Can Bears trust what they’re seeing from Jay Cutler?


Can Bears trust what they’re seeing from Jay Cutler?

The first faint indicator of what was to come may have been as far back as the first two weeks of training camp this year when Jay Cutler went 11 straight practices without throwing an interception. Something appears to have been happening.

Practice success, particularly training-camp practice, doesn’t always correlate to actual success. But for a few memorable departures, Cutler has stayed that course into what is to this point nothing less than Cutler’s finest sustained stint as an NFL quarterback. He has impressed a hard-scrabble veteran defensive head coach, teammates and his primary mentor, not all of which were predisposed in his favor.

Cutler has been good in small doses and spurts in the past, only to back-slide. The question now, again: Is it for real this time, long-term?

Is the new INT-lite Cutler and his personally historic low turnover rate to be believed? Or Cutler’s clear rapport with offensive coordinator Adam Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains? Cutler's relationships with coordinators have come with expiration dates in the past; his starts with Mike Martz and Marc Trestman/Aaron Kromer were excellent through a season, then descended into acrimony by the middle of their second seasons together. Cutler/Gase would not be the first to implode.

[MORE BEARS: How would Von Miller look in a Bears uniform?]

But certain elements of Cutler’s game under Gase say this isn’t like those false starts of Cutler’s past. One indicator is consistency, not only performances at a career-high level, but also with a regularity unlike anything Cutler has exhibited in his career.

Using a variation of the James Bond gauge – once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action – one good Cutler game can happen; two is encouraging; three times, very promising…but six times? More on that shortly.

The key lies in the plan Gase laid out for Cutler from virtually the day the former was hired, which was forming in those interception-free days in Bourbonnais.

“Statistically, we've got the turnovers down,” Gase said on Thursday. “We got a long way to go. I think we've made some strides as far as our ball security in the pocket.

“I think a lot of it has been he's getting the ball out quick. He's been decisive. There's no hesitation, and I think he and Dowell [Loggains, quarterbacks coach] have done a great job within practice being conscious about it and working on drills to make sure that we're better in that area.”

Looking at Cutler up close

Cutler, whose relationships with previous offensive coordinators have rarely been positive for more than a season-and-a-half, is indeed seeing quantitative payoff from the work he, Gase and Loggains have put in on reducing turnovers and other of Cutler’s failure patterns.

After nine seasons never topping 89.2 for passer rating, Cutler’s season rating now stands at 95.3. The foundation is an interception rate of 1.8 percent, significantly below his previous career-low of 2.2.

The rating isn’t really the central point. Rex Grossman in 2006 had as many 100-rating games (seven) as Peyton Manning, but never more than two in a row, with epic “Bad Rex” lapses sprinkled in, akin to “Good Jay/Bad Jay.”  

Considerably more significant than just a summary statistic is the consistency context. Cutler is on a run of seven consecutive games with a rating no lower than 88.0 – not bad for someone whose best whole-year mark has been 89.2. Cutler’s best previous run of consistency was the first six games of last season, but then only at the rating of 82.0 or better.

[MORE BEARS: Forte or Langford? Bears don’t have to decide, not yet at least]

(For reference purposes: The only quarterback with a current stretch better than Cutler’s this year is Tom Brady (nine). Just for purposes of unfair comparison, Brady’s interception percentage is 0.8 and he has led the New England Patriots with a rating of 92 or better in all nine of their victories.)

The fact that Cutler has authored two runs of this magnitude and duration in consecutive years hints at a repeatable consistency from a quarterback who was shown anything but for virtually his entire NFL career. Using the 88-rating simply as a reference point for Cutler:

Before this year, Cutler never achieved enough consistency to have more than three straight “88” ratings, something elite quarterbacks do routinely. Cutler’s seasons, most consecutive 88 ratings and how many 88 ratings for the seasons):

Year "88" streaks
2006 3 (3 of 5 games)
2007 2 (8 of 16)
2008 3 (8 of 16)
2009 3 (7 of 16)
2010 2 (7 of 15)
2011 2 (5 of 10)
2012 2 (6 of 15)
2013 3 (7 of 15)
2014 2 (7 of 15)
2015 7 (7 of 8)

Cutler and the Bears have put less of the game on Cutler’s arm and more on the overall. Cutler’s new-found efficiency and success “has to do with Adam, the offensive line, play calling, guys around me,” Cutler said, downplaying the numbers.

