Bears

Texans present first test of Jay Cutler's relationship with yet another offensive coordinator

Texans present first test of Jay Cutler's relationship with yet another offensive coordinator

Just a couple of days before the start of the season, the storylines surrounding the 2016 Bears by now have pretty much all been written, re-written actually, and more than a few times. Young players needing to come through, this or that group needing to mesh, the quality of the secondary, offensive line or (insert position group here).

But one issue stands above all the others, a franchise-grade storyline that has been the same, with shadings here and there, since Jay Cutler came via trade from Denver in 2009. Because if this story has a bad ending, all the others fade to soft-focus by comparison.

Cutler, again voted by teammates as one of the team co-captains, took a monumental developmental step in 2015, responding to a coaching imperative that turnovers needed to disappear or, sooner rather than later, so would Cutler. The quarterback then put up his best overall statistical season, a 92.3 passer rating built around an interception rate of 2.3 percent, which is down near where the good quarterbacks live. Coaches abbreviated Cutler’s decision-making and he played his most mistake-free football since 2010-11, when Mike Martz did the same reining-in to him.

But since Cutler finished his year throwing zero interceptions in four of his final eight games, things have changed, and not in ways calculated to expand a quarterback’s comfort zone. The offseason saw the exits of his security-blanket running back (Matt Forte), go-to 6-foot-6 tight end (Martellus Bennett) and the coach who oversaw the maturity of his offense last year (Adam Gase).

Instead, Cutler worked this offseason and preseason with a new starting tailback (Jeremy Langford), wide receiver (Kevin White) and coordinator (Dowell Loggains). The offense even with Cutler and the No. 1 unit approached putrid for extended stretches of the preseason, and even if it was preseason, there were causes for concern.

Not the least of which might be Cutler himself.

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“The book on him was, ‘don’t let him get rolling, get going, don’t make any mistakes,’” said linebacker Jerrell Freeman, formerly a Cutler opponent while with the Indianapolis Colts. “I didn’t know him personally when I was in Indy, but his decision-making looked fine to me when we played him [in the 2015 preseason].”

Cutler too often in seasons past seldom masked his feelings of frustration when matters went poorly, whether because of protections, routes run or even play selection. This preseason he was visibly frustrated when White ran a wrong route that cost a potential touchdown, and protection breakdowns got him sacked, five times in 36 preseason drop-backs.

Perhaps the most positive indicator of Cutler staying the pick-free course of ’15 was that despite pressures and receiver concerns, Cutler threw no interceptions in his 31 attempts.

But the relationship between Cutler and Loggains remains the single most important player-coach connection. As that goes, so goes a major portion of the franchise’s fortunes, short and long term. Consequently, Loggains acknowledged that a lot of his job is handling Cutler’s mindset, not just the latter’s quarterbacking.

“The thing about quarterback play, the key to good quarterback play, is to get the other 10 guys to do their jobs,” Loggains said. “That’s where, as a quarterback, you can get frustrated because things are out of your hands that you want go well that don’t go well. We had the one incident in Kansas City and you can get frustrated that way, but it’s still the next-play mentality.

“The advantage I have is working with Jay last year and getting to know his personality a little bit, how to better understand him, handle him and help him.”

Whether Cutler is a Bear beyond this season, the last in which the Bears have guaranteed money owed to him, with max money of $15 million in 2017 and $16 million in 2018, remains to play out. But the coaching staff that wasn’t sold on Cutler when it arrived, finished last year with some critical respect earned.

“He might have been, I don't know, the most pleasant surprise of our team a year ago,” coach John Fox said during this year’s owners meetings. “I go back to ... You know I like smart, tough guys. He's extremely smart, he learned the offense very quickly, was not afraid to spend the extra time to do it.

“I think he's a tough competitor and those are things that I look for and I saw the first year so I was impressed by that. Maybe it notched up from all the stuff I heard to all the stuff I saw, and I put more stock in what I see myself.”

Keeping that respect and confidence is never assured. Robbie Gould fell from grace based on performance. Failures in the clutch could take Gould on a similar course.

And while a task of a quarterback is to get the other 10 players to do their jobs, the expectations of the quarterback include carrying the team when it needs it, not throwing interceptions at crucial points.

“He still has those expectations for us,” Loggains said. “He’s the leader of our offense. He’s the leader of our team. He was voted the captain by his teammates for a reason, and we fully expect him to be the leader of the offense.”

