Bears Issue No. 2: Not 'Cutler-specific' so much as 'Quarterback'


Bears Issue No. 2: Not 'Cutler-specific' so much as 'Quarterback'

Second of a series

During the death spiral that was the 2014 season, the offensive coaching hierarchy of coach Marc Trestman and coordinator Aaron Kromer grew weary and wary of Jay Cutler’s play at quarterback. There had been more than a passing desire to stay with Josh McCown during his career year of 2013 but the decision was to return Cutler to No. 1.

Last year the frustration with Cutler was enough to bubble over from Kromer to an NFL reporter after the latest in a run of dismal performances. Cutler failed to top 80.0 passer rating in three of his last four games, the other one being against the Dallas Cowboys in which the Bears fell behind 35-7 after three quarters before Cutler posted a stat burst in garbage time.

A change to Jimmy Clausen was made after 14 games. The surprise of this season will be if the new coaching staff stays with Cutler through another 3-6 start.

“We’re in a performance-based business,” Fox has said. “I understand that and you have to perform.”

[MORE: Bears Issue No. 1: Reshaping a losing culture]

This is probably just coincidence — probably — but after his benching in favor of Clausen, Cutler had one of the only two games over his final nine without an interception. Meaning: Maybe a little job jolt is a good thing where Cutler is concerned.

Cutler will not have the general manager resolutely in his corner as he did with Phil Emery, who used words like “elite” and “franchise quarterback” to describe Cutler when not even the head coach or coordinator were so inclined.

For Clausen, why Chicago?

Best guess is that Clausen will post better preseason numbers than Cutler; backup quarterbacks frequently do, if only because they’re playing against backups.

But the Bears re-signed Clausen to a one-year deal for a reason, and Clausen chose Chicago over some other options.

“I just felt comfortable here,” Clausen said. “I came here, met with the coaches, and love the offense and what they’re planning to do.”

Exactly how the quarterback situation was presented to Clausen is between organization and player. But Kurt Warner chose to sign elsewhere when told that Rex Grossman was not going to be dislodged as the Bears’ starter. Clausen may not have had the options a Warner would have, but enough teams have unsettled quarterback situations such that he did not need to settle for one where the starter was untouchable.

“That’s not up to me; it’s up to the coaching staff,” Clausen said. “We’re just trying to get to where we go out there and play fast and react, not think too much.”

Two Cutler questions

Cutler has remained with the No. 1 offense through the offseason. No surprise there.

But word around the NFL is that new coordinator Adam Gase will be limiting Cutler’s audible options. Cutler’s decision-making was a major issue with the previous staff, and that weakness in his game and makeup contributed to the interceptions that have come to define him as a quarterback.

[RELATED: Fox's coaching tree growing and will be on Bears ’15 schedule]

Not entirely coincidentally, Cutler’s best quarterbacking stretch as a Bear came in 2010-11, with Mike Martz as his coordinator. The two increasingly clashed, in part because Martz did not allow extensive audibling, but Cutler’s career-low interception rate (2.2 percent) came in his 10 games of 2011 before the season-ending broken thumb.

The previous year Cutler threw seven TD passes and seven INT’s through his first six games under Martz. When Lovie Smith intervened and directed that the offense become more balanced, Cutler threw 16 TD passes vs. nine INT’s.

Fox’s history is that his offense will have balance, taking some pressure off his quarterback. Whoever that is.

The first question is how Cutler will take to a system and coordinator without the play calling freedom he exercised. He annually says the right things about his new bosses, but rarely have things worked to a playoff level. He has some familiarity with Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains, but he had history with Jeremy Bates and that netted nothing.

Year Off. Coordinator QB coach
2008 Mike Shanahan Jeremy Bates
2009 Ron Turner Pep Hamilton
2010-11 Mike Martz Shane Day
2012 Mike Tice Jeremy Bates
2013-14 Aaron Kromer Matt Cavanaugh
2015 Adam Gase Dowell Loggains

Still Cutler’s job to lose

Bears senior management said early this offseason that the incoming GM and coach were not locked into Cutler because of contract commitments. The organization did put itself on the hook last March for $15 million this year and $10 million in 2016.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

But “it’s all an open competition,” Fox said. “Obviously you’ve got to start somewhere and my experience in football, really in anything, it’s not where you start a competition; it’s where you finish it… .

“I kind of have it in my brain and then they compete.”

That competition may not end even when the season opens in September.

John Franklin III may be a longshot to make the Bears, but the former ‘Last Chance U’ star isn’t giving up on his dream

USA Today Sports Images

John Franklin III may be a longshot to make the Bears, but the former ‘Last Chance U’ star isn’t giving up on his dream

Down in Bourbonnais, one of the handful of players who stuck around the longest to sign autographs for fans after training camp practices was the starting quarterback and hopeful savior of a franchise that’s been mired at the bottom of its division for years. 

Another was a fourth-string cornerback who had never played that position before May and has an extremely difficult path to make it in the NFL. 

