Bears: Gase's changes to Jay Cutler's game more significant in hindsight


Bears: Gase's changes to Jay Cutler's game more significant in hindsight

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 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.”

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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.”

Bears backfield ranked fourth-best in NFL

Bears backfield ranked fourth-best in NFL

The Chicago Bears have a really good problem in their backfield. Both Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen will demand touches in 2018 and are each starting-quality running backs. Howard is the more traditional first and second-down back while Cohen offers top-tier playmaking ability.

The duo is so talented that they were recently ranked the fourth-best backfield in the NFL.

The Chicago Bears' Jordan Howard has emerged as one of the NFL's top rushers. He finished his rookie season with 1,313 yards, second-most in the NFL. Last season, he rushed for 1,122 yards and 4.1 yards per carry even though Chicago had the league's least threatening passing attack (175.7 yards per game).

Howard isn't the only standout back on the roster, though. Tarik Cohen is a supremely talented runner and receiver and a perfect complement to Howard. Last season, he amassed 370 rushing yards, 53 receptions and 353 receiving yards.

The Bears' backfield was behind only the Rams, Saints and Chiefs.

Howard set Chicago's rookie rushing record with 1,313 yards in 2016 and became the first Bears running back to start his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He should be the Bears' primary back, but coach Matt Nagy expressed genuine excitement over Cohen's skill set which suggests he plans on getting him the ball quite a bit this season.

Regardless of how the touches play out, the Bears will present opposing defenses with one of the most challenging ground games in the NFL.

    Tarik Cohen was NFL's best big-play RB in 2017

    Tarik Cohen was NFL's best big-play RB in 2017

    Tarik Cohen's rookie season with the Chicago Bears was an impressive blend of running, receiving and special teams play. He quickly became a household name. The combination of his diminutive frame and oversized personality made him a fan favorite, especially when he started gaining yards in chunks.

    In fact, of all running backs with a minimum of 80 carries last season, Cohen had the highest percentage of runs that went for 15 or more yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Cohen will have a big role in new coach Matt Nagy's offense this season because of everything he offers a play-caller. He's a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield and can chew up yards on the ground like any traditional running back. He's a hold-your-breath talent who can turn a bad play into a touchdown in the blink of an eye.

    Cohen had 370 rushing yards, 353 receiving yards and three offensive touchdowns in what can be described as a limited role last year. John Fox and Dowell Loggains didn't seem to ever figure out how to best use Cohen's skill set. That should be no issue for Nagy and Mark Helfrich, the team's new offensive coordinator, who both bring a creative offensive approach to Chicago.

    Jordan Howard will be the starter and will do most of the heavy lifting. But Cohen is going to have a much bigger role than he had as a rookie, and that should result in more big plays and points on the board.