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.”