Darron Cummings/AP; Mike Roemer/AP; Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

Plus, a dumb rule that is dumb, why the Falcons offense could finally be in trouble, teams try and fail to copy the Cowboys’ O-line and much more for Week 6

By Gary Gramling
October 15, 2016

1a. Jay Cutler is a caricature of himself. Like, if he was at the county fair and sat down for a caricature, the artist would punch him in the stomach because he’s so unlikable.

So maybe no one in Chicago is going to shed a tear if Cutler has started his last game for the Bears. But make no mistake: It’s absurd if that’s the case.

It’s highly unlikely Cutler will ever be a franchise quarterback for the Bears. That’s largely based on the fact that he’s 33, he’s in his eighth season with the Bears, and we’re talking about whether or not he should be the starter. But last year revealed a better Jay Cutler. He wasn’t there, but he was trending in the right direction. Playing behind a bad offensive line with one receiver (who missed half the season), and with a very bad defense supporting him, Cutler kept Chicago in games they probably shouldn’t have been in.

Everything the Bears did this offseason suggested that they were encouraged by Cutler’s 2015 performance. They didn’t cut him. They didn’t bring in any veteran competition. For the second straight year, they didn’t draft a quarterback, meaning they don’t have a developmental prospect on the roster.

I’m not privy to what happens behind closed doors at Soldier Field. Maybe Cutler was put in charge of feeding the team goldfish and said he kept forgetting but really just figured the goldfish was gonna die in three weeks regardless so why not just keep the fish food for himself? Considering his already sour reputation, I find it unlikely that Cutler rubbed people even further the wrong way. So what happened in the first two games that would dampen that (assumed) enthusiasm coming off of 2015? In the opener, Cutler wasn’t good. But he also wasn’t bad. A couple of mistakes (including his interception) were because Kevin White looked more like he was playing a game of freeze tag at recess rather than running proper routes. The offensive line (which has since been much better as they start to meld) understandably struggled since Cody Whitehair, a collegiate offensive tackle, was making the first start of his life at center, and left guard Josh Sitton had just been grabbed off the street by Ryan Pace and John Fox, thrown into the back of a van and driven to Houston 24 hours before the season kicked off.

The struggles continued into the Monday night home opener against a good Eagles defense. Cutler’s second interception was particularly ugly. But I’m guessing it had something to do with the mangled thumb on his throwing hand.

So if it is to be believed that the Bears are moving on from Cutler, then six quarters of subpar football has undone 18 months of assessment and planning on Chicago’s part. Because if the reason they’re hesitant to put Cutler back in the lineup is because of Brian Hoyer’s performance, then this is madness.

Hoyer has been fine if you’re playing fantasy football. (Three straight 300-yard games! That’s all the fantasy points!) But those yards have been, as they say (or at least as I say), empty calories. Hoyer’s three starts have come against two middling-at-best defenses (Cowboys sans Demarcus Lawrence and Lions minus Ziggy Ansah) and a Colts D that could very well be football’s worst unit. The Bears, despite all that passing yardage and no INTs by Hoyer, managed to score just 17, 17 and 23 points in those games. How? They’re 9-for-32 on third down, 28.1%, 30th in the league during that span despite the softer-than-Charmin schedule.

Hoyer, to steal a favorite phrase of my podcast partner and personal life coach Andy Benoit, leaves a lot of throws on the field. He’s been overly conservative (the opposite extreme of Cutler at his worst). And we’ve seen what Hoyer has done when he’s forced to make a play, whether it was the postseason meltdown for the Texans last January, or the mother of all missed opportunities, the failure to throw the ball to a wide-open Alshon Jeffery on the final offensive play of last week’s loss in Indianapolis. You can criticize Cutler for his carelessness with the ball. But Hoyer’s failure to take advantage of a free touchdown—on fourth down, in the final two minutes of the game they were trailing by six, no less—is just as damaging as any interception Cutler has ever thrown.

If you have a Denver or Seattle level defense, you can make a run at 10 wins with a guy like Hoyer under center. The Bears don’t have that. It’s unlikely they, or really any team that might try, will build that kind of defense in the next couple of years. The Bears need a quarterback who can win them games. That was Cutler in 2015. It might be Cutler in 2016 (and even 2017). Maybe there’s only a 5% chance Cutler is that guy. But at least there’s a chance. There’s no chance that Brian Hoyer is that guy, and that makes this whole manufactured QB controversy silly at best, and a missed opportunity at worst.

1b. Belated happy birthday to Brian Hoyer, who turned 31 on Thursday. And, uh, sorry about all that stuff I just wrote. (Really, Hoyer is fine as a No. 2 QB.)