“The Rams game – the rating is high [151.0] – [but] I didn’t do anything. I dumped a few balls off, managed the game and your rating is high. You hand the ball off from time to time, you’re going to get games like that. There’s been other games – on first and second down, Adam has done a really good job of play-calling; running the ball efficiently; getting to third-and-manageable. I think we’ve stayed in third-and-manageable a lot this year. When we are third-and-long, we call appropriate plays and try to stay out of some danger zones. Guys around me have played really well, no matter who it is.”

As Cutler goes… .

The Bears are 4-4 in Cutler starts this season. They trailed Green Bay 17-16 at the end of three quarters before losing by eight points. They were toe-to-toe with the Arizona Cardinals (28-20), the NFL’s No. 2 scoring offense, in week two before Cutler was sidelined with a hamstring strain. Of the six games since Cutler’s return, only last Sunday’s in St. Louis has been decided by more than three points.

Neither GM Ryan Pace nor coach John Fox committed initially or automatically to Cutler as their quarterback when they were hired in January. Neither Chairman George McCaskey nor President Ted Phillips mandated that the new football staff keep Cutler because of money already sunk into him via guarantees.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

Fox’s praise now is strong, not insignificant from a defense-based head coach who despises turnover and referring to a Cutler who led the NFL in interceptions in two of his first six Bears seasons.

“I’ve seen him grow,” Fox said. “I’ve seen him be all-in from when we first came here in the offseason. I think he’s done a tremendous job. I’ve never seen a guy work quite that hard.

“Buying into something and learning takes countless hours. It’s not just practice time or offseason conditioning time; he put a lot of extra time into it and it’s always good to see people that worked really hard improve and reap the rewards of it.”

Bears coaching upheavals portend inevitable stumbles

Bears coaching upheavals portend inevitable stumbles

Call it a small Bears reality check, if not a full wake-up call, then at least a nudge in the night. And this sort of thing should be expected, not just in OTAs, not just in training camp or preseason, but when it all counts.

And it should serve as a lesson of sorts. Because some of the underlying reasons are worth a little highlighting and patient understanding around a team that has spent its offseason and millions of dollars refashioning an offense, beginning with coach Matt Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich, and that offense wasn’t particularly good on Wednesday.

In a sport where the operative cliché is “just get better each and every day,” the Bears didn’t, but as far as their coach is concerned, “there’s two ways to look at it,” Nagy said. “Whether you say on our side, on offense, trying to see a bunch of different looks a defense can give you, is it too much or not? It’s good for us. It’ll help us out in the long run. It’s good for our players and they’ve handled it well. There’s going to be mistakes but they have it on tape to be able to look at. “

This is about more than just a few bad reps or missed assignments. It’s part of the good-news-bad-news reality that a sea change brings to a team.

The good news is that the Bears have a new coaching staff on offense.

The bad news is that the Bears have a new coaching staff on offense.

The Bears defense is predictably ahead of the offense, hardly a surprise, given that most of the core of the top-10 unit has remained in place. That said, you do have to like the attitude of the barely-above-rookie No. 1 quarterback challenging that assessment Wednesday, with a “Who says that?”

This while the offense has myriad moving and new parts, and interceptions, blown plays and such were occurring for an offense that, like Halas Hall, is a massive building work in progress.

“Well, today was a bad ‘build,’ but that’s to be expected,” Helfrich acknowledged. “We’re adding a chunk each day, I thought today was the first day where we had somebody do something that just like, ‘wait, OK’ – a few positions here and there, a few new guys, obviously a few veterans here and there that it’s all new to, hit the wall.”

It’s a “wall” that arguably is inevitable with a coaching change.

Not to make excuses, but….

For a sense of perspective, scroll back to Jay Cutler, who went through offensive coordinators perhaps faster than he went through socks: a year with Ron Turner, two with Mike Martz, one with Mike Tice, two with Aaron Kromer, one with Adam Gase, one with Dowell Loggains, who at least was a holdover from the Gase year. (Whether Cutler’s failure to match potential with production was the cause of or because of that turnover, this humble and faithful narrator leaves to you, the reader).

More than a few current Bears can only dream of that kind of “stability.” And because of that, the 2018 pre- and regular seasons may be bumpier than the optimism surrounding the Nagy hire was anticipating.

