Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz looks on at his team before a preseason NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders in Chicago. / Nam Y. Huh/AP
Hiring Mike Martz was anything but a Lovie Smith-type move.
From 2004 to 2009, the Chicago Bears’ coach ran conservative offenses to complement his defense-first philosophy. But when he hired Martz on Feb. 1, Smith handed his offense to maybe the most pass-oriented coach working in the NFL today, and there are multiple reasons to question whether the move was wise.
For starters, there’s Martz’s reputation, not only for a bright offensive mind but also for a healthy ego and sometimes obstinate personality. Would their time together with the St. Louis Rams — Smith was defensive coordinator for head coach Martz from 2001 to 2003 — help defuse any issues there?
More importantly, how would Martz and Jay Cutler mesh? Would the strong-willed coach and untamed quarterback butt heads, especially after Martz, while working as an analyst for the NFL Network early last year, criticized the quarterback’s poor decision-making ? Could Martz convince Cutler to play smarter (26 interceptions last season, 44 over the last two years) and cut back on those game-costing red-zone picks (he threw six in 2009)?
Among the skeptics are Trent Dilfer, the former 14-year NFL quarterback and current analyst for ESPN. In a conference call with reporters two weeks ago, he predicted “flashes of brilliance” but overall panned the match of a coach who likes to throw down field with a quarterback who doesn’t take interceptions to heart.
“I don’t want this to sound harsh,” Dilfer said, “I just see this giant train wreck coming with him and Martz being paired together.”
It will take a lot more than two games to judge, but Cutler and Martz are off to a promising start.
The Bears were lucky to get out of their opener with a win over Detroit, saved by the rules quirk that turned Calvin Johnson’s likely game-winning touchdown catch into an incompletion. Even though Chicago scored only 19 points, it totaled 463 yards of offense, including Cutler’s 362 yards passing.
Then last week in a win at Dallas, Cutler had maybe his best performance in 18 games with the Bears (136.7 passer rating). In two games, he’s thrown five touchdown passes and one interception and has a passer rating of 121.2.
“Everything I’ve heard is that Cutler absolutely loves him,” said an NFC scout who’s watched tape of both of Chicago’s games this season. “He loves the scheme, he loves the ability to throw the football. They weathered the storm in the game the other day — the Cowboys blitzed them the first two series, you thought there were going to be 20 sacks, but they only got him one time. They hit him a bunch, but it seems like a pretty good fit because Cutler likes to throw the football.”
Martz wasn’t close to the Bears’ first choice for coordinator after Smith fired Ron Turner in the offseason, but the Bears’ search floundered because Smith and General Manager Jerry Angelo probably face a playoffs-or-else 2010. Candidates proved reluctant to leave their jobs or found other offers more attractive because of the insecurity of going to Chicago.
The Bears’ top choice was former USC and Denver Broncos quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, son of former Packers defensive coordinator Jim Bates. But he went with Pete Carroll, his former boss at USC, to coordinate the Seattle Seahawks’ offense.
Tom Clements, the Packers’ quarterbacks coach, was next, but coach Mike McCarthy denied permission to interview.
Four other candidates then either turned down the job or the chance to interview: Ken Zampese, quarterbacks coach for the Cincinnati Bengals; Rod Chudzinski, tight ends and assistant head coach for the San Diego Chargers; Frank Cignetti, offensive coordinator for the University of Pittsburgh; and Kevin Rogers, quarterbacks coach for the Minnesota Vikings.
The Bears were unwilling to wait until after the Super Bowl to interview another candidate, New Orleans tight ends coach Terry Malone. And another possibility, Chan Gailey, became Buffalo’s head coach.
So, Angelo and Smith turned to Martz, who made his name orchestrating one of the most talented and prolific offenses in NFL history with the St. Louis Rams. Martz was offensive coordinator when the Rams won the Super Bowl in the 1999 season and was head coach from 2000 to 2005. The 2000 Rams hold the NFL record for most yards gained in a season (7,075).
Martz’s reputation diminished in his two stops as offensive coordinator thereafter, Detroit and San Francisco. Some coaches and scouts think defenses began catching up with him, others say his sometimes overbearing personality was a problem. He was fired from both jobs, in Detroit by Rod Marinelli, who coincidentally now is Chicago’s defensive coordinator, and in San Francisco when Mike Singletary became the head coach in 2009.
