Bears

Mullin: Can Cutler stand prosperity?

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Mullin: Can Cutler stand prosperity?

Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010
Posted: 11:18 a.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

With one more Bears win, Jay Cutler will have achieved his first winning season as a starting quarterback since high school, which means he is certainly the best-paid losing quarterback in quite some NFL time. It is also about time.

And the question now begins to creep in as to how he will handle the moment.

The Denver Broncos were 2-0 and then 5-5 in 2007 behind Cutler, then dropped four of their next five (beginning with a loss in Chicago), two games with Cutler posting sub-50 passer ratings. The Broncos finished 7-9.

The 2008 Broncos were 4-1 and lost their next three with Cutler failing to put up a passer rating higher than 78. After recovering to 8-5 they lost their final three, only one to a team with a winning record as Cutler logged three straight sub-75 passer ratings.

Last year the Bears were 3-1, then Cutler went 10 straight games without a 100 passer rating and ... well, enough on that painful point.

An early guess is that this year will be different.

But the pivotal difference in Cutler isn't Mike Martz or non-Ron Turner or his offensive line or any of that. Those are incidentals. Convenient incidentals excusing him from accountability. Important, but incidentals.

The difference is in Cutler's head. As of Game 11 last season Cutler had just thrown his third interception of the year to a defensive lineman, which may be some sort of NFL record for ... something. To suggest that the reason was Turner (what, he didn't coach Cutler not to throw to giant men in traffic?) or protection or scheme or anything else is beyond silly. The interception by San Francisco D-tackle Aubrayo Franklin was one of five Cutler threw during a game in which he was not sacked once.

Apart from superb individual throws and decisions (there were lots of them in November, which is why teams go 4-0), two particularly impressive aspects of Cutler's play these past four games vs. other stretches in his career:

He has thrown nine TD passes vs. three interceptions in this 4-0 streak (the first time he has ever won four NFL games in a row) despite defenses structured at times to either blitz him or take away the run game that has allowed him breathing room. As good as his play was to start last season, his ratio was 8:5. When the Bears were opening this season 3-0, Cutler's ratio was 6:2.

And in just one of the four November games did he put up a rating below 85 and that was in Miami (64.8), the one game in which he did not throw for a TD and also a night game, the games in which he has historically played his absolute worst.

Conclusion: Instead of his head and ego writing checks his arm (and receivers) can't cash, he has curbed his ego and is using his head. As difficult as the closing stretch of this season lays out to be, the Bears have rarely over the past two decades gone into December with a quarterback whose arrow has pointed this significantly up at this crucial time of year.

Turf-ing

The Chicago Park District has re-sodded Soldier Field in the wake of the Philadelphia game, one of the several replacements done each year. Slipping and turf-chunking have become staples in certain seasons and the Bears and Eagles had their shares of slips Sunday.

Whether or not that costs the Bears some home-field advantage or not is debatable. The Bears play there on game days but practice either on the well-coiffed fields behind Halas Hall (one of which is heated) or inside the Walter Payton Center, which is artificial turf.

Devin Hester adjusted with a change to shoes with screw-in longer cleats and turned his return game and the Minnesota Vikings game around. For the New England Patriots and New York Jets, the only two teams with Soldier Field games upcoming, that's probably good news, given that both the Pats and Jets play on Field Turf in their home stadiums.

Record-setting
The final stretch of the Bears schedule is obviously upholstered with challenges but the Green Bay Packers don't have it especially easier. The combined record for Bears opponents is 31-24. Green Bay's opponents, including the Bears, are 30-25.

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: Defensive backs

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 grade: B-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Kyle Fuller (free agent), Prince Amukamara (free agent), Marcus Cooper (contract), Sherrick McManis (free agent), Bryce Callahan (restricted free agent), Quintin Demps (contract)

Possible free agent targets: Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland, E.J. Gaines, Rashaad Melvin, Robert McClain, Darrelle Revis

There’s a wide spectrum of scenarios for the Bears at cornerback, ranging from keeping the status quo to blowing the whole thing up, and everything in between. Safety is far more stable, with Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson proving to be a reliable pairing, so that’s set for 2018.

Let’s start with one end of that cornerback spectrum: The Bears keep the top of this unit intact. That means, No. 1, retaining Kyle Fuller via the franchise tag and/or a long-term contract. No. 2, it means bringing back Prince Amukamara, who didn’t record an interception and committed a few too many penalties, but otherwise was a fine enough cover corner. No. 3, it means keeping restricted free agent Bryce Callahan as the team’s No. 1 slot corner.

On paper, this doesn’t seem like an altogether bad option. The Bears weren’t spectacular at cornerback in 2017, but the position was a little better than average, which isn’t the worst place to be for a single unit. Couple with solid play from the safeties and the Bears’ defensive backs were overall a decent enough group. Outside of Marcus Cooper -- who is a candidate to be cut for cap savings -- the Bears may not need to make wholesale changes to this group.

That, though, is a rosier look at this unit. The Bears can certainly improve the personnel in it with a healthy amount of cap space and a strong crop of free agent cornerbacks about to hit the market. Keeping Fuller and then signing a top-tier player like Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler would upgrade this group, as would bringing back Fuller and Amukamara but then using a high draft pick on a player like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward.

Unless the Bears sign two big-time cornerbacks -- i.e. Fuller and Johnson, or even a guy like Brashaud Breeland or E.J. Gaines -- it would seem reasonable for them to use a first or second-round pick on a cornerback in an effort to find a longer-term solution at the position. That doesn’t mean the Bears would absolutely have to go that route, especially with other needs at wide receiver, guard and outside linebacker.

But here’s another thought: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bears are able to sign a combination of two top cornerbacks in free agency. With plenty of cap space top-end free agents lacking at wide receiver and outside linebacker/edge rusher, could Pace allocate a good chunk of that money to, say, tagging Fuller and making runs at Johnson, Butler and/or Breeland? 2018 looks to be a good year to be aggressive in the free agent cornerback market, and that could play into the Bears’ strategy well.

Before we finish, we should carve out some space for Amos and Jackson. Pro Football Focus isn’t the only outlet that’s given Amos high marks -- Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 ranked him as the No. 1 free safety in the league, too. Jackson came in at No. 19 in B/R’s strong safety rankings, which is pretty solid for a fourth-round rookie.

But the larger point here isn’t exactly where Amos and Jackson are in outside evaluations -- it’s that, tangibly, the pair played well off each other on a consistent basis last year. Seeing as Amos didn’t enter the Bears’ starting lineup until Week 4 -- after Quintin Demps suffered a season-ending broken forearm against Pittsburgh -- how quickly and successfully he and Jackson meshed was one of the more impressive developments for the Bears’ 2017 defense. Amos needs to make more plays on the ball and Jackson has some things to clean up, but the Bears enter the 2018 league year not needing to address their safety position. That’s a good place to be for a team with other significant needs.

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.