The Chicago Bears are developing a new identity with new coach John Fox and a roster in the midst of major changeover.
But one thing, the most important thing, hasn’t changed for the Green Bay Packers’ opponent in Sunday’s regular-season opener: Jay Cutler is the Bears’ quarterback.
It’s not that Cutler is a bad player. He’s an impressive talent and is 44-38 since becoming the Bears’ starter in 2009.
But he also was benched for a game late in the Bears’ disastrous 2014 season, and his play over the last six years is a big reason why he’s on his third head coach with the team. As an assistant coach in the NFL who has coached against Cutler numerous times put it Tuesday: “Strong arm, can make all the throws. He’s everything you look for in a quarterback. But there’s something missing.”
The comparison between Cutler and Jeff George has been around for years. Both had the makings of winning quarterbacks because of their prototype size and exceptional arm talent. But George went down as an abject failure (46-78 record as a starter), and Cutler has been one of the biggest teases in league history, winning just enough to keep getting chances but ultimately looking like a bust.
Yet, if the Bears are looking for a successful 2015, they might hope the comparison holds, because George had his best season at age 32, which is Cutler’s age this year.
In 1999, George was backup for Randall Cunningham with the Minnesota Vikings. Cunningham played poorly early, so George started the final 10 games, went 8-2 and led the Vikings to the playoffs.
But the chances of Cutler having a similar season don't look good. Minnesota, after all, was coming off a 15-1 season in '98 and had major weapons on offense: Randy Moss, who was a dominant force since entering the league the previous year; future Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter; and explosive Robert Smith at running back.
Cutler is not bereft of talent around him but can’t match that team. With Brandon Marshall gone, the Bears’ best receiver is Alshon Jeffrey (85 receptions, 10 touchdowns last season), who has a calf injury that leaves his availability or at least effectiveness in question for Sunday. Martellus Bennett (90 catches last year) is one of the better tight ends in the game, and Matt Forte is as complete a back as there is in the league.
But the Bears’ offensive line still is under reconstruction, and their defense is in the middle of a major makeover. After parting with linebacker Brian Urlacher two years ago they cut ties this offseason with the two remaining, dilapidated stars from the Lovie Smith era: linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman.
As for Cutler, the most tangible problem is interceptions. He twice has led the NFL in most interceptions, including last year when he tied for the lead with 18.
His 129 touchdowns to 93 interceptions in six seasons with the Bears are not numbers that go with winning. The only quarterbacks who have thrown more interceptions over that time are Eli Manning (111), who has played in 14 more games and also thrown 32 more touchdown passes, and Drew Brees (95), whose 228 touchdown passes nearly doubles Cutler.
Cutler has great confidence in his arm strength and throws too many passes into double coverage thinking he can fit them in tight windows. Though NFL scouts have told me consistently over the years that Cutler is physically tough, they also say that when under pressure he resorts to happy feet and bad throwing mechanics.
Cutler has won at times – he took the Bears to the NFC Championship Game in the 2010 season and was 10-5 in 15 starts in 2012. Going into last season, Trestman and former GM Phil Emery considered the NFL quarterback landscape grim enough that they staked their careers on Cutler with a seven-year contract that included a staggering $54 million in fully guaranteed money and averages $18.4 million a year.
Emery and Trestman were fired in the offseason.
Fox and new GM Ryan Pace reportedly tried and failed to trade up for Marcus Mariota with the No. 2 pick and were unwilling to blow up their operation and start from scratch by cutting Cutler. It would have been difficult because of his $29.5 acceleration on the salary cap, but not impossible.
So Fox and Pace are pressing ahead this season with Cutler and a new coaching staff.
Fox, 59, was 119-89 (.572 winning percentage) in his nine years as head coach at Carolina and four with Denver. Broncos GM John Elway fired him last season after Indianapolis knocked his team from the playoffs in the divisional round.
A head coach’s personality usually filters into his team’s identity, but Fox’s influence will be hard to identify. An assistant coach who has worked for and thinks highly of Fox characterized him as extremely hands off.
“As a coach you love that because he lets you do your deal,” the assistant coach said.
That means the Bears’ identity will be set more by Fox’s coordinators, Adam Gase on offense and Vic Fangio on defense.
Gase, 37, comes from the Mike Martz coaching tree. He was the Broncos’ coordinator the last two years and like Martz wants to throw all the time, which was easy with Peyton Manning as his quarterback. Gase, though, has abandoned the constant seven-step drops that were infamous for getting Martz’s quarterback beaten up.
He wants to play up-tempo with a no-huddle offense to limit defensive substitutions, and he wants to put up big numbers. This past offseason, he interviewed for three head-coaching positions.
Fangio, 57, is in his 16th season as a coordinator in the NFL, including the last four running the San Francisco 49ers’ highly talented and successful defense. When Fox was a coordinator he ran a 4-3 scheme, but Fangio has full control and is running the 3-4 zone-blitz system he learned as an assistant working for Dom Capers in Carolina.
The Bears, though, don’t have anything like the 49ers’ personnel, or for that matter like the Bears defenses that finished in the top five in fewest points allowed four times in Smith’s nine seasons as coach. Standouts such as Urlacher, Briggs and Tillman grew old and now are departed.
What’s left isn’t pretty. When I texted one scout who watched preseason video on the Bears and asked him to name their best defensive player, his answer was a question: McPhee?
That would be outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, a free agent signed this offseason to a five-year deal that included $16 million guaranteed and averages just under $8 million a season. He had 7 1/2 sacks last year for Baltimore.
So the outlook for the 2015 Bears looks bad, though you never know. Cutler is good enough to win some games, but history says he’s basically a .500 quarterback. Chances are, it ain’t happening in Chicago until the Bears move on from him.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.