ve happened differently obviously,” Fox said, “but there was a lot positive that happened.”