Texans present first test of Jay Cutler's relationship with yet another offensive coordinator

Texans present first test of Jay Cutler's relationship with yet another offensive coordinator

Just a couple of days before the start of the season, the storylines surrounding the 2016 Bears by now have pretty much all been written, re-written actually, and more than a few times. Young players needing to come through, this or that group needing to mesh, the quality of the secondary, offensive line or (insert position group here).

But one issue stands above all the others, a franchise-grade storyline that has been the same, with shadings here and there, since Jay Cutler came via trade from Denver in 2009. Because if this story has a bad ending, all the others fade to soft-focus by comparison.

Cutler, again voted by teammates as one of the team co-captains, took a monumental developmental step in 2015, responding to a coaching imperative that turnovers needed to disappear or, sooner rather than later, so would Cutler. The quarterback then put up his best overall statistical season, a 92.3 passer rating built around an interception rate of 2.3 percent, which is down near where the good quarterbacks live. Coaches abbreviated Cutler’s decision-making and he played his most mistake-free football since 2010-11, when Mike Martz did the same reining-in to him.

But since Cutler finished his year throwing zero interceptions in four of his final eight games, things have changed, and not in ways calculated to expand a quarterback’s comfort zone. The offseason saw the exits of his security-blanket running back (Matt Forte), go-to 6-foot-6 tight end (Martellus Bennett) and the coach who oversaw the maturity of his offense last year (Adam Gase).

Instead, Cutler worked this offseason and preseason with a new starting tailback (Jeremy Langford), wide receiver (Kevin White) and coordinator (Dowell Loggains). The offense even with Cutler and the No. 1 unit approached putrid for extended stretches of the preseason, and even if it was preseason, there were causes for concern.

Not the least of which might be Cutler himself.

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“The book on him was, ‘don’t let him get rolling, get going, don’t make any mistakes,’” said linebacker Jerrell Freeman, formerly a Cutler opponent while with the Indianapolis Colts. “I didn’t know him personally when I was in Indy, but his decision-making looked fine to me when we played him [in the 2015 preseason].”

Cutler too often in seasons past seldom masked his feelings of frustration when matters went poorly, whether because of protections, routes run or even play selection. This preseason he was visibly frustrated when White ran a wrong route that cost a potential touchdown, and protection breakdowns got him sacked, five times in 36 preseason drop-backs.

Perhaps the most positive indicator of Cutler staying the pick-free course of ’15 was that despite pressures and receiver concerns, Cutler threw no interceptions in his 31 attempts.

But the relationship between Cutler and Loggains remains the single most important player-coach connection. As that goes, so goes a major portion of the franchise’s fortunes, short and long term. Consequently, Loggains acknowledged that a lot of his job is handling Cutler’s mindset, not just the latter’s quarterbacking.

“The thing about quarterback play, the key to good quarterback play, is to get the other 10 guys to do their jobs,” Loggains said. “That’s where, as a quarterback, you can get frustrated because things are out of your hands that you want go well that don’t go well. We had the one incident in Kansas City and you can get frustrated that way, but it’s still the next-play mentality.

“The advantage I have is working with Jay last year and getting to know his personality a little bit, how to better understand him, handle him and help him.”

Whether Cutler is a Bear beyond this season, the last in which the Bears have guaranteed money owed to him, with max money of $15 million in 2017 and $16 million in 2018, remains to play out. But the coaching staff that wasn’t sold on Cutler when it arrived, finished last year with some critical respect earned.

“He might have been, I don't know, the most pleasant surprise of our team a year ago,” coach John Fox said during this year’s owners meetings. “I go back to ... You know I like smart, tough guys. He's extremely smart, he learned the offense very quickly, was not afraid to spend the extra time to do it.

“I think he's a tough competitor and those are things that I look for and I saw the first year so I was impressed by that. Maybe it notched up from all the stuff I heard to all the stuff I saw, and I put more stock in what I see myself.”

Keeping that respect and confidence is never assured. Robbie Gould fell from grace based on performance. Failures in the clutch could take Gould on a similar course.

And while a task of a quarterback is to get the other 10 players to do their jobs, the expectations of the quarterback include carrying the team when it needs it, not throwing interceptions at crucial points.

“He still has those expectations for us,” Loggains said. “He’s the leader of our offense. He’s the leader of our team. He was voted the captain by his teammates for a reason, and we fully expect him to be the leader of the offense.”

The Packers beat a bad Bears team in Week 1. In Week 15, they'll get a totally new one.

The Packers beat a bad Bears team in Week 1. In Week 15, they'll get a totally new one.

All week, reporters at Halas Hall tried to get Matt Nagy and the Bears to compare who they were during Week 1’s game against Green Bay to where they are now. And all week at Halas Hall, Matt Nagy and the Bears wouldn't bite. 

