Bears hoping to avoid familiar problem as Jay Cutler returns from thumb injury

Bears hoping to avoid familiar problem as Jay Cutler returns from thumb injury

While the trade that brought Jay Cutler from Denver to Chicago was widely celebrated — “Pro Bowl” is a voted-on award, not something won, but at least the Bears were getting a quarterback who’d been to one of those — the thinking inside the organization was guarded.

Cutler was not looked upon as a savior-type quarterback, a Tom Brady-Ben Roethlisberger-Aaron Rodgers type who could lift up a team and pass it to success, sources within personnel said then, and now. He was both a complimentary player and one who needed complimentary players for him and his team to be successful.

That evaluation has persisted, which could be considered concerning as Cutler returns from five games missed with a thumb injury, coming into a team that has lost one starting wideout (Kevin White), has its top nickel receiver down (Eddie Royal) and is unsure whether it will have either or both of its Pro Bowl guards (Kyle Long, Josh Sitton).

Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains has described his philosophy of the quarterback position, that one of its chief tasks is to have the other 10 members of the huddle performing at their best. That’s difficult enough when Cutler is healthy, even more challenging when multiple other members of the huddle are unknown or missing altogether.

“We’ve got to make sure of the guys around him, who’s going to be playing and who’s not, and make sure that we put Jay in a good position,” Loggains said. “We’ve got to make sure that we protect him and allow him to do some of the things that he does well and I don’t think there are any limitations.

“He has a skill set that allows him to do pretty much whatever we need to do. If it’s move the pocket if it’s drop back, throw quick game, getting empty, whatever that is.”

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Cutler’s skill set has never been an issue, however. More often it was how he focused those skills. Monday night against a Minnesota Vikings defense among the NFL’s best, while Cutler is potentially without so many of those key complimentary players, will challenge his focus.

“Yeah,” he said with a small smile, “coulda picked a different game to come come back, huh?”

Cutler’s improved play of last season grew out of his elimination of errors rather than him suddenly playing spectacularly. In his seven quarters this season, however, the offense turned the football over four times vs. the defense managing just one takeaway.

Not all of the giveaways were Cutler’s doing. But using Loggains’ dictum, the need is for Cutler to enhance what everyone else is doing.

Loggains and then-coordinator Adam Gase went into Cutler’s history, to the point of reaching out to Cutler’s former (failed) coaches to find out any common thread to his mistakes.

“Even when we got here, we went through all his tape,” Loggains said. “We went back far. He and I sat down and watched all of his touchdown passes, all the interceptions, all the fumbles. There were a couple fundamental things we were able to fix.

“When it comes to turnovers, when you tell a guy who is about to go sink a putt, ‘Hey, don’t leave it short’ what’s he going to do? He’s going to leave it short. So we don’t really talk about turnovers. We talk about the fundamentals, making sure that we’re good with our eyes, making sure we keep two hands on the ball in the pocket and work those drills to continue to improve those fundamentals.”

Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame


Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame

There wasn’t a single game Harry Hiestand coached while at Notre Dame — 77 in total — in which he didn’t have a future top-20 pick starting at left tackle. 

Zack Martin (16th overall, 2014) was followed by Ronnie Stanley (6th overall, 2016), who gave way to Mike McGlinchey (9th overall, 2018). Hiestand also developed Quenton Nelson, who went on to be the highest interior offensive lineman drafted (6th overall, 2018) since 1986. Nelson and McGlinchey became the first pair of college offensive line teammates to be drafted in the first 10 picks since 1991, when Tennessee had tackles Charles McRae and Antone Davis go seventh and eighth. 

“It wasn’t surprising because the kind of guys they are, they absolutely did everything the right way, the way they took care of themselves, the way they trained, the teammates that they are and were,” Hiestand said. “They just did it all the way you wanted them to do it. So it was. It was a good moment.”

Hiestand said he had a sense of pride after seeing his two former players be drafted so high, even if he wasn't able to re-unite with either of them. The Bears, of course, didn’t have a chance to draft Nelson, and had conviction on using the eighth overall pick on linebacker Roquan Smith (as well as having tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie in place for the 2018 season). 

Anecdotally, one former Notre Dame player said (maybe half-jokingly) that Nelson and McGlinchey were fighting each other to see who could get drafted by the Bears to play with Hiestand again.

“There’s nobody that I’ve been around in this game that’s more passionate about what he does,” McGlinchey, now with the San Francisco 49ers, said of Hiestand at Notre Dame’s pro day in March. “There’s really only two things that are important to him, and that’s his family and then his offensive linemen. There’s a lot to be said for that. 

“In this game, everybody’s always trying to work an angle to up their own career — he doesn’t want to do anything but coach O-line, and that’s what really sticks out to us as players. He cares for us like we’re his own. Obviously he coaches extremely hard and is very demanding of his players, which I loved — he pushed me to be the player that I am.

“I’m standing in front of all you guys because of Harry Hiestand. But the amount of passion and care that he has not only for his job but his teaching abilities and his players is what sets him apart.”

Hiestand could’ve stayed as long as he wanted at Notre Dame, presumably, given how much success he had recruiting and developing players there. But six years at one spot is a long time for a position coach, especially at the college level, where the grind of recruiting is so vital to the success of a program. It’s also not like every one of the blue-chip prospects Hiestand recruited to South Bend panned out, either. 

So Hiestand knew he wanted to get back to the NFL after coaching with the Bears under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. It’s a new challenge for him now, not only to develop second-round pick James Daniels but to continue the growth of Cody Whitehair and Leno while getting the most out of Kyle Long, Massie and the rest of the group (back during his first stint with the Bears, Hiestand had the luxury of coaching experienced, more ready-made offensive lines). 

As one of the more highly-regarded offensive line coaches in the country, though, Hiestand could’ve jumped back into the NFL whenever, and nearly wherever, he wanted. And for him, coming back to the Bears was the perfect fit. 

“That’s an awesome, awesome place, a great franchise,” Hiestand said. “It was something, I always wanted to go back, I didn’t know where I would get the opportunity. So I’m just very fortunate it just happened to be back at the same place that I was before. There are a lot of things that are different but there’s also a lot that’s the same. 

“But it’s one of the — it is the greatest organization. Historically, this is where it all began, and being part of it — and the other thing, and I told those guys when I got here, when we get it done here, you guys are going to see this city like you’ve never seen it. And I remember that. That’s what we’re after.” 

On a scale of 1-10, Tarik Cohen says his dangerous level is 12

On a scale of 1-10, Tarik Cohen says his dangerous level is 12

Don't be fooled by Tarik Cohen's height. He has towering confidence and he's setting up to have a big role in coach Matt Nagy's offense in 2018.

“On a scale of 1-10, the dangerous level is probably 12,” Cohen said Wednesday at Halas Hall about the impact he can have in the Bears' new system. “Because in backyard football, it’s really anything goes, and it’s really whoever gets tired first, that’s who’s going to lose. I’m running around pretty good out here, so I feel like I’m doing a good job.”

Cohen proved last season he can thrive in space. He made an impact as a runner, receiver and return man and will have a chance at an even bigger workload this fall, assuming he can handle it.

With Jordan Howard established as the starting running back, Cohen knows his touches will come in a variety of ways.

“It might not necessarily be rushes,” he said. “But it’s going to be all over the field, and that’s what I like to do. Any way I can get the ball or make a play for my team, that’s what I’m looking forward to doing.”

Cohen averaged 4.3 yards-per-carry as a rookie and led all NFL running backs in the percentage of carries that went for at least 15 yards. He's a big play waiting to happen.