THE CUTLER DILEMMA
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
Whenever a new coach or offensive coordinator is asked about Jay Cutler's untapped potential, soon the conversation begins to sound like a rom-com in which the heroine wants to tame the bad boy.
What makes you think you can change him?
I don't know, but I have to try.
That is essentially what Chicago's latest play-caller, offensive coordinator Adam Gase, offered up when quizzed on whether his system would help Cutler soar. "Time will tell," Gase said. "If I knew what was going to happen, I'd play the lottery. Right now I don't know."
Cutler has crafted a respectable, occasionally outstanding nine-year NFL career. He has 61 wins as a starter and should top 28,000 career passing yards by Week 2 of the regular season. But he has also thrown 130 interceptions, including league highs of 26 in 2009 and 18 last season. Most damning, Cutler has just one playoff win to his name.
But watch Cutler sling the ball in practice and you'll see why he continues to be given chances. Even at 32, Cutler possesses arguably the strongest arm in the NFL. When he has time to set and fire, the ball explodes out of his hand with the exit velocity of a Giancarlo Stanton home run. The challenge for Gase, like others who have come before, is to translate Cutler's talent into more consistent performances.
Foremost is Gase's plan to move the pocket more often, thus taking advantage of Cutler's underrated athleticism. Cutler has been agreeable to this idea, at least publicly—those rollouts would buy him more time (in 2014, Cutler took 38 sacks, eighth most in the league and tied for second most in his career) and help keep the defense off-balance. Other big-armed quarterbacks, such as Baltimore's Joe Flacco, have thrived using bootlegs to set up the deep ball.
The second change, unheralded but key, is the addition of receiver Eddie Royal, who signed with the Bears for $15 million over three years. Last season, even with the exceptional pass catching of running back Matt Forte and the receiving tandem of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, the Bears did not have a piece as movable within the offense as the 5'10" Royal. Mostly the ex-Charger will line up in the slot, but he can work out of the backfield or shift outside—and he may have to play outside if Kevin White, drafted in the first round to replace the departed Marshall, ends up missing the entire season because of a stress fracture in his left shin.
Royal's best NFL year came as a Broncos rookie in 2008, when Cutler was his quarterback. Royal caught 91 passes on 129 targets for 980 yards, all career bests by substantial margins. The 29-year-old veteran then spent three seasons working under Gase, who was Denver's receivers coach in '09 and '10 and quarterbacks coach in '11. Given Royal's history with his new QB and coordinator, expect to see him thrown to early and often.
If these changes don't help, the Bears may be nearing the breakup point with Cutler. After coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace took charge of the Bears this off-season, rumors circulated that they were trying to deal their divisive quarterback. Cutler's bulky contract—he is due $33.5 million over the next two years—made trading him unrealistic, but Chicago could save a little cash by releasing him after the 2015 season and could recoup as much as $14 million if it shows Cutler a pink slip once the '16 campaign wraps.
Two seasons ago, when Marc Trestman took over as coach, Chicago narrowly missed out on the playoffs despite being shackled with a 30th-ranked defense. If this year's D can be even halfway decent in its first season under Fox and new coordinator Vic Fangio, the offense has enough, on paper, to fuel another playoff run. Between Forte, Royal, Jeffery, White (possibly) and tight end Martellus Bennett, the Bears certainly possess their share of playmakers. The offensive line needs to be more effective than it was last season, but Gase's new scheme should play to its strengths.
Fair or not, then, the onus will fall back on Cutler. He has teased teammates, fans and coaches alike with his skills, only to spend each summer answering questions about his failures.
Gase's arrival may signal the last—and best—chance Cutler has.
SI'S PREDICTION: 3--13
ANDY BENOIT ON THE BEARS' SCHEME SWITCH
For the past 16 years the Bears have run a classic Cover Two--based zone defense. Every personnel decision was made with this scheme in mind. But after last season it was finally time for a change. Without Pro Bowlers such as Brian Urlacher (retired), Lance Briggs (missed eight games) and Peanut Tillman (missed 14 games), Chicago's vanilla scheme went stale. New Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is a 3--4 acolyte. And though new coach John Fox, himself a former defensive coordinator, has run 4--3 schemes for much of his career, he figures to cede significant defensive say to Fangio. Expect a tough transition this first year. Only three current Bears are truly fits for the roles Fangio desires: intriguing sophomore CB Kyle Fuller (above) and free-agent signees Antrel Rolle (safety) and Pernell McPhee (a hybrid front-seven player). Aside from a role player here and there, the rest of the defensive roster is likely to be turned over before long. In the meantime the Bears, for the first time in ages, will employ a high volume of new two-gap concepts on first and second downs, plus designer blitzes on third downs, as Fangio tries to scheme his way through a season of change.