Guard Kyle Long, still not practicing full-go while he rehabs from surgeries, is on his fifth offensive-line coach in six NFL seasons. Center Cody Whitehair, who has started every game since the Bears drafted him in the 2016 second round, has had three different line coaches in as many seasons: Dave Magazu for 2016, Jeremiah Washburn for 2017 and now Harry Hiestand. Left tackle Charles Leno was drafted in 2014, making Hiestand Leno’s fourth O-line coach.

And this is the offensive line, the unit that most engenders use of the term “continuity.”

“Each coach brings in a little bit, different techniques,” Whitehair said. “There’s a lot of time for us to hone in and get to know what he’s trying to teach us. But in the end it’s still football.”

Kevin White is entering his fourth NFL season. He is on his fourth receivers coach (Mike Groh, Curtis Johnson, Zach Azzanni, Mike Furrey) and third different season-starting quarterback (Jay Cutler, Mike Glennon, Mitch Trubisky), not including offseason battery mates ranging from Jimmy Clausen, Brian Hoyer, David Fales and Connor Shaw, depending on how much rep time he spent with which unit at various times during his training camps.

“It doesn’t matter,” White said. “Roll with the punches, come here and do my job every day.”

Regardless of how many bosses you’ve reported to.

Kevin White, Bears focusing on the present and not his unlucky past or uncertain future

USA Today Sports Images

Kevin White, Bears focusing on the present and not his unlucky past or uncertain future

Kevin White had little interest in engaging with reporters on Wednesday, the first time he was made available to the media since suffering a season-ending broken scapula in Week 1 of the 2017 season. His answers weren’t combative, but they were short and terse. 

Then again, how was he supposed to handle yet another round of questions — none of which were unfair — about his star-crossed past or his uncertain future? He did offer up this quote-worthy line when asked what he’s learned about himself after all the adversity he’s faced since being drafted with the seventh overall pick in the 2015 Draft:

“Built Ford Tough.”

If White would rather live in the present than in the past or future, that’s fine. It’s actually ideal if the Bears want to get something out of him in the final year of his rookie contract. And it’s also the mindset preached to him by wide receivers coach Mike Furrey, his fourth position coach in four years in the NFL. 

“We sat down from Day 1 and I said listen, I don’t know anything about your past, I don’t want to know anything about your past,” Furrey said. “From here on out it’s just going forward and just doing everything that we can control day in and day out and that’s it. I won’t talk to you anything about tomorrow, I’ll only talk to you about what we’re doing today and how we’re building today.”

If the Bears hope to get anything out of White in 2018 — and if White hopes to revive his career without job security beyond this season — that narrow mindset is a good starting point. It’s even more important during OTAs here in late May, with there still being about two months until the Bears’ first padded practice and two and a half months before preseason play begins. 

The Bears insulated themselves from needing White to produce this year by adding targets for Mitch Trubisky in Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton and Anthony Miller over the last two months. The spotlight is off White, in a sense, and he’s okay with that — “I don’t need attention,” White said, “I just come here and do my job.”

But in another sense, there’s an immense amount of pressure on White to prove himself worthy of a roster spot not in 2018, but in 2019. Not many receivers with White’s numbers — 21 catches on 40 targets, 193 yards, no touchdowns in five games — are able to hang around the league for long without being a special teams ace (like Josh Bellamy, for instance). Neither the past nor future for White is particularly rosy. 

So that’s why White said he doesn’t have any specific goals for the season: “Doesn’t matter,” he said, “As long as I’m out here.” 

All White can do is show up to Halas Hall and, eventually, Olivet Nazarene University ready to practice with a narrow mindset on that day, and that day only. If he sticks with that approach — and doesn’t suffer another horribly-unlucky injury — eventually, he’ll arrive at Lambeau Field in September for the season opener, finally given the opportunity to prove himself. 

But that’s a long ways away. For now, White’s well within his rights to not want to entertain any thoughts about what happened in the last three years or what lies ahead. 

“I don’t know the past and I don’t want to know the past,” Furrey said. “Everything from here on out is going to be everything in the future. We’ve kind of established that and that kind of allows him to relax a little bit and not be judged and to have all these things said about him — because I don’t know. I don’t want to read it, I don’t want to hear about it, I don’t even want to know. 

“All I want (is for) him to be comfortable and be able to learn a new system and be able to learn it as fast as he can so he can go out there — and everybody sees it, he’s very gifted. He’s very powerful, lower body powerful. He can run, he’s got a great catch radius. He has all those intangibles and that’s exciting, but it’s really what you do with those every day. So we’ll just continue to have the daily routine and hopefully get better every day and then be able to put it together when we gotta go.”