Bears

Lovie: Bears facing uncharted waters with Newton

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Lovie: Bears facing uncharted waters with Newton

Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011
Posted: 10:35 p.m.

By JohnMullin
CSNChicago.com BearsInsider Follow@CSNMoonMullin
Lovie Smith has been a defensive coach in the NFL for 15 years. He has seen the great, the near-great, the faux great and just about every form of good in NFL quarterbacks.

But hes never seen one quite like this one, not like Cam Newton.

Were in uncharted waters right now with him, Smith said.

Indeed, this was supposed to have been a uniquely difficult season for rookies. The lockout prevented an offseason for installations of schemes, a special challenge for a quarterback coming into the pro game and in particular for one coming to a team with a new coaching staff.

Newton began his truncated offseason in a brief competition with Jimmy Clausen for the Carolina Panthers starting job. All of which meant that not every coaching moment was being spent on just his development and orientation.

Then Newton went into a season starting with a road game, a game against the defending Super Bowl champion and a third in a rainstorm bordering on epic.

The results were 1,012 passing yards, more than any other rookie quarterback in NFL history, two seven-point losses (including one to the Green Bay Packers) and a win last week over Jacksonville. That gave the Panthers the same victory total they had after 13 weeks last season.

You could talk forever about most of the stuff hes doing has never been done, Smith said. But to go without an offseason, for a rookie, to come in and make the plays and just be able to handle an offense like that, no one has ever done it like this.

Now, what are the Bears going to do about it?
Attack angles

Heres the riddle the Bears will face on Sunday:

Question: How do you tackle a 6-foot-5, 248-pound super-athlete with a football and more speed than virtually everyone chasing him?

Answer: With friends.

Getting pressure on Newton is the plan, just as it is with every quarterback the Bears face. But once the pressure gets there, assuming it does, the approach is different than it is for a shorter, less-imposing player. Those you can take down with one arm or a partial hit.

Not Newton.

Its like rushing former Viking quarterback Daunte Culpepper back in the day, said defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. Sometimes when you get close, you go for the ball. Youre always looking for the ball. Its easier knocking the ball out sometimes than knocking these guys down.

But youve got to wrap him up, go high, get on the arm. You go around his waist and he stands up, and youre not hustling getting a bunch of men to him, hes going to complete passes. Hes just tough to get down. Youve got to get the arm and the ball.

A problem with Newton is that for all of his athleticism and speed, he is not behaving like a mobile rookie coming out of college where he could build a career on being a runner first.

The Bears view Newton as a I really see him as a passer, with the ability to escape and get out of trouble. They would prefer he act like an athlete first and a quarterback second.

Hes not looking just to take off, Marinelli said. Hell sit back in that pocket and hes got really good patience and you can have that type of poise when youre that type of athlete. You know you can get yourself out of trouble.

Trending?

Newton started with 422 passing yards against Arizona, a completion percentage of 64.9 percent and a passer rating of 110.4. He threw two TD passes and one interception.

He went up to 432 yards against Green Bay but threw three interceptions and completed 60.9 percent of his passes. In the monsoon against Jacksonville, his yardage total was down (158). But his team won and he threw more TD passes (1) than INTs (0) for the second time in three games, plus he ran seven times.

Yes, he is a rookie but hes playing at a high level and better than most quarterbacks whove been in the league for however long, said linebacker Brian Urlacher. There are some things he hasnt seen because hes a rookie but hes playing well for a guy whos only played three games.

The learning curve

As dangerous and productive as Newton has been in his early going, this may be only a hint of some things to come, which is not good news for the Bears or anyone else.

It isnt just that Newtons skill set, his abilities to read, his decision-making and other attributes will improve.

Its his attitude.

Newton sought out Tom Brady, Warren Moon and other greats whenever possible and worked at learning his craft. Much better for the NFL if he came in believing that he already knew it all. Not so.

I think success comes if you continue to yearn to be good, or to strive for your common goal, Newton said. Do you want to be average, do you want to be good or do you want to be great?

I think that's what separates the Tom Brady's from the other quarterbacks in this league, the Aaron Rodgers'es from the other quarterbacks in this league. Anybody that stands out as an elite player in this league, it's something that they're doing. They're not being complacent.

Ok, you had a good game, or OK, you had a good practice, but you know that's not the ultimate goal that you want to be. There's something bigger and better that you want to get at.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

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.