The Bears insisted that their new offense would work. As the first week of training camp wrapped back in early August, it was hard to see how. Or it was at least hard to see when.
After Jay Cutler walked off the field at Chicago’s training camp facility on Aug. 5, he declared that “today was a bad day for us offensively.” He wasn’t lying. The quarterbacks (especially the backups behind Cutler) and wide receivers were beyond just being on the wrong page. They didn’t even seem to have the same playbook—pass after pass was falling incomplete or sailing out of bounds.
But the overarching message that afternoon? Be patient. That’s a tough ask in the results-oriented NFL, but the Bears were insistent offensive coordinator Adam Gase had them trending in the right direction.
Eventually, they promised, everyone would see the progress.
“It’s not something we’re going to pick up in two or three weeks,” Cutler said. “It’s going to take some time and guys have done a really good job on the field and off the field, because if you just do things on the field you’re not going to learn this system as quickly.”
Added Gase: “Every day we’re getting a little bit better.”
Turns out, they were right. The overall statistics may not say so, but as of right now the Bears boast the most dangerous offense in the NFC North. No, not the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers, nor the Vikings with MVP/Comeback Player of the Year contender Adrian Peterson, nor the Lions with all their weapons. The Chicago Bears.
Chicago hung 37 points and nearly 400 yards on St. Louis’s top-10 defense Sunday, a rather stunning performance dotted by huge plays. Tight end Zach Miller scored the Bears’ first touchdown by breaking loose for 87 yards; Jeremy Langford later took a screen pass 83 yards, untouched.
The attack was crisp and balanced—258 yards passing and 153 rushing, despite Matt Forte’s continued absence in the backfield. It was exactly what the Bears envisioned when Gase arrived along with coach John Fox this off-season.
“[It’s] the same thing I’ve talked about all year long,” Cutler said during a press conference last week. “[Gase has] done a great job of making sure the quarterback is comfortable with the system, making sure we’re comfortable with the protections. On game day, he does a really good job on first, second, third down of putting us in good spots.”
Cutler’s apparent comfort level with Gase might be forcing the franchise into a well-documented 180 on its once-beleaguered quarterback.
There were reports over the summer that Fox hoped to move on from Cutler, the sooner the better. Cutler’s balky contract made such a move unfeasible, so all eyes turned to a possible 2016 divorce.
With each passing week, and more importantly with each additional win, such a split is growing harder to envision. The Bears are a respectable 4–5, and Cutler is playing some of the best ball of his career, a stark step forward from his issues under former head coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. The 32-year-old QB again could be the Bears’ future, as well as their present.
“He continues to kind of amaze me on what we’re doing, how hard he works at it,” Fox said following Sunday’s 37–13 win. “And then obviously we’re all evaluated on what we do on Sundays. It’s up there—one of our better games as a team.”
The catch-22 in all this is that Gase’s personal coaching stock continues to rise with each step forward by the Bears. Gase was a popular pick to land a head coaching opportunity prior to the 2015 season; he reportedly came very close to the 49ers’ job before they promoted Jim Tomsula.
Tennessee’s brass must be wondering what Gase could do with Marcus Mariota. Same with Ryan Tannehill in Miami. Or how about Detroit and Matthew Stafford? The calls will come, so the Bears may have no choice but to hit the reset button again in the coming months.
Chicago could face a similar dilemma on defense, too. There, Vic Fangio has milked several respectable outings from an overmatched group, despite Bears GM Ryan Pace tinkering with the roster all the while.
The Bears’ hope for this season never fell to Fangio. The defense was expected to improve ... but how could it not, given last year’s nightmarish effort under then coordinator Mel Tucker? For this to be anything other than a stepping-stone season, Gase’s offense had to lead the way.
It may have done so sooner had it not been for a rash of injuries at the skill positions. This year’s No. 7 pick Kevin White still has yet to make his Bears debut because of a shin injury. Cutler missed part of a Week 2 loss and all of a Week 3 debacle (a 26–0 setback in Seattle). Jeffery and Eddie Royal have been banged up, and now Forte has been out for two games.
The Bears found a little stability in spite of those issues, mainly thanks to Cutler’s play. Now, with four wins already and three of their next four games at home, things could get very interesting.
“I think if you’re all-in with the coaching staff and what you’re being taught, you kind of start repeating what they say,” Cutler said Sunday. “A lot of guys in that locker room believe in Coach Fox and believe in their position coaches. ...
“Last year, things were different. Whenever you lose a bunch of games in a row, things are hard. ... Coach Fox hasn’t backed down from his message one time and I think the players haven’t lost any confidence in it, either.”
No one ever guaranteed overnight fixes. Chicago finished 5–11 last season and barely stayed competitive most weeks. Full-scale personnel changes followed, from GM to head coach on down through the staff.
The transformation is starting to pay dividends, especially on offense.
“At this point I’m just trying to get better from week to week,” Cutler said. “Week 1 seems like it was light years away right now.”
Those early August days are just a distant memory. A little patience has gone a long way for the Bears, just like they knew it would.