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.
(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):
|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.”