“Most of the time I’m out here with Mitch (Trubisky), like the last person,” John Franklin III said. “I’d rather have people know me than people not know me. So that’s a good thing.”

You might know Franklin as the super-talented Florida State quarterback transfer in Season One of “Last Chance U” on Netflix. A low point of Franklin’s life played out in living rooms across the world as he played sporadically behind Wyatt Roberts at East Mississippi Community College, but the south Florida native turned that strife into a lesson in persistence. 

From East Mississippi Community College, Franklin transferred to Auburn, where he stayed as a quarterback but didn’t see the field much. He graduated from Auburn and transferred to play his final year of college ball at Florida Atlantic, where Lane Kiffin gave him a shot at playing wide receiver. He didn’t put up the kind of production as either a quarterback or a receiver to get drafted, but his excellent speed is a trait that got him into rookie minicamp. 

After failing to secure a gig with the Seattle Seahawks at their rookie minicamp, the Bears brought Franklin to Halas Hall as a defensive back for a tryout a week later. He signed shortly after, and here he is, trying to figure out how to make it in the NFL at a position he’s never played on a side of the ball he was completely unfamiliar with until May. 

“People are so quick to quit when it doesn’t work the first time,” Franklin said. “It’s like, if you really give up and it didn’t work, then you really didn’t want it. If you keep pushing, it’s going to happen. Life’s not going to be peaches and cream, but you get what you get.”

Defensive backs coach Ed Donatell couldn’t recall ever seeing a player make the switch from offense to cornerback without any prior defensive experience before, let alone for a rookie battling to make a roster. 

“It doesn’t come up that much and usually they have some kind of training in there,” Donatell said. “Nothing comes to mind. 

“But why not us? Why can’t we?”

This isn’t a story about a player who is likely to important to the Bears’ success in 2018, like Trubisky or Allen Robinson or Leonard Floyd or Kyle Fuller. The odds are massively stacked against Franklin, especially after he was picked on by Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Auden Tate in last week’s preseason game (he did, too, have a nice break-up of a pass intended for Ka’Raun White). The stuff Franklin is learning right now are second nature to most NFL cornerbacks who’ve played the position — or at least, played on defense — their entire football lives. 

“I definitely feel like I was in good position most of the night, I just gotta — I know one thing I’m focusing on is getting my head around,” Franklin said. “That’s one thing that I still haven’t felt 100 percent comfortable with and that’s one of the things a lot of the vets are working with me on is to make sure I get my head around because most of the time I’m in a good position. Just finding the ball is still very new to me.” 

Training camp and preseason practices, then, present a difficult dichotomy for Franklin. On one hand, he knows he has to be patient as he learns an entirely new job that he likened to “trying to write with your non-dominant hand.” On the other hand, he has to show considerable progress to even be considered for a spot on a practice squad, let alone a 53-man roster. 

While Franklin has seen himself make significant progress on tape over the last few months and weeks, he knows he’s not where he needs to be or where he thinks he can be. It’s sort of a race against time for him, because rookies who don’t make a roster or practice squad usually don’t get a second chance in the league. 

“He’s such a willing soul,” Donatell said. “He came in here, he’s taking everything in, the veterans are helping him. But he has a skillset that you can see him doing things on the other side of the football that we want to translate to defense. … It’s a race for us right now and a race through this month, and he’s willing. We see progress every day. Time will tell how much.”

What Franklin puts on tape in these final three preseason games — Saturday against the Denver Broncos, Aug. 25 against the Kansas City Chiefs and Aug. 30 against the Buffalo Bills — will be critically important to his chances of sticking in some capacity in the NFL when the regular season starts.

Taking a step back, the task seems almost impossible. This is a guy who played quarterback his whole life, then moonlighted as a receiver for a year, and now is trying to make it in the NFL playing cornerback. It would be a remarkable feat if Franklin were to make a practice squad and allow himself more weeks and months to develop. 

But there’s no doubting Franklin’s desire to make it work. He wants to make it work to live out his dream of playing in the NFL, one he’s had since he was four. He wants to make it work to repay his parents for all they did for him. He wants to make it work to be an inspiration to others to never give up on their goals. 

Will it work? We’ll see. But it’s not in Franklin’s nature to give up, no matter how much of a longshot he may be. 

“I’m accepting the challenge,” Franklin said. “Doing something different at the highest level of football ain’t easy by any means.

“But it’s also doable and possible.”

Sports Talk Live Podcast: How much will Trubisky improve in his 2nd preseason game?


Sports Talk Live Podcast: How much will Trubisky improve in his 2nd preseason game?

Mark Carman, Scott Merkin and Chris Bleck join Kap on the panel. Jon Lester looks to get back on track against the Pirates? Should he still be the Cubs Game 1 starter in the playoffs?  Len Kasper joins Kap to discuss.


How much will Mitch Trubisky improve in his 2nd preseason game? And will Carlos Rodon end up being the White Sox’ best starter?

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: