Bears

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

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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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 it...it 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.”

Putting Bill Belichick’s complimentary comments about the Bears in context

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USA TODAY

Putting Bill Belichick’s complimentary comments about the Bears in context

Bill Belichick had plenty of good things to say about Matt Nagy and the 2018 Bears during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. Some of the highlights:

 

On the Bears’ season as a whole:

 

“The Bears have lost two games, one on a game when they were in control of the game and another one they lost in overtime. This really looks like a 5-0 team to me, if you change one or two plays. You can say that about a lot of teams, but that’s the league we’re in.”

 

On Mitch Trubisky:

 

“I think he’s done a good job of getting ball to the players that are open or in space and letting them be playmakers. He has a lot of them. That’s the quarterback’s job is to deliver the ball to the playmakers and let them go. I think he’s done a good job of that. He’s a tough kid, which I respect. That’s what we would ask our quarterbacks to do, to make plays to help our team win, to get the ball to the players that are open and in space. It’s not about stats. It’s about doing what you need to do to win.”

 

On Tarik Cohen’s usage:

 

“He plays about a little bit less than 50 percent of the time and he’s in a lot of different places, he’s hard to find. He’s a dynamic player that can run, catch, really threaten every yard of the field from sideline to sideline, up the middle, deep. You can throw it to him, you can hand it to him and he’s elusive with the ball and he’s elusive to be able to get open so the quarterback can get him the ball. Those are great skills to have. Any one of those is good and he’s got several of them.

 

“He’s very hard to tackle. But they do a great job mixing him, not just putting him in the game but who he’s in the game with, what the combinations are and then where they locate him and so forth. There are a lot of multiples. It’s hard. Coach Nagy does a good job with that and he’s a special player that you gotta know where he is at all times.”

 

On Trubisky’s 54-yard bomb to Taylor Gabriel on Sunday:

 

“That’s about as good a throw and catch as I’ve seen all year. The execution on that was like 99 out of 100. It was a great, great throw, great route, great catch. There was like a few inches to get the ball in there 50 yards downfield and that’s where it was.”

 

On Akiem Hicks’ impact, who played for the Patriots in 2015:

 

“He’s hard to block. It doesn’t make any difference what the play is, you can run to him and he’s hard to block. You can run away from him, and he makes tackles for loss on the back side. He’s quick and can get around those blocks when there’s more space back there because everybody is going to the front side. He can power rush. He can rush the edges with his quickness. He’s a very, very disruptive player. He’s hard to block on everything.

 

“I appreciate all of the plays he makes. He makes plays on all three downs, against all types of plays, whether it’s reading screen passes or power rushing the pocket to help the ends, to help (Leonard) Floyd and Mack and (Aaron) Lynch rush on the edge. He’s a powerful, disruptive guy. (Eddie) Goldman has done a good job of that. (Bilal) Nichols has done a good job of that too. They have some really powerful guys inside that are hard to block, and they change the line of scrimmage in the running game and the passing game. It really creates a problem, frees up the linebackers in the running game and helps the ends because the quarterback can’t step up in the pocket in the passing game.”

 

On Matt Nagy:

 

“Obviously he's done a great job, as has Ryan with building the team. They have a lot of good players. They have a really experienced staff and they do a great job in all three areas of the game. They're good in the kicking game, they're good on defense they're good on offense. They have highly-skilled players in all three areas.

 

“It's a well-balanced football team that does a lot of things well. Run the ball. Stop the run. Throw the ball. Rush the passer. Intercept passes. Return kicks. Cover kicks. Cover punts. They're at the top of the league in all those categories. Turnovers. Points off turnovers. It doesn't really matter what area you want to talk about, they're pretty good at all of them. That's why they're a good football team.

 

“Coach Nagy and his staff certainly deserve a lot of credit. It's not a one-man band. They're all doing a good job. It's a good football team. I'm sure there will be a lot of energy in the stadium this week. It will be a great test for us to go into Chicago and be competitive against them.”

 

While listening to Belichick rave about the Bears, this missive from former Patriots general manager Michael Lombardi stands out:

 

“Whenever Belichick tells the media on Mondays or Tuesdays that he has already moved on to the next game, trust me, he’s not lying. I worked with Bill for five years in Cleveland, and then during the 2014 and 2015 seasons in New England. Belichick treats every game like a Super Bowl; no detail is too small, no possible scenario or situation goes overlooked. I have heard Belichick break down a bumbling Jaguars team as if it was the reigning two-time Super Bowl winner and treat Blake Bortles like he’s the second coming of Aaron Rodgers. Belichick does it with tape to back up his claims, only showing his team the opponent’s greatest strengths. (With Bortles, I swear, he must have used George Lucas to doctor the video.) No Patriots opponent is underestimated or taken lightly — EVER.”

 

One of the myriad things that make Belichick the best coach in the NFL — and maybe the best coach in NFL history — is how he never takes an opponent lightly, and then how he’s so successful at scheming against what an opponent does best.

 

The Bears are undoubtedly better in 2018 than they were in the John Fox era, or when these two teams last met in 2014 (when New England waxed a moribund Marc Trestman side, 51-23). And a lot of Belichick’s points are valid – that throw Trubisky made to Gabriel was outstanding, for example.

 

But Belichick talks this way about every team he faces. And that, again, is part of what makes him the best at what he does.

Under Center Podcast: What will we learn about the Bears against the Patriots?

Under Center Podcast: What will we learn about the Bears against the Patriots?

On this week's Under Center podcast, JJ Stankevitz and John “Moon” Mullin look at how Bill Belichick and New England will attack Matt Nagy and the Bears on Sunday, and if Mitch Trubisky can get to the point where he can reliably lead a late-game scoring drive like Tom Brady is so good at doing.

You can listen to the whole thing here, or in the embedded player below: