The health travails of Bears wide receivers — Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal and, before that, Kevin White — have undercut some measure of the hoped-for development of an offense under coordinator Adam Gase that ideally would do some of the heavy lifting for a transitioning defense. What those problems did do, however, was quietly provide a forum and venue for a next step in the NFL life of one Jay Cutler.
From an apparent problem might have emerged a “solution.” Cutler has not completely exorcised all of his interception demons, but even those are showing signs of losing their death grip on his game. Significantly and perhaps coincidentally, certainly ironically, that might trace to what Cutler has had to do with a sometimes-makeshift receiver corps.
Put another way: Without the security-blanket catch radiuses of Brandon Marshall this season and Jeffery for most of the season, Cutler has had to raise his game. And he has.
He hasn’t always. For arguably too much of his early time in Chicago, Cutler was accorded considerable slack for performance lapses based on the perceived lack of “weapons” he had to work with in offenses under a succession of offensive coordinators and position coaches. “When you’re No. 1 receiver is Devin Hester/Johnny Knox, how can anyone expect you to do anything?” was the annual narrative.
(Remember Devin Aromashadu? Dane Sanzenbacher? Roy Williams?)
Without Jeffery and Royal for extended stretches, Cutler has won games with Josh Bellamy, Marc Mariani and Cameron Meredith taking as many as 75 percent of Bears offensive snaps in those games.
“It probably was a blessing in disguise,” quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains said.
Cutler is completing 60.9 percent of his passes this season, inadequate by NFL standards. But that is a completion rate better than any of Cutler’s Bears seasons from 2009-2012. And that is without Jeffery, Marshall and Matt Forte on track to each average 85 passes as they did the past two seasons.
Even more importantly, Cutler’s interception percentage stands at 2.3 percent. Only in his injury shortened 2011 season (2.2 percent) saw Cutler as protective of the football.
Whether Cutler was not as careful when he had catch-machines Jeffery and Marshall operating together, or he wasn’t as confident with Hester, Knox, et al., is difficult to analyze. And not really as important as the effects of a depleted receiver group on Cutler.
“It’s made Jay step up, be a bigger part, bigger voice,” Loggains said. “He’s run meetings, been very vocal on what he expects from each individual and I think guys have responded well to him.”
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Where the Cutler of five or so years ago routinely grew visibly frustrated and his throws more errant with lesser receivers running imprecise/outright wrong routes, the current iteration has been demanding yet patient, almost as if he were the father of two, soon-to-be-three young children (Wait. He is. Probably just coincidence).
The situation “probably made him a little more dialed-in,” Loggains said. “You take having veterans out there — with Alshon and Eddie and those guys — and he has to tell those guys, be more vocal with what he expects, his expectations of where those guys are supposed to be.”
For his part, Cutler does not dismiss or make light of the difficulties involved for everyone, from coordinator Gase on down the depth chart.
“It's hard,” Cutler admitted. “It's hard as a play-caller, especially when you don't know who you're going to have Sunday, who you're going to have available on a Wednesday and Thursday putting in plays, who's going to be up who's not going to be (active).
“But we're making do, (Gase) does a good job of kind of making these plays friendly for everybody and just moving pieces around.”