BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – The NFL is a small place, and there are few secrets. So when Dave Ragone arrived last January as Bears quarterbacks coach, he had some sense of Jay Cutler, albeit from other teams’ sidelines and from word of mouth.
What Ragone has learned about Cutler up close, however, was more important than distant perceptions.
“Here’s what I’ll say about him, more than anything else,” Ragone said. “Jay is a big-time competitor. Very bright. And football is VERY important to him.
“To a coach, those three things… .” He paused: “I’m not sure I could ask for three better qualities in this deal.”
If those attributes seem routine, they are not. Not in all players, and not in all quarterbacks, by any means. Ragone, himself a former NFL quarterback, has specifics to work on with Cutler, but the one big specific is one neither Ragone nor anyone else can install.
“With me and all those quarterbacks, it stops with one word: ‘Compete,’” Ragone said. “Obviously everything takes care of itself from there. I’m blessed with the room I have. Being around quarterbacks my whole life, I think I’ve got a really competitive room, and Jay comes out and brings it every day. So does Brian [Hoyer].
“And the young guys are seeing that. So for me, no matter how you set it up, competing is the most important thing.”
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The Bears’ staff adjustment of elevating Dowell Loggains from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator was not the only offseason move with nothing less than franchise-level implications because of the relationship with Cutler.
Ragone, a third-round pick in the 2003 draft who spent three years with the Houston Texans, was brought in to fill the Loggains vacancy. Ragone was a member of the Tennessee Titans staff in 2011-13 under Loggains.
Cutler produced the best season of his NFL career in 2015 under the coaching tandem of Adam Gase as coordinator and Loggains as Cutler’s position coach.
Attention has rightly focused primarily on Loggains and his succession plan and fit with Cutler after Gase. Right behind that, however, is how the relationship between Cutler and Ragone, who at age 36 is just three years older than Cutler – and one year older than Loggains.
Small thing: Cutler refers to Ragone as “Rags.” Good sign, a nickname.
What made Gase and Loggains successful last year was Cutler’s buy-in to an absolute focus on eliminating turnovers, a simple, seemingly obvious dictum but one that had appeared to rarely resonate with Cutler and his skilled right arm.
Now the task is to reinforce that philosophical slant and connect ideologically with a veteran quarterback who was willing to adjust last season, his ninth in the NFL. Veterans can be resistant to change, and Cutler’s chemistry with coaches has been shaky in times past.
“I’ve been down that ‘veteran’ road a little bit,” said Ragone, who coached Ryan Fitzpatrick while with Tennessee. “But with Jay – I respect Jay’s knowledge. He’s been around a long time.
“First and foremost is earning his trust. Earning his trust means helping him out there as much as I can in terms of me mechanics things, or things he’s seeing out there on the field, being another set of eyes for him.
“That relationship is dependent on communication. It is a respect factor of his knowledge, competitiveness. So for me, it’s a working relationship.”
Players have reached the NFL level with techniques and approaches that obviously have worked. They know things that work.
But players are most apt to follow the advice and instruction if they believe a coach’s mission is to help them get better, rather than simply shove a system or technique on them. Ragone’s goal is not to reshape Cutler – some critical parts of that were done last year – but to give him things to go beyond even the ’15 level of performance.
“He’s been successful in this league and done things a certain way that’s helped him,” Ragone said. “It’s my job to understand him mechanically, to understand him mentally, and then play off that to be the best quarterback he can be.”