Bears

Jay Cutler not afraid to sacrifice his body to lead Bears

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Jay Cutler not afraid to sacrifice his body to lead Bears

Jay Cutler is a different quarterback in 2015.

Yes, he still throws off his back foot from time-to-time. Some things will never change.

But what has changed is Cutler's offensive coordinator, and it could be the best thing to happen to him since his arrival to Chicago from the Mile-High City in 2009.

Dialing it down to more of a conservative-based offensive attack which masks some of Cutler's flaws and relies more on game-management, Cutler is thriving in Year 1 of offensive coordinator Adam Gase's system.

And no further proof of that was more evident than in Sunday's loss to the Minnesota Vikings in which Cutler delivered his second-best passer rating of the year (94.4) by completing 22-of-33 passes for 211 yards and going turnover-free for the first time in 2015. In addition to his solid performance, Cutler matched Sid Luckman's franchise record of 137 touchdowns with a first half touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery.

[BEARS GRADES: Cutler makes solid plays, team fails to finish

If it wasn't for a late-game collapse by the Bears defense, Cutler would have notched his third game-winning fourth quarter drive of the season, and while it didn't technically go down as another late-game comeback, Cutler once again showed his affinity for stepping up in crunch time as he continued to earn the respect from the coaching staff and the other 52 members of the locker room.

"Another ballsy effort by Jay," Bears starting right tackle Kyle Long said. "Some exceptional throws and catches by our guys on the back end. Tremendous job finishing there at the goal line. Speaks to the kind of person he is and the kind of player he is."

If playing behind an offensive line which only had one remaining Week 1 starter still in place (Long at RT) and left guard Matt Slauson making his first career NFL start at center wasn't enough of adjustment for Cutler, how about losing Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte to a knee injury in the second half?

Still, Cutler rolled with the punches and delivered for the Bears. Cutler led a 14-play, 74-yard scoring drive that he capped off by his first rushing touchdown of the season. Cutler appeared to have a myriad of running room toward the right pylon, but instead decided to cut his run inside and deliver a shoulder on Vikings safety Harrison Smith to plow into the end zone for the score.

The toughness Cutler showed on that play wasn't lost on his teammates.

"It's always exciting when Jake makes a run," Bears tight end Martellus Bennett said. "When he lowers the shoulder you get revved up, but at the same time you're like 'Dude, what's up?' I was like 'I think you can beat him to the pylon, but I think you caught him off guard when you cut it up because he thought you could beat him to the pylon too.'

"It was always fun seeing him. He plays at max effort every single week. You know, he catches a lot of flack all the time, but the guy just goes out there every single week and gives it every thing he has. That's the only thing you can ask for from your quarterback and he's making plays, making runs, making throws, making checks, he's doing everything. He's playing phenomenal for us right now and I'm very proud of him. It's very fun to be out there with him and watching the success that he's been having at quarterback."

[MORE BEARS: Bears blow fourth quarter lead, fall to Vikings in final seconds]

Cutler's touchdown also inspired one of the leaders of the Bears defense.

"That was awesome," said Bears outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who followed up with a sack on the next play from scrimmage after Cutler's touchdown. "He sold out his body for the team. Jay is one of our leaders and everybody respects him. That's what leaders do. They sell out their body for the team."

Although his run had the sidelines buzzing, Cutler admitted afterward that he may seek a different angle on his next scramble.

"Do I remember it? Yeah. Me on 22, I don't know. He might have won that one.

"I instantly regretted it. I'm thinking the shortest distance is a straight line. I knew the situation and wanted to get a score. It was me on him and ultimately we got the touchdown so I can't regret it too much.

"I mean I felt fine. I'm not used to those types of collisions, let's be honest. That's not something I want to make a living doing but you get over it pretty quickly whenever you get the touchdown and you get some endorphins going so I was okay."

[SHOP BEARS: Get your Bears gear right here]

Following Cutler's go-ahead touchdown run, the Vikings immediately answered when Teddy Bridgewater connected with rookie wide receiver Stefon Diggs for a 40-yard score to tie the game.

The stage was set for Cutler to get the Bears in position for a second-straight Robbie Gould game-winning field goal at Soldier Field, but what didn't happen may have shown just how much Cutler has grown as a leader this season.

Filling in for the injured Forte, rookie running back Jeremy Langford got open for what looked like it was going to be an easy reception to move the chains on a crucial third-down play. Cutler hit Langford between the numbers, but the rookie looked up field before securing the catch and dropped the ball. The Bears were forced to punt and the Vikings were the ones celebrating a game-winning field goal just minutes later.

Dejected after not making the catch to extend the drive, Langford was consoled by Cutler.

"He's going to be a heck of player for us," Cutler said. "I told him that one play doesn't win or lose a football game. I don't care what game it is and that one didn't win or lose our game."

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.”

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.