1c. For a team so excited about Hoyer’s lack of turnovers so far, it seems ironic that their new featured receiver is Cameron Meredith, who has fumbled three times (and lost two) on his 16 touches this season.

1d. One last thing on Cutler: Stop being a turd and vaccinate your kids.

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2. “Well, I’m not going to get into this as far as the difference between two guys,” Fox said. “It would have been an option that, had we had the coolness of the hot dog-laden press box we might have gone there.”

First of all…

Second of all, that’s an awfully surly way to address the question that was on every Bears fan’s mind: Why did your quarterback not take the free, game-winning touchdown gifted to him on the final play of the game and instead force the ball into triple coverage to the guy who entered the season as your fourth receiver? And wouldn’t that be a throw that your normal starter, who might be benched, would make 99 out of 100 times? I like John Fox, but right now he’s overseeing a 1-4 team that is losing bad games to bad opponents and seems to have taken a step back.

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3. That said, it was a better response than what we got from Mike McCarthy on Thursday:

"You know, we had 400 yards of offense, so I don't know why the hell I've got to come in here and answer questions about the things you think that went wrong.”

I’m sure it’s frustrating to get the same questions over and over again. But I can’t understand how McCarthy can’t understand why the same questions keep coming at him. He has probably one of the 10 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, in the middle of his prime, running the same offense he’s run for a decade. The protection has been so good that Aaron Rodgers could probably take a snap, re-write the bulk of the playbook, and still have time to get the ball away on most plays.

So, yes, it’s weird that this team is averaging only 24.5 points per game, one year after slogging through the entire second half of the season. Is it the play-calling, the play designs, the execution by the quarterback, the execution by the receivers? It’s a question that’s still begging for an answer.

And here’s the other thing for McCarthy: At some point, Aaron Rodgers will retire. And if the offense struggles without his improvisational skills to make it go, folks are going to wonder if the success the Packers had during the McCarthy Era was McCarthy’s coaching or the fact that he had an all time great under center. (Personally, I think it would be unfair since McCarthy was instrumental in building Rodgers into what he is today, but I get the sense that somewhere down the line McCarthy will have to fight a battle for the hearts and minds of Wisconsin.)

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4. So how well is Colin Kaepernick going to play in his return to the starting lineup? Let’s go all the way back to 2015, when Tyrann Mathieu talked about the joys of facing Kaepernick.

After the Cardinals’ four-pick game vs. Kaep: “We knew going into this game that the focus for them was to run the football. Their passing game has just simplified so much, it was easy for us to anticipate routes, get some good breaks on the ball today.”

In advance of their second matchup, when Blaine Gabbert was the starter instead: “It does [look different]… Not to take anything away from Kaepernick, but it seems like Gabbert has a little bit better grip on what’s going on if he gets in a situation. He knows where the ball needs to go.”

While Chip Kelly’s offense is faster, if anything it’s less complex than what the Niners ran with Geep Chryst. Kaepernick is also weighing in slightly to significantly lighter than his previous playing weight (225-230 pounds). So his value as a runner is questionable at best.

Thus, to answer your question: aside from passing and running, I think he’ll be O.K.

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5. A simple plea to the competition committee: Please take the rules in the rulebook that are dumb and change them to be less dumb, or perhaps not dumb at all.

If I indeed run for the presidency in 2020 (as a journalist, there’s a very good chance I’ll be unemployed at that point), it will be on a platform of Pass Interference I and Pass Interference II. But this week, I’d like to address a rule that makes zero sense: A fumble out of bounds in your opponent’s end zone is ruled a touchback for your opponent. Anywhere else on the field, if a fumble is not recovered, the fumbling team retains possession at the spot of the fumble.

So you end up with plays like last week in Baltimore, when Kirk Cousins throws an interception and it turns into a 17-yard gain for Washington because C.J. Mosley fumbled while reaching for the goal line.

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6. I know, I know, if you ever travel back in time you’ll have plenty on your plate. Killing Hitler, stopping 9/11, loading up on tacos before Taco Bell jacks the price up to $1.19. But my personal recommendation to you: Go to August 2016 and bet me on a series of early-season Falcons games. With my bankroll, you could stand to make multiple dollars.

However, this week, I’m picking against Atlanta again. I’m  skeptical that the Falcons will be competitive in Seattle. One reason is because Paxton Lynch won’t be lining up under center for the Seahawks. But more than that, this would seem to be a matchup nightmare for the Falcons offense. Unlike the Broncos, Seattle has linebackers (Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright) that can match up and run with Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman in the passing game. They have Richard Sherman to match up with Julio Jones. They have the speed and athleticism to snuff out those Freeman outside zone runs.

