Bears QB coach Dave Ragone sees simple base for Jay Cutler’s next step

Bears QB coach Dave Ragone sees simple base for Jay Cutler’s next step

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.”

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

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.”

Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?


Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?

Pre-camp depth chart

1. Danny Trevathan
2. John Timu
3. Joel Iyiegbuniwe

1. Roquan Smith
2. Nick Kwiatkoski
3. Jonathan Anderson

1. How good can Roquan Smith be?

Making sweeping observations from shorts-and-helmets practices in OTAs is often a fool’s errand, but Smith looked the part while running around the practice fields of Halas Hall after being drafted in April. His quickness and instinctiveness stood out — as they did at Georgia — and his football intelligence and work ethic were praised by coaches and teammates. 

“He’s learning well,” Trevathan said. “He’s doing a good job of learning. He’s learning the little things that you need to learn in this defense. Now it’s all about putting on a show and going out there and rocking.”

And that’s what’s going to be fun to watch in Bourbonnais: How does Smith play with the pads on? Chances are, the answer to that question will be “well,” setting the eighth overall pick on a path to being a mainstay of this defense for years to come. 

That’s not to say Smith doesn’t have plenty on which to work during training camp. But he left Georgia as a sort of “safe bet” in the draft, and nothing he’s done to this point has changed the view of him that he’s likely going to be a good one. 

2. Can Danny Trevathan stay healthy?

In terms of size and athleticism, Trevathan and Smith profile similar to NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, the inside linebacking tandem that was the spine of the San Francisco 49ers defense during Fangio’s time there. But for Trevathan and Smith to reach that lofty bar — or even to come close to it — Trevathan needs to be more available than he was his first two years with the Bears.

This isn’t questioning Trevathan’s toughness — far from it. That he returned for Week 1 of the 2017 season 10 months after rupturing his patellar tending (an injury that can be a career-ender) was impressive, and that he was immediately productive upon returning was even more extraordinary. But Trevathan missed three games in November due to a strained calf, and coupled with a one-game suspension and the seven games he missed in 2016, the 28-year-old has only played in 21 of 32 games since signing with the Bears. 

Trevathan is confident he can improve his production in 2018, given he wasn’t able to participate in last year’s offseason program practices. He’s entering his third year in Fangio’s defense and feels better prepared after going through OTAs and minicamps this year. It’s just now about him staying on the field to make sure that work pays off.

“I’m more comfortable with this defense, I’m more comfortable with the guys and the calls that we make,” Trevathan said. “I take pride in being correct and working my tail off and making the defense better. And the more that I can be out there — which I plan on being out there a lot — it’s going to help us tremendously.” 

3. How big a role will Nick Kwiatkoski have?

The Bears didn’t draft Smith because they felt like they absolutely needed to upgrade over Kwiatkoski, who’s acquitted himself well in 25 games since being picked in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. But Kwiatkoski has dealt with some injury issues, and for as solid a player as he may be, the Bears’ defense needed (and still needs) more great players. Drafting Smith gave the Bears a shot at adding a great player.

It also leaves Kwiatkoski in the same spot he was in a year ago, when the Bears entered the 2017 season with Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman as their unquestioned starting inside linebackers. Smith still has to earn that starting spot, but the safe bet is he will, relegating Kwiatkoski again to reserve duties.

And that’s a positive for the overall health of this defense, having a player good enough to start ready to play if needed. But it also raises this question: What do the Bears do with Kwiatkoski if he’s one of their four best linebackers, but isn’t one of their two best inside linebackers? 

So for the purposes of watching training camp practices, seeing if Kwiatkoski gets any reps at outside linebacker will be an interesting storyline to follow. 

Bears shutout in poll of NFL's best starters under 25

USA Today

Bears shutout in poll of NFL's best starters under 25

Maybe this is what happens when a team is coming off a 5-11 season and has won only 14 games over three years. Maybe it's just another example of the Chicago Bears being overlooked and underrated. Regardless of the 'why,' a recent poll of NFL experts has provided more fuel for the Bears in 2018.

ESPN's Field Yates asked 43 insiders and former players for their list of the top under-25-year-old starters in the NFL and not a single Chicago Bear made the cut.

No Jordan Howard. No Mitchell Trubisky. No Allen Robinson.

Not a single Bear.

The most shocking omission is Howard, who finished second in the NFL in rushing in 2016 and sixth last year despite facing defenses that focused their entire game plan on stopping him every single week. At only 23 years old, he's clearly one of the top young running backs in the NFL and warranted a spot on this list. 

Instead, the Rams' Todd Gurley, Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and Giants rookie Saquon Barkley got the nod.

Howard has more rushing yards than Gurley over the last two seasons and trails Elliott by only 179. Barkley has yet to take a snap in the NFL.

The Bears were recently named the most underrated team in the league heading into 2018 and this is just another piece of evidence justifying that claim. A winning season will change the national perception of players like Howard, who with another year of high-end production should find himself at or near the top of many of these lists next offseason.