The Bears don’t have a lot of options. Because of the contract they gave Jay Cutler before last season, it looks like he’ll be their quarterback for 2015 and possibly 2016. It seems silly to ever say a team is “stuck” with a quarterback of Cutler’s talent level, but he has regressed so much in the last year that this is the sentiment throughout Chicago as well as the rest of the general football world. Still, it’s tough to find 20 quarterbacks in the NFL that are better than Cutler. It really could be worse for the Bears. So with all of that being said, how do new head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase fix the quarterback they appear to be stuck with? And can he even be fixed in the first place?
At the beginning of 2013, it seemed like Cutler was on his way to taking the next step as a quarterback. This was his first year in Marc Trestman’s quarterback-friendly system, and it initially appeared as though Trestman had worked some magic. Cutler wasn’t throwing off his back foot nearly as much. He was stepping into his throws, which improved his accuracy and consistency. Through his first 6 games, Cutler was completing 65.9% of his passes for 7.51 yards per attempt with 12 TD’s, 6 INT’s and a 95.2 rating. He really had never, or at very least rarely, played better.
Then, against the Redskins in the 7th game of the season, he hurt his groin. It was a serious injury from which he tried to come back too early, and this forced him to miss even more time. He finally came back again at the end of the season, but wasn’t quite the same.
Then, in 2014, he regressed completely. Cutler started forcing more passes and making terrible decisions again. He reverted back to throwing off his back foot unnecessarily. The play below is a perfect example. Here, Cutler had wide receiver Alshon Jeffery wide open for what should have been a huge play if not a touchdown. As you can see Jeffery had beaten his man, and there was no safety help over the top.
Cutler had plenty of room to step into his throw.
Instead, he waited a beat, then lofted up a soft pass off of his back foot.
A closer look shows that his front foot was actually behind his plant foot when he released the ball.
The underthrown pass gave the deep middle safety time to get to Jeffery and make a play on the ball.
The result was an incomplete pass. It looked like Cutler had made a bad read and thrown into double coverage. He didn’t though. He was just late with the throw and sloppy with his mechanics.
Cutler’s footwork was atrocious on this play and in general throughout 2014. Too often, when his first receiver wasn’t open, he would scan the field without moving his feet along with his eyes. This prevented him from being ready to throw the moment he found an open receiver. He’d either throw off his back foot or with his feet in awkward positions, and this left him floating more passes inaccurately.
Cutler’s decision-making was equally as terrible. His failure to manage the situations of the game has always been his biggest issue. Take the below play for instance. Here, the Bears had a 3rd-and-1 early in the game. The defense was playing man coverage, and Cutler had a wide-open receiver right in front of him in the middle of the field. Hit it, and the Bears would keep the ball.
But Cutler didn’t hit it. Instead, he threw it 50 yards downfield into tight coverage. Why not? Long passes are awesome.
Unfortunately, they’re also low-percentage throws. This one here was incomplete. 4th down. Time to punt the ball the way. It’s tough to score when you’re not on the field.
These are the hidden small plays throughout a game that separate the great quarterbacks from the mediocre ones. It’s also this type of terrible quarterbacking that got him benched in favor of Jimmy Clausen…Jimmy Clausen, folks!
So where do the Bears go from here with Cutler? What can they do with his amazing arm talent? What can they do to maximize what he does well and minimize his deficiencies?
First off, they need to eradicate the damage that Cutler can do to an offense. He turned the ball over more than any other quarterback in the NFL a year ago, and this wasn’t really anomaly for his career. So how do they keep this from happening again in 2015?
It starts with the footwork. Hopefully, Adam Gase feels like he has free reign to tell Cutler how it is. Cutler is not in a position to refuse any coaching. He’s been benched already before, and maybe it will get through to him that he can be benched again. The footwork is half the problem for Cutler, and if he doesn’t fix it, the rest doesn’t matter.
The next step will be to minimize Cutler’s ability to impact the game with his decision-making. There were times in 2014 when the Bears offense did run smoothly. Most often, this occurred when they mixed in various screens and simple-read pass plays. The screens generally have 1 or maybe 2 options. There were other half-field reads Cutler made where he got to ball to his receiver in the flat as soon as he was open. This kept the offense on schedule, and kept his bad side from taking over the game.
Play-action and roll-out passes can also help with this. Roll-outs give the quarterback an option to run or throw it away if nothing is there. Play-action allows him to turn his back to the defense as he’s dropping back, which negates much of the effect of disguise by a defense. Once the quarterback turns around, the reads are more defined. Play-action passes also generally have easier reading progressions for a quarterback, and this is something Cutler needs. He needs the play to clearly dictate where he should go with the ball, and then his physical talent can take over.
The Bears also need to shore up their offensive line. The one constant during Cutler’s time in Chicago has been that the O-line is a huge weakness. Cutler does not have a quick-release or good enough anticipation skills to make up for leaky pass protection. He needs time and space to push the ball downfield, so good offensive-line play is a must.
None of this will matter if Adam Gase can’t get through to Cutler, though. Throughout his career, Cutler has been coached by some of the best offensive and quarterbacking minds in football – Mike Shanahan, Mike Marts, and Marc Trestman. With the beginning of the 2013 season as the exception, Cutler hasn’t changed any of the issues that have plagued his game since he entered the league in 2006. This means that Adam Gase has his work cut out for him.
This isn’t to say that Cutler isn’t coachable. We are not in the meeting rooms or on the practice field, so we don’t know exactly how he takes to different styles of coaching. All we have is the evidence that we see on film. And that evidence shows that Jay Cutler will not be an NFL starting quarterback much longer if he doesn’t make the adjustments to his game that he should have already made earlier in his career.