BOCA RATON, Fla. – The improvements quarterback Jay Cutler made in his game during the 2015 season are well documented: best passer rating of his 10-year career, tied for best yards per attempt, second best completion percentage.
But the size of Cutler’s step forward was greater than most realized even at the time.
It began with then-offensive coordinator Adam Gase canvassing a number of Cutler’s former coaches to find out something, anything, as to how Cutler thought.
Because as coaches told Gase, they weren’t always sure, particularly when Cutler was under pressure and forced into sped-up decision-making.
Gase processed the information and the sign of what was to come began unfolding in training camp. As CSNChicago.com reported at the time, the one-time interception machine went practice after practice, the first 11 in all, without throwing an interception, whether in full-team sessions, seven-on-sevens or anywhere.
What that told Gase was that something in his quarterback, even with a new offensive system and what would be a revolving door of wide receivers to throw to, had changed that had baffled so many of his previous mentors.
Cutler went on to post the second-lowest interception percentage of his career, coinciding with an overall directive that ran contrary to his nature as a big-throwing quarterback.
“We were trying to shorten the game up (in Chicago), and that’s what everything called for,” Gase said on Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings. “When you’re told, ‘go eight or nine possessions,’ (instead of the NFL average of 12 per game), it’s hard to hold back sometimes when you’re trying to keep Aaron Rodgers off the field.”
(Note: The Bears did in fact hold time-of-possession edges in both their meetings with Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers last season)
“A lot of it has to do with – and I know you’re not going to believe this – (Cutler) doing a great job of being patient,” Gase said. “I know that was hard for him in the past. But he really had a great mindset going into the season.
“It started in training camp where I think he went 11 practices before he threw an interception. He did a great job of practicing taking care of the football and he didn’t force throws. For him to do that, he gave me the feeling that we were headed in the right direction.”
Gase remembered when the pick-free practices count reached eight or nine, thinking that Cutler had indeed internalized the change. “The narrative for some people was, ‘Oh, it’s just practice,’” Gase recalled, “But then he carried it over into games.”
Cutler had developed a reputation for “patting the ball,” holding it while waiting for receivers to come cleanly free and resulting in sacks. Despite the constant upheaval at receiver due to injuries, and dealing with lower-tier receivers who simply don’t get open as well, Cutler stayed on message.
The interception reduction in training camp was only part and the beginning of the story.
“When we got in games, he did a good job and very rarely made mistakes,”Gase said. “As the season went on and he got more comfortable, it really came together. He knew exactly where he was supposed to go with the ball, didn’t hold onto it long, and he really did a good job knowing exactly where the ball should go and getting it out.”