“We're both different. They're a little bit different, we're different,” Matt Nagy said. “They did a great job both as players and their coaches, so like I said yesterday, it feels like a while ago and that's why you play. You have a 16-game season and in division you get two chances. We'll just do everything we can to put it behind us and try to be better.” 

Different might be an understatement. Gone are Kyle Long and Bobby Massie. The Starting-Center-James-Daniel experiment is over, and Mike Davis is playing in the NFC South now. Adam Shaheen and Trey Burton – though the latter didn’t play in Week 1 – are on IR, too. Normally, losing two starting tight ends, a ‘starting’ running back, and the entire right side of the offensive line means you’re spending the last month of the season scouting for 2020. Instead, the Bears head to Lambeau Field on Sunday with a path to the playoffs still in front of them. 

“I just feel like we’re kind of in a rhythm now. We’re a different team,” Mitch Trubisky said. “There were some things that we had to go through in the first game and the beginning of the season that just didn’t go our way, and there’s things we definitely learned from as an offense. 

“I just feel like we have a new-found identity of what we want to do and everybody is really locked into what they have to do within their job description on the offense.” 

Perhaps the biggest difference between Week 1 and Week 15 has been the play of Trubisky, who looked like he was headed for a clipboard in 2020 before regaining his form over the last month or so. His comfortability in the offense is night and day compared to some of the struggles he went through during the first half of the season. If you ask him – which, duh, we did – he’ll tell you he’s felt the most growth off the field. 

“I just would say mental toughness, the ability to block out things on the outside,” he said. “Adversity, obviously, early in the season with people talking on the outside and then having to play through injuries and stuff, and just coming together closer as a team. My teammates having my back, that really gives me the most confidence.” 

The 14-week turnaround isn’t all about confidence, as Nagy 202 has morphed into something not expected but effective nonetheless. The running game has stabilized and they’ve found successful plays out of 4 WR sets – even if one of those receivers is Montgomery/Tarik Cohen. In Week 1? Montgomery had six rushes and the Bears ran two plays out of 10 personnel. Nagy said that he thought something clicked on Trubisky’s touchdown pass to Ben Braunecker against the Lions. 

“There's something there,” he said. “We felt it a little bit in the Chargers game, we just weren't effective in the red zone. But because we won the [Lions] game it magnifies it a little bit more … And then we just kind of started putting things together and I think over time we've just felt like it's just started to click. I don't know if it's specifically one play or not but that's probably my best guess.” 

It couldn’t have come at a better time, as the team prepares for what Nagy calls a “cat-and-mouse” game against Packers’ defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who perhaps knows Trubisky better than any other opposing coordinator in the game. 

“Coach Pettine has done a great job throughout his career of being almost tendency-free,” he said. “And they’re even better now with how they deploy those guys, and it’s kind of a perfect, perfect storm of scheme and talent, and the guys on the back end help them out too.” 

The Bears are playing with a looseness that might come from essentially being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but oddly, it continues to work for them. And when you have to go play Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau with your season on the line, you don’t question what works. 

“I love it. You want to go against the best all the time,” said Akiem Hicks, who was taken off IR and will start on Sunday. “If you’re a true competitor, you want the best competition.”

Clippers coach and Chicago native Doc Rivers weighs in on Bears-Packers

Clippers coach and Chicago native Doc Rivers weighs in on Bears-Packers

With Doc Rivers, Patrick Beverly and the Los Angeles Clippers in town to face the Bulls, you knew the question was coming. Both Rivers and Beverly are from Chicago and not shy about their affection for the city. 

"Do you and Pat talk about coming to Chicago?" a reporter asked, during Rivers' pregame media scrum, Saturday night.

"We talk about Chicago, probably every single day," Rivers said with a hint of a smile. "We talk about the Bears the most."

That led to Rivers rapid-fire addressing a number of ruminations on the current state of the Bears, including his respect for head coach Matt Nagy.

"I’m a big Bears fan. A big Nagy fan. I think he’s a terrific coach," Rivers said. "I just do, every once in a while you get a feeling about someone, and I have that about him."

High praise coming from Rivers, the 13th-winningest coach in NBA history and an NBA Finals champion in 2008 with the Boston Celtics.

Now, he coaches the third-winningest team in the league in the Clippers, but he still finds time to keep up with current Chicago affairs.

"[Beverly and I] talk about everything with Chicago. We talk about the dominance of Proviso East [Rivers' high school alma mater] over Marshall [Beverly's alma mater], and every other team. He doesn’t like that conversation very much," Rivers said.

He added that he even contemplated driving down for the Bears' Week 14 matchup with the Cowboys on Thursday Night Football (the Clippers were in town for a game with Milwaukee that Friday).

And as for tomorrow's crucial division game against the Packers, Rivers made his position abundantly clear.

"Well, you know what I think," Rivers said, when asked for a prediction for the contest. "Are you kidding me?"

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