2013 will be a make-or-break year for Jay Cutler, who needs to make some serious adjustments. (Jim Prisching/AP)
When I first started watching Jay Cutler, he was a superlative arm talent at Vanderbilt. He carried that primary attribute into the NFL when the Denver Broncos selected him with the 11th pick in the 2006 draft. In his three seasons with the Broncos, Cutler seemed to perfectly marry his own physical gifts to head coach Mike Shanahan's highly evolved and surprisingly versatile versions of the West Coast Offense, and it was a pretty thing to watch. Cutler could be erratic, as most young quarterbacks will be, but he also consistently displayed the kind of velocity to different areas of the field you rarely see. In addition, he quickly and clearly transcended the "Million-dollar arm/Five-cent head" group by ranking in the top 10 in Football Outsiders' full-season efficiency metrics in 2007 and 2008, his two years as a full starter in Denver.
Things started to go south after Josh McDaniels replaced Shanahan as Denver's head coach in 2009. Cutler and McDaniels butted heads, and the Broncos traded Cutler to the Chicago Bears in April, 2009. The Bears gave up two first-round picks, a third-round pick, and quarterback Kyle Orton, and got Cutler and a fifth-round pick in return.
Through several different offensive systems in Chicago, Cutler has never lived up to expectations. He's on his fourth offensive coordinator (Ron Turner in 2009, Mike Martz in 2010 and 2011, Mike Tice in 2012, and Marc Trestman/Aaron Kromer in 2013), and the results have been indifferent at best. Cutler has completed 1,034 passes in 1,735 attempts for 12,292 yards, 82 touchdowns, and 63 interceptions during his Chicago era. He's never ranked higher than 21st in those same FO metrics he used to own in Denver, and the difference in performance was obvious right away.
I first took a look under the hood in December 2009, with help from Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup. Our conclusion then? Cutler was balky behind a bad offensive line, struggling to match up with his new targets, and suffocating in a system that would seem to confound even the best quarterbacks. Add to that Cutler's long and seemingly unbreakable history of questionable mechanics, and you had a sure recipe for disaster.
"He’s always been a guy that’s struggled with mechanics," Cosell said back then. "He’s never been what you’d call a fundamentally sound quarterback -- he’s never been a guy you’d show an instruction tape of as he drops and throws. I think there are a few fundamental differences between Cutler then and now. In Denver, he was dealing with a better offensive coaching staff, a better scheme, a better offensive line, and better receivers. Which, all of that put together, could camouflage and mask his fundamental deficiencies."
Now? Well, it's pretty much the same thing. Except that now, the Bears have two people in charge -- general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman -- who want Cutler to play out the string before they decide if he's their guy long-term.
Brandon Marshall is firmly established as Cutler's number-one receiver -- in fact, Marshall was targeted on 40.5% of Chicago's passes in 2012, the highest percentage for any receiver on any team since at least 1991. The Bears added new blockers in free-agent left tackle Jermon Bushrod, first-round guard Kyle Long and tight end Martellus Bennett, who's probably the best blocker at his position in the league. Trestman established himself as an offensive mastermind for years in the NFL before he headed to Canada in 2008 and won two Grey Cups with the Montreal Alouettes. Named the Bears' head coach in January, Trestman believes in a timing- and rhythm-based passing game, and the fit will be interesting with a sometimes-transcendent vertical passing quarterback whose form has been allowed to vary all over the place. Trestman, Kromer, and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh have one season before Cutler's a free agent to figure out if this will work.
"I don’t know if I have the answer to that other than you have to have great communication,” Trestman told ESPN Chicago in late July, when asked if the fixes he's made to Cutler's form will stick when the games are real. “You have to be honest and open in terms of ... we’re drifting back into doing something we didn’t intend to do. We’ve got to be open with it. We’ve got to come here and remind each other each day, ‘This is what we’re trying to accomplish.’ If we’ve got two willing guys that are willing to work with each other to do it, we’ve got the best chance.
"We’ll work together to try to focus on the things that we think we can change, but to not inhibit him from playing at a loose and free level to where he can do his job.”
It's a delicate balance. The problem with reining Cutler in too much is that even when he's at his worst mechanically, he can still make some unbelievable throws. Here's his touchdown pass to receiver Brandon Marshall in the first quarter of Chicago's 33-28 preseason win over the San Diego Chargers on Aug. 15:
Cutler starts his delivery from waaaay downtown (a Tim Tebow special) as Brandon Marshall fights to get separation from cornerback Shareece Wright.
Cutler is actually flat-footed when he releases the ball. He does not drive through this throw at all.
But Marshall hand-fights his way through coverage, and comes back to the ball for a touchdown. Cutler exhibits optimal ball placement despite imperfect mechanics.
On the very next Bears drive, Cutler threw an interception to Chargers linebacker Donald Butler in which he exhibited better mechanics, but more questionable decision-making.
Cutler steps up in the pocket after a long drop to avoid pressure. His arm is splayed out a bit, but he's at least looking to establish a base with his feet.
Cutler is throwing the "Sluggo Seam" (slant-and-go deep) to Brandon Marshall on a no-matter-what basis.
And this is what he's throwing to: Marshall is boxed in by two Chargers. Aside from a quick read to the right-side hot route, Cutler telegraphed this throw all the way. Donald Butler (56) will make the easy pick.
And that's the dynamic between Trestman and Cutler -- the exacting coach with a sure-fire way to fix the quarterback, and the former Bronco who, in his heart, doesn't seem to want to be busted.
Four years after our first joint analysis of Cutler, I asked Cosell -- who's known Trestman for decades -- for his take on how it would work out.
"There's no way Marc Trestman is telling Cutler, 'Hey, Jay -- why don't you just throw the ball the way you want to? I don't care if you throw off-balance. I don't care if you fall backwards and you don't step into the throw.' No, he's not. We don't know how Cutler is going to respond to this, but I know Marc Trestman, and I don't know where Cutler is based on training camp, but at the end of last season ... he's such a natural passer, with arm strength and ability, he can get away with sloppy mechanics and risk-taking. That's the way he plays, and he's never been a precision player ... though I believe that if he had stayed with Mike Shanahan, he would have moved more in that direction. More would have been demanded of him. He's so gifted throwing the ball, that he believes he can just go out and make plays. I don't know what's in his head, but watching him play, that's the sense you get.
"I don't how he was coached prior to Trestman, but I can guarantee you that Trestman is trying to make him a precision player -- both personally and in the context of an offense that has West Coast methodology. With Cutler, you have to remove the gray areas when it comes to route concepts and reading progressions. The longer you ask him to sit in the pocket, the less disciplined he becomes. Then, there's a greater chance for arbitrary play."
So, in the abstract, Cutler needs to be defined in his own head as a quarterback and as the leader of an offense. Trestman will give Cutler more three-step drops and timing throws, but he also knows that he's got a rare arm talent, and he's not going to waste it. He was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders from 2001 through 2003, when Rich Gannon -- who would revert to a three-quarter delivery at times -- went to three Pro Bowls and was named the 2002 NFL MVP in another high-volume passing offense. Like Shanahan, Trestman is not a guy who wants to put every quarterback he tutors into a box, but he will want to see more consistency out of Cutler -- both mechanically and in his decision-making. He will have to dial back the improvisatory nature of his game, develop a better and more accurate clock in his head, and realize that he has other targets out there, even if they aren't world-beaters.
As we saw against the Chargers, it might be a long-term challenge -- no matter where Cutler plays in the 2014 season and beyond.