When Aaron Kromer arrived as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at the outset of the 2013 offseason, he raised more than a few eyebrows when he set out the No. 1 priority on his watch.
It wasn’t the fixing of the maligned offensive line. It was the fixing of Jay Cutler, specifically “getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hands on time.”
That was accomplished in large part because Cutler responded to the coaching of Kromer, coach Marc Trestman and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh in ways he seldom appeared to in his fractious times with Ron Turner, Mike Martz and Mike Tice.
Cutler, who had never missed a game through his two-plus seasons in Denver and 2009 with Turner, suddenly was under assault.
“I was straight until I really got here for awhile and it was a hit parade back there,” Cutler said. “It takes its toll from time to time.”
The hard part is determining cause and effect, whether the quarterback is getting sacked because of poor blocking, or the blocking is breaking down because the quarterback is holding the ball too long. Cutler was among the league leaders in time holding the ball in the pocket prior to last season.
The problem with attributing the “hit parade” so heavily to the offensive line lay in situations such as the 2009 loss in San Francisco where Cutler threw five interceptions and was sacked zero times.
[MORE BEARS: Cutler embracing advice]
So the incoming Bears coaches evaluated Cutler last year, then had a sit-down with him in which they outlined the basics of what they saw every good quarterback doing. Some weren’t the way he was used to operating but he embraced them, including Kromer’s directive to get the ball away on time, which is part of why Peyton Manning’s offensive lines are mysteriously good at pass protection every single season.
“Where in the past [Cutler] may have been willing to hold onto the ball for an extra hitch, wait for someone to come open, we now tell him, ‘get off of it, go to the next guy,’” Cavanaugh said. “If you are waiting on a guy that may come open if he doesn’t, you’re late to the next guy.
“We just taught a real rhythmic passing game that I think Jay saw the benefit in: ‘I can get more completions. I’m not waiting on someone that might come open and I get the ball out of my hand and I get hit less.”
Between protecting Cutler and Josh McCown the Bears’ offensive line ranked in the top 10 in sacks per pass play. Not surprisingly, Cutler had his best sack rate since coming to Chicago as he complied with the on-time directive.
Last season, even with his injury issues, Cutler’s sack rate began to approach the 1-per-23.9-att. that he averaged under Mike Shanahan in Denver.
“It’s two-fold,” Cutler said on Tuesday. “Once you start getting hit a lot you start taking eyes off the secondary, you lose a lot of trust up front and it gets difficult to play quarterback that way. You look across the league and you see guys that are getting hit a lot, they’re probably not going to be doing very well.
“The guys who stay pretty clean are in offenses year-in and year-out and get a feel for the guys, those guys are going to be the ones who are in the top of the league every year. So we’ll see how it goes. I think ‘Tres’ does a great job of emphasizing getting rid of the ball; protection first, and that’s how everything is designed here.”