But a review of those jobs cuts both ways, because Martz also had inferior talent, especially at quarterback, yet produced decent results.
With Martz running Detroit’s offense in 2006 and ’07, journeyman Jon Kitna threw for 8,276 yards, which was fourth most in the NFL over those seasons behind only Drew Brees (8,841 yards), Peyton Manning (8,437 yards) and Tom Brady (8,348 yards). The Lions were only 10-22 in those years, but they went 0-16 the season after he was fired.
In his one year in San Francisco, 2008, stop-gap quarterbacks Shaun Hill and J.T. O’Sullivan ran an offense that ranked No. 13 in the NFL in passing yards, up from No. 32 in 2007.
Martz brings to the previously conservative Bears a distinctive offensive style descendant of Air Coryell, the system developed by Don Coryell when he coached San Diego State, the St. Louis Cardinals (1973-77) and San Diego Chargers (1978-86).
As described in detail in the new book “Blood, Sweat and Chalk” by Tim Layden, Coryell’s system remains highly influential in today’s NFL. Its major features are a 1-through-9 tree-route numbering system that many teams use today (as opposed to clubs that run the West Coast offense and use words to describe their routes); the regular use of three- and four-receiver sets that emphasize creating space between receivers, not only to spread defenses the width of the field but also vertically with routes of deep, medium and short distances on all play calls; a quarterback read progression that goes from deeper to shorter routes, rather then side to side, or short to long; precisely timed routes where the quarterback throws to an open spot; and an aggressive mind-set to attack deep and throw regardless of the situation.
The system passed to Coryell’s assistants, including longtime NFL offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese and former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who both worked for Coryell at San Diego State and later with the Chargers. Zampese later married Coryell’s passing game with John Robinson’s USC run game when they worked together with the Los Angeles Rams; Gibbs added the University of Nebraska’s counter-run scheme to Coryell’s passing game with the Redskins.
Martz cut his NFL coaching teeth on Coryell’s offense as a rookie assistant for Zampese with the Rams in 1992 and coached quarterbacks for Gibbs in Washington in 1997 and ’98.
Martz probably has stayed more true to Air Coryell than the others. Among the trademarks of Martz’s offense are his prolific passing and the stress he puts on his quarterback, who has to be highly intelligent and able to withstand more physical punishment than in other schemes.
“He certainly has that (Coryell) mentality,” said Dom Capers, the Packers’ defensive coordinator. “That’s why you see all those big-yardage games and points. He keeps his foot on the gas.”
Martz doesn’t have the receiving talent in Chicago that he did in St. Louis, where Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce were first- and second-round picks, respectively. But he has the pure speed he covets for stretching the field with Johnny Knox and Devin Hester — Knox ran the 40-yard dash in 4.34 seconds at the NFL scouting combine in 2009, and Hester ran 4.27 seconds on campus in ’06 after running 4.41 seconds at the combine.
But because of the down-field emphasis and long-to-short progression reads, Martz’s quarterbacks hold the ball a little longer than in other offenses, and thus get beaten up by excessive hits. Also, as the zone blitz has become more prominent beginning in the early ’90s, most offensive coaches have looked for ways to keep in extra blockers to protect their quarterback. Martz went the other way and prefers sending out as many receivers as he can in hopes of striking big.
But that requires a quarterback to stand in and take a hit, which has been one of the biggest complaints about Martz, that his quarterbacks get too beat up. In Detroit and then San Francisco, his offenses led the league in sacks allowed all three years. In St. Louis, Marc Bulger was sacked 116 times in 44 starts under Martz, which works out to an average of 42 sacks over a 16-game season. Bulger’s career was derailed by a series of shoulder injuries under Martz and then head injuries thereafter.
Last week, though, there was at least a hint that Martz is changing his thinking, perhaps with some influence from Mike Tice, the Bears’ new offensive line coach. Dallas blitzed Cutler extensively early in that game, and Martz went to more three-step drops and quicker throws. One of those plays was a hot read to tight end Greg Olsen, who turned the short completion into a 39-yard touchdown. Cutler was sacked only once.
“They obviously shortened up their steps with the more controlled passing game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said this week.
That’s one thing you never would have heard about a Mike Martz offense a couple years ago.
Pete Dougherty covers the Packers for the Press-Gazette. E-mail him at email@example.com.