With Bears injuries, time for Jay Cutler to create his own weapons


With Bears injuries, time for Jay Cutler to create his own weapons

Saturday night in Cincinnati against the Bengals, Jay Cutler will have a chance to be Tom Brady. Or maybe Aaron Rodgers.

And the Bears need exactly that from him. It’s time.

Preseason doesn’t count, but the third game in particular can be a telling test kitchen (see: Bears at Seattle, 8/22/14). Cutler won’t ever be any sort of approximation of either Brady or Rodgers. No one will ever expect that after this many years. And the health issues at wide receiver provide a stern test for an offense committed to running the football against a defense that knows the Bears are offensively passing-challenged.

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But so much talk sprayed around over the past half-decade or so about how much Cutler needed more weapons. He got them and still didn’t win. And the assumption was always that he had to be given them.

By contrast, Brady and Rodgers were among the greats at creating their own from what they had. And with a growing list of injured Bears wide receivers who may or may not be ready by Week 1, that is precisely what the Bears need right now from their $126-million quarterback, with “right now” looking ahead to possible health problems in 2015.

Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal are expected to be ready by Week 1. But it is entirely possible that Cutler could have a receiver group consisting of Josh Bellamy, Jeremy Kelley, Rashad Lawrence, Marc Mariani and Cameron Meredith.

John Fox and Adam Gase should demand, “Ok, ‘6,’ win with those. Period.”

Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte will be in his huddle. But the Bears and Cutler are to a point where the quarterback needs to find ways to win with the tools at hand - in this case, his wide receivers. And most of all, not give the football away, something he’s managed to avoid through wins over Miami and Indianapolis.

Cutler is being paid like Brady and Rodgers. The Bears are entitled to see a return on the investment. And a third preseason game is an exquisite opportunity for Cutler to show whether he’s learned anything, conceptually or technically, from Gase and QB coach Dowell Loggains.

The Brady Model

Brady won his first Super Bowl with his top two receivers standing 5-foot-10 (Troy Brown, David Patten). Brown, an eighth-round draft pick, didn’t become a starter until his eighth season and didn’t reach lone Pro Bowl until 2001 – the year Brady took over from Drew Bledsoe as the starter. Patten was a castoff from the Giants and Browns through his first four seasons before catching 51 passes in 2001.

Brady won his second Super Bowl, over Fox and the Carolina Panthers, with Brown, Deion Branch (5-foot-9) and David Givens (6-feet). No Patriot caught more than Branch’s 57 passes.

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What Brady didn’t do was throw interceptions, with an INT rate of 2.3 percent both years. Bill Belichick may indeed be among the great defensive minds of this era, but his defenses have had the advantage of a quarterback who let them stay off the field and not be forced to defend short fields after quarterback giveaways.

Cutler has only once in his career been that secure with his passes, and then only in 2011 when a superb season (2.2 percent) was derailed by his broken thumb after 10 games.

That was the year of Cutler’s lowest single-year completion percentage (58 percent) but the Bears were winning in large part because he wasn’t completing passes to wrong uniforms. And his top three wide receivers were Johnny Knox, Dane Sanzenbacher and Devin Hester. 

The Rodgers Model

When the Green Bay Packers got past the Bears on the way to winning the 2010 Super Bowl, they were doing with a roster that had 13 players on IR by mid-December, 16 by season’s end. Rodgers himself suffered two concussions and missed a game.

He also lost running back Ryan Grant, tight end Jermichael Finley, right tackle Mark Tauscher, and no Green Bay receiver or back started all 16 games with the exception of Greg Jennings.

Rodgers suffered through the second-highest interception rate of his seven seasons as a starter – and that was all of 2.3 percent, a huge boost for a defense that was so riddled with injuries that coordinator Dom Capers was forced to take certain calls out of his playbook.

It falls to Cutler more than any other individual Bear to find ways to solve issues involving the paucity of wide receivers, injuries and shaky play on the offensive line, even the questions around the defense.

For Cutler, it’s time to win with efficiency, ball control and what he’s got on hand. 

Why Mitch Trubisky's biggest weakness won't preclude him from success in 2018

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Why Mitch Trubisky's biggest weakness won't preclude him from success in 2018

As the Bears set their foundation for training camp during OTAs this month, one part of that is beginning to identify each player’s strengths and weaknesses on which to build in Bourbonnais. 

Designing an offense to Mitch Trubisky’s strengths was one of the reasons why Ryan Pace hired Matt Nagy, who then hired Mark Helfrich to be his offensive coordinator. Easy is the wrong word — but it wouldn’t have made sense for the Bears to not build an offense around their second-picked quarterback. 

But as Nagy and Helfrich are installing that offense during OTAs and, next month, veteran minicamp, they’re also learning what Trubisky’s weaknesses are. And the one Helfrich pointed to, in a way, is a positive. 

“Experience,” Helfrich said. “I think it’s 100 percent experience and just reps, and that’s kind of what I was talking about was knowing why something happened. As a quarterback, he might take the perfect drop and be looking at the right guy in your progression, and that guy runs the wrong route or the left guard busts or something. The defense does something different or wrong, even. And trusting that is just a matter of putting rep on top of rep on top of rep and being confident.”

It'd be a concern if the Bears thought Trubisky lacked the necessary talent to be great, or had a lacking work ethic or bad attitude. Experience isn't something he can control, in a way. 

This isn’t anything new for Trubisky. His lack of experience at North Carolina — he only started 13 games there — was the biggest ding to his draft stock a year ago; while he started a dozen games for the Bears in 2017, the offense was simple and conservative, designed to minimize risk for Trubisky (and, to be fair, a sub-optimal group of weapons around him). 

But even if Trubisky started all 16 games in an innovative, aggressive offense last year, he’d still be experiencing plenty of things for the first time. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made this point back in September that still resonates now with regard to Trubisky:

“I think it takes a few years until you can really get that title of understanding being great or even good, because you see so many looks,” Roethlisberger said. “In Year 2 and 3, you’re still seeing looks and can act like a rookie.”

So the challenge for Nagy and Helfrich is to build an offense that accentuates Trubisky’s strengths while managing his lack of experience. For what it’s worth, the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles succeeded in those efforts last year with Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively. 

For Helfrich, though, one of Trubisky’s strengths — his leadership qualities — are already helping mitigate his need for more experience. 

“He’s still in the mode of learning and doing things out here,” Helfrich said. “We might have run one play 10 times against 10 different defenses, you know? And so his response to every one of those 10 things is brand new. And so, you see his reaction to some of those is good. Some of those things you want to improve upon and then keep your chest up and lead because we need that.”

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.”