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 grade: D+

For these purposes, “management” encompasses the coaching staff and front office. We don’t need a lengthy re-litigation of the failures of the John Fox era, so briefly: The offense was unimaginative, predictable and unsuccessful; there were too many head-scratching coaching decisions, punctuated by that backfiring challenge flag against Green Bay; the defense was solid but not spectacular; special teams had plenty of highs (three touchdowns) and lows (Marcus Cooper’s gaffe against Pittsburgh, Connor Barth’s missed field goal against Detroit). Fox didn’t win enough games to justify a fourth year, even if he left the Bears in a better place than he found them back in 2015. But that 5-11 record drags the management grade down. 

But the larger thing we’re going to focus on here is the hits and misses for Ryan Pace in the 2017 league year. The hits: 

-- Drafting Mitchell Trubisky. Will this be a long-term success? That’s another question. But Pace hitched his future in Chicago to a quarterback last April. For a franchise that hasn’t had a “franchise” quarterback in ages, what more can you ask for? If Trubisky pans out, nobody should care that Pace traded up one spot -- effectively losing a third-round pick for his conviction in his guy -- to make the move. 

-- Moving quickly to hire Matt Nagy. As with Trubisky, Pace identified his guy and made sure he got him. The Bears hired Nagy just two days after the Kansas City Chiefs’ season ended with that playoff collapse against the Tennessee Titans, and with the Indianapolis Colts -- who eventually got burned by Josh McDaniels -- sniffing around Nagy, Pace made his move to hire a young, energetic, offensive-minded coach to pair with Trubisky. It’s tough to argue with any of the coaching hires made by Nagy, who had a head start on the competition: He retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and that entire defensive staff, kept Dave Ragone to be Trubisky’s quarterbacks coach and hired Mark Helfrich to bring some different concepts as offensive coordinator, and hired a special teams coach in Chris Tabor who must’ve been doing something right to survive seven years and a bunch of coaching changes in Cleveland. Like with Trubisky, it’s too early to say if Nagy will or won’t work out long-term, but it stands out that Pace had conviction in getting a franchise quarterback and a head coach who will make or break his tenure in Chicago. 

-- Drafting Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson in the fourth round. In Cohen, the Bears found an offensive spark (who was nonetheless under-utilized) who also was a key contributor on special teams. In Jackson, the Bears added a plug-and-play 16-game starter at safety who looks to have some upside after a solid rookie year. Both picks here were a triumph for the Bears’ amateur scouting department: Cohen wasn’t on everyone’s radar (special teams coach Chris Tabor, who previously was with the Browns, said Cohen’s name never came across his desk in Cleveland), while Jackson was coming off a broken leg that prematurely ended a solid career at Alabama. These were assuredly two hits. 

-- Signing Akiem Hicks to a four-year contract extension. The Bears rewarded Hicks a day before the season began; Hicks rewarded them with a Pro Bowl-caliber season (despite him only being a fourth alternate) and was the best player on the team in 2017. 

-- Signing Charles Leno to a four-year contract extension. Leno may not be an elite tackle, and still has some things to clean up in his game, but he’s 26 and his four-year, $37 million contract is the 14th-largest among left tackles (for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Leno as the 20th best left tackle in the NFL). The Bears believe Leno is still improving, and could turn that contract into a bargain in the future. But this is important to note, too: Players notice when a team rewards one of its own, especially when that guy is a well-respected former seventh-round draft pick. 

-- Signing Mark Sanchez to a one-year deal. This wasn’t a miss, certainly, and while it’s not much of a “hit,” Sanchez was exactly what the Bears wanted: A veteran mentor to Trubisky. While Sanchez was inactive for all 16 games, he and the No. 2 overall pick struck up a good relationship that makes him a candidate to return in 2018 as a true backup. 

-- Releasing Josh Sitton when he did. Whether or not the Bears offensive line is better off in 2018 is a different question, but file cutting Sitton on Feb. 20 -- when the team had until mid-March to make a decision on him -- as one of those things that gets noticed by players around the league. 

-- Announcing the expansion to Halas Hall. The plan has Pace’s fingerprints on it, and should help make the Bears a more attractive destination to free agents in 2018 and beyond. 

And now, for the misses:

-- Signing Mike Glennon. That completely bombed out. While the Bears weren’t hurting for cap space a year ago, and Glennon’s contract essentially was a one-year prove-it deal, his play was so poor that he was benched after only four games -- when the initial plan was for him to start the entire season to give Trubisky time to develop. The wheels came off for Glennon on his seventh pass in Week 2, when after completing his first six he threw the ball right to Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander for an interception from which he never seemed to recover. He’ll be cut sometime soon. 

-- Signing Markus Wheaton. After signing a two-year, $11 million deal in the spring, Wheaton struggled to stay healthy, with an appendectomy and finger injury limiting him in training camp and the early part of the season, and then a groin injury knocking out a few weeks in the middle of the season. When Wheaton was healthy, he was ineffective, catching only three of his 17 targets. That places him with eight other players since 1992 who’ve been targeted at least 15 times and and caught fewer than 20 percent of their targets. He’s another one of Pace’s 2017 free agent signings who’s likely to be cut. 

