Bears problems at wide receiver producing 'better' Jay Cutler


Bears problems at wide receiver producing 'better' Jay Cutler

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?)

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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.”

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

USA Today Sports Images

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

Despite losing 34 of his 48 games as the Bears’ head coach, John Fox’s players generally liked him and were disappointed to see him fired on New Year’s Day. That’s not to say they were blindsided by it — losing leads to people losing their jobs, even if the culture at Halas Hall had changed for the better following the disastrous end of the Marc Trestman-Phil Emery era. 

It was with that backdrop that Matt Nagy was offered and accepted the position of Bears head coach a week after Fox’s firing. Four and a half months later, Nagy has seemingly made a strong first impression on his new team, with one reason standing out among many: He’s genuine in who he is and what he does.

“I would say Nagy can be stern, and he can be playful also,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “I think when you’re a first-year coach, you want to win (over) your guys, and you want to be firm, and he’s doing that. You can’t really tell he’s a rookie coach or whatever. I feel like he was born for this, and he’s doing a great job.”

Granted, no player is going to publicly blast their new boss — especially not before he’s even coached a game yet. But veteran players also aren’t oblivious to who can and cannot work out as a head coach, and there haven’t been any “damning with faint praise” types of comments that were more common five years ago at the beginning of the Trestman era.

Will this win Nagy any games come September? No. But consider this sort of like team chemistry: It won't win a team anything, but if a team doesn't have it, it can be costly. 

“He’s a cool coach, man,” linebacker Danny Trevathan — who played for Fox in both Denver and Chicago — said. “He’s always giving us little details and smiling but we know he’s a hard worker just like we are. He’s up there working just like we are. He’s always putting us in the right position and he takes care of us. On the back end, where I come from, you take care of coaches like that. You go out and make plays for those coaches.”

From an observational standpoint, Nagy comes across as genuinely excited not just to be a head coach, but the head coach of the Bears. Players respect that approach — he's not coming in acting like a hired gun, and he's shown through these OTAs and practices that he cares about them, even if they haven't spent much time together yet. And he's also not strutting into Halas Hall every day with an over-inflated ego based on his promotion. That resonates, too. 

“I like the way he came in,” Trevathan said. “He came in humble but he was hungry. He came anxious, moving around in the meetings. I like that. That gets me fired up. I feel like we’ve got a good leader up here in the head coach.”

Anthony Miller sports Bears uniform at NFLPA Rookie Premiere

Anthony Miller sports Bears uniform at NFLPA Rookie Premiere

Anthony Miller has quickly become a fan favorite on social media. He has the confidence and swagger found in most top wide receivers and it comes through on his Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Miller was one of 40 players in attendance at the 2018 NFLPA Rookie Premiere where he not only learned about the business and marketing side of football, but also suited up in his Bears gameday uniform for the first time. Of course, he shared the moment on Twitter:

Panini America, a sports collectible company, snapped a picture of Miller with fellow rookie receiver Calvin Ridley (Falcons) and quarterback Mason Rudolph (Steelers):

Miller has become something of a standout for the Bears despite not playing a single snap. He's expected to have a big role in an offense that has several new pieces and roles that are up for grabs.

Miller will compete with former first-round pick Kevin White and free-agent addition Taylor Gabriel for reps opposite Allen Robinson. Miller has the necessary skill set to play as both an outside receiver and in the slot which should give him an even greater opportunity to be on the field quite a bit.

The Bears first three draft picks are all vying for starting jobs in 2018. Roquan Smith (first round) is a lock to start next to Danny Trevathan and James Daniels (second round) will start at guard. Miller should make it three-for-three in a draft class that could end up the best of Ryan Pace's tenure.