Matt Ryan was especially sharp in last week’s win over the Broncos, and Kyle Shanahan has been an absolute maestro so far this year. But this seems like too tall an order (and a week during which the Falcons will regret having spent all that U.S. currency to lure a JAG like Mohamed Sanu). And if Ryan gets it done in Qwest? (The Linc? The CenturyLink? Whatever non-descript corporate name they call that stadium now. Wait, what was I just talking about? Oh right.) If Matt Ryan does to this Seahawks defense what he did to the Broncos last week, give him MVP, and give Kyle Shanahan the Bears job, right now.

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7. The early aughts were a simpler time. Rather than wasting idle time on Snapchat and Twitter, people were solving the world’s problems via AIM. There were, as God intended, only 31 NFL teams to concern ourselves with. And Jerry Jones was doing things like assembling a Quincy Carter-Troy Hambrick backfield that would… participate in football games.

It’s 2016, and Jones’s Cowboys are in many ways the model franchise when it comes to roster-building. They did it by building up an offensive line that is miles ahead of every other unit in the league. So the rallying cry for many fans of opposing teams has become: We gotta build it like the Cowboys did.

The thing is, a lot of teams have tried to do that very same thing, and many of them have failed miserably. Since 2011, the Cowboys have spent three first-rounders on offensive linemen: LT Tyron Smith (9th overall in 2011), C Travis Frederick (31st in 2013) and RG Zack Martin (16th in 2014). During that six-draft span, 11 other teams spent top-64 picks on three or more offensive linemen. That includes sieve O-lines like…

Lions (Riley Reiff, Laken Tomlinson, Taylor Decker): All three were first-round picks. Decker is new this year, GM Bob Quinn’s first pick, so the jury is still out. But the Martin Mayhew-assembled front five was positively terrible.

Giants (Ereck Flowers, Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg): It might have something to do with the stable of backs, the play-calling or the tough early season schedule, but opponents don’t even pretend to respect the Giants’ run game anymore.

Dolphins (Mike Pouncey, Jonathan Martin, Ja’Wuan James, Laremy Tunsil): Pouncey, James and Tunsil were all top-20 picks. Miami is in the running for the title of “worst offensive line in football.” Though that title more likely goes to one of these two teams…

Colts (Anthony Castonzo, Ben Ijalana, Jack Mewhort, Ryan Kelly): Yup.

Seahawks (James Carpenter, Justin Britt, Germain Ifedi): Carpenter is gone, Ifedi just got on the field.

Dallas has obviously caught a break in that their three guys have stayed relatively healthy, but they nailed it on all three picks. So let’s give credit where credit’s due: To Jerry Jones. For signing the checks that go to the scouts and coaches who have turned those three draft picks into arguably the league’s best players at their respective positions. As the rest of the NFL has proved, it’s not an easy thing to do.

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8a. Self-improvement is a passion of mine, so I try to learn something new everyday. And there was a very important lesson I was reminded of this week. If you have an ultra-safe personal marketing strategy, and a buddy of yours decides to run for public office and asks you to call attention to a t-shirt or a hat or other piece of campaign paraphernalia, and you think Why not, friend? It’s not like you’ll actually be in the race that long, anyway! Well, maybe think twice about that.

8b. Honestly, I won’t go into politics in this column. Not because I think it’s off-limits for sportswriters or that I claim to be apolitical, but because I’m personally much more invested in local politics considering the checks and balances and massive bureaucracy that is the federal government generally limit the effect that the presidential election will have on my life. And I’m not sure any of you are fired up to read about my town’s heated second-district town-council race (if they don’t do something about this frickin’ tree warden…).

Anyway, normally I feel bad this time of year when, because of my job, football pulls me away from election coverage. I feel like I’m watching trash TV, rather than something that really matters. But I have to say, after watching the “highlights” from last Sunday night’s debate, I’m feeling pretty good about watching SNF rather than lowering myself into that sewer for two hours. So my friendly advice, and feel free to take it or leave it (since the federal government doesn’t make you follow all advice you read on the internet like it should): Maybe tune out the election coverage over the next three weeks. It really is trash. You already decided which candidate you’re going to vote against anyway, right?

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9. This week’s MMQB Read of the Week: Kalyn Kahler on Northwestern life for Trevor Siemian, Peyton Manning’s unlikely successor. Even if she didn’t include what would have been the finest spice rack-related anecdote in MMQB history.

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10. I think, at 12:58 p.m. ET, you should turn your volume all the way up and press play…

 

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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