Cutler, Bears look completely lost as Saints take first place in NFC South
Coming into their Monday night matchup at Soldier Field, the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints were dealing with various levels of dysfunction. Aaron Kromer, Chicago's offensive coordinator and New Orleans' former assistant coach from 2008 through 2012, told NFL.com's Ian Rapoport that the team had a case of "buyer's remorse" regarding the seven-year, $126.7 million deal with $54 million guaranteed that quarterback Jay Cutler agreed to in the offseason. That led to a tearful apology to the team and to Cutler, and rumors that Kromer might be headed out the door. Kromer was retained, though after the results of Monday night's game, he may have wished he was job-hunting.
Meanwhile, Saints head coach Sean Payton reacted to his team's 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Dec. 7 by having meetings with several players and making corresponding roster adjustments. Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan have had it out on the sidelines this season, and New Orleans' 31st-ranked defense (per Football Outsiders, only the Falcons are worse on that side of the ball) has been the cause.
Both of these teams came into this game with 5-8 records, but with different levels of motivation. While the Bears' season has been over for a while, the Saints were angling for first place in the NFL South, this year's version of which may very well be the worst division in NFL history.
And in the end, the difference in motivation was clear and present. In New Orleans' 31-15 win, the Saints looked like a team still on the ropes in some dimensions, but they came to play. The Bears looked like ... well, let's just say that once in a while, you see a team that has clearly abdicated the level of effort and coordinated play required to deliver a reasonable NFL product.
Perhaps the most classic moment defining the Bears' current state of dysfunction came when they attempted a fake punt with 10:29 left in the second quarter. They came up a full yard short on fourth-and-three from their own 39-yard line, and were then penalized (it was declined) because they had 10 players on the field.
If that wasn't bad enough, there was the playcalling late in the game. Down 24-8, the Bears punted from their own 38-yard line with 5:38 left in the game. New Orleans gave the ball back via punt after a three-and-out, and from his own 31-yard line with 4:24 remaining, Bears coach Marc Trestman called two draw plays in a row. There was then a short pass to Alshon Jeffery, which was negated by an offensive pass interference call on tight end Martellus Bennett, and Cutler was sacked on the next play. With his questionable playcalling, his inability to control his coaching staff and his game management, one expects that Trestman will be looking for a new home when the 2014 regular season is over.
Three thoughts from this game:
1. Aaron Kromer said it the wrong way, but he was right
Jay Cutler is a mess. Without Brandon Marshall on the field, there's nobody who can get separation against defenses, even defenses that are as horrible against the pass as New Orleans' is. This doesn't help Cutler, who, in his ninth NFL season, still struggles with simple stuff like defining and beating coverage, and throwing with anticipation. More than that, and more than the execrable pass protection that helped him get sacked seven times, and more than the questionable-at-best playcalling, was the decided feeling that Cutler had simply given up. He's been getting grief for his mopey countenance ever since he came into the NFL, but this was different. Cutler was off-target to his receivers, and his three picks were on throws one wouldn't even expect to see from an above-average college quarterback. Cutler took back the league lead in interceptions from Jacksonville's Blake Bortles in this game, and he doesn't have the excuses Bortles has. He's not a rookie, there's a lot of talent on this Bears squad (though they're certainly not playing like it), and Trestman is supposed to be the kind of play designer that gets the best out of his quarterbacks.
This sack of Cutler in the first half on what should have been a screen kind of sums it up. Yes, left tackle Jermon Bushrod got completely smoked by end Junior Galette, but not pulling the trigger on that simple "get-out" pass was just weird.
Oh ... and Cutler arrived at his postgame press conference before most of the media did, and answered a few questions before ambling off. That summed things up as well.
2. Chicago's defense is even worse than Chicago's offense
If Trestman somehow does hold onto his job, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker probably shouldn't. The Bears simply have too much talent to put a defensive showing like this on the field over and over and they've been doing it all season. They were victimized on similar boot-action plays on tight end Josh Hill's two touchdowns. Hill moved inside the formation on both plays, then rolled outside, and both times, no Bears defender covered that assignment. Whatever the Bears need to do in order to rehabilitate their team and become a playoff contender again, they need to start by ridding themselves of Tucker's simple, readable and inflexible schemes. This simply doesn't work in the NFL. Drew Brees completed 29 of 36 passes for 375 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, and yes, Brees is a future slam-dunk Hall of Famer, but this must have felt like 7-on-7 all night long.
We still don't know what to make of these Saints
The 6-8 Saints now have sole possession of first place in the NFC South, but as has been discussed, this is an iffy team in an awful division that is still trying to figure things out. Clearly, they miss Darren Sproles terribly in the passing game, and clearly the defense has issues against teams that still give a damn, but against this Bears team, Drew Brees was able to slice and dice with shorter passes and drive-extending concepts. Is this a team that could present an actual threat in the postseason? Any team with Brees at the helm can do damage on the right day, but this is not the quality of Saints team we've seen though the Sean Payton era. This is a team that will have to catch fire oddly at the appropriate time.