-- Signing Marcus Cooper. The Bears thought they were signing an ascending player who picked off four passes in 2016 and would be a better scheme fit in Chicago than he was in Arizona. Instead, Cooper was a liability when he was on the field and didn’t live up to his three-year, $16 million contract (with $8 million guaranteed). Dropping the ball before he got in the end zone Week 3 against Pittsburgh was a lowlight. The Bears can net $4.5 million in cap savings if he’s cut, per Spotrac. 

-- Signing Dion Sims. Sims isn’t as likely to be cut as Glennon and Wheaton, and even Cooper, but his poor production in the passing game (15 catches, 29 targets, 180 yards, one touchdown) puts a spotlight on how the Bears evaluate how he was as a run blocker in 2017. If that grade was high, the Bears could justify keeping him and not garnering a little more than $5.5 million in cap savings. If it was low, and the Bears are confident in Adam Shaheen’s ability to improve, then Sims could be cut as well. 

-- Signing Quintin Demps. The loss here was mitigated by the strong play of Adrian Amos, but Demps didn’t make much of an impact on the field before his Week 3 injury besides getting plowed over by Falcons tight end Austin Hooper in Week 1. He’d be a decent guy to have back as a reserve given his veteran leadership -- he was a captain in 2017 -- but given how well Amos and Eddie Jackson worked together last year, he’s unlikely to get his starting spot back in 2018. 

-- The wide receiver position as a whole. Kendall Wright led the Bears in receptions and yards, but his numbers would’ve looked a lot better had he been surrounded by better players. The cupboard was bare at this position, and after the worst-case scenario happened -- Cameron Meredith tearing his ACL in August, and Kevin White breaking his collarbone in Week 1 -- the Bears were left with an overmatched and underperforming group of receivers. For Trubisky’s sake, Pace has to work to make sure 2018 isn’t a repeat of 2017. 

-- The kicker position as a whole. Since we’re focusing solely on Pace’s 2017 moves, the decision to release Robbie Gould and replace him with Connor Barth doesn’t fall into this grade. But Barth had struggled with consistency prior to this season, and Roberto Aguayo didn’t provide much competition in his short-lived stint in training camp. The Bears eventually released Barth after he missed a game-tying kick against Detroit in November, then replaced him with a guy in Cairo Santos who was coming off an injury and, as it turned out, wasn’t completely healthy yet. So the Bears then had to move on from Santos and sign Mike Nugent to get them through the rest of the season. Better consistency from this position will be important to find in 2018. 

A couple moves fall into the neither hits nor misses category:

-- Drafting Adam Shaheen. Tight ends rarely make a significant impact as rookies, but Shaheen was only targeted 14 times last year. He did catch three touchdowns and flash some good chemistry with Trubisky before suffering an injury against Cincinnati that wound up ending his season. The gains he makes with a year of experience under his belt and during his first full offseason as a pro will be critical in determining his success in Year 2, and whether or not taking him 45th overall was a hit or a miss. 

-- Signing Prince Amukamara. This was neither good nor bad, with Amukamara playing solidly in coverage but not making enough plays on the ball and committing a few too many penalties. 

Pace still has decisions to make on a few other potential cuts, including right tackle Bobby Massie ($5.584 million cap savings per Spotrac) and linebackers Willie Young ($4.5 million cap savings) and Pernell McPhee ($7.075 million cap savings). Whether or not to place the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller and potentially pay him $15 million in 2018 is another call Pace has to make before the official end of the 2017 league year. 

But for Pace, did the hits out-weigh the misses in 2017? The Glennon signing imploded, but Trubisky showed signs of promise during an average season for a rookie quarterback. Cooper was a bust, but Fuller emerged as a potential long-term option to cover for that. The most glaring misses, then, were at wide receiver and tight end where, after injuries sapped those units of Cameron Meredith and Zach Miller, there weren’t reliable targets for Trubisky. 

We’ll probably need more time to determine if Pace’s “hits” on Trubisky and Nagy truly are “hits.” But if they are, the misses of 2017 -- Glennon, Wheaton, Cooper, etc. -- will be nothing more than amusing footnotes to a successful era of Bears football.
 

Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears do at guard and cornerback?

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USA TODAY

Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears do at guard and cornerback?

With the Bears releasing Josh Sitton and having the option to franchise Kyle Fuller, JJ Stankevitz and John “Moon” Mullin look at two of the first big decisions for Ryan Pace’s offseason plan.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.