Cutler emerging as unquestioned Bears leader

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Cutler emerging as unquestioned Bears leader

Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011Posted: 12:10 a.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com Bears Insider Follow @CSNMoonMullin
Roy Williams had not seen many passes like that one in Tennessee.

It was only preseason, or maybe because it was preseason, and Williams cut right, through the Titans defense but drawing a crowd. Williams could see Jay Cutler through the moving figures, back upfield in the pocket.

Suddenly there was the ball. It went through the startled Williams hands, but not before leaving an impression in its wake. Williams had played with Tony Romo in Dallas, so he was no stranger to footballs traveling at high speeds.

This was something different.

Thinking about that throw, I asked him the other day, Whats your most impressive throw, ever? Williams said, slowly shaking his head. He said, Ive had a bunch of those.

Thats a guy you want to play for, a guy you know is going to have your back and Ive got his.

That was not a sentiment every teammate might have expressed over Cutlers career. But as he has said on so many occasions over the past two years, it is the only one that matters to Cutler.

Therein lies the emergence of a leader.

Dealing with changes

Cutlers public demeanor has appeared more affable and relaxed since the early days of training camp. He has seemed more comfortable with questions and dispensing humor without the air of distance he projected in the past.

That in itself is a perceivable change for someone who has been through many in a short time.

Since arriving via trade from Denver in 2009, Cutler has been through two coordinators, two centers, a nine-sack first half and concussion (at New York last season) and broken-off engagement (his call) with reality star Kristin Cavallari. He has dealt with the onset of diabetes in 2007 that requires daily insulin injections and also saw the trade of a friend and key receiver (tight end Greg Olsen, to Carolina and new contract).

I love Greg, Cutler said. And what we brought to us. But thats where it is. Hes got a great deal of money, to go play for a real good team. Hes a great guy, and a terrific football player.

He has gone through a physical makeover, from 233 pounds a year ago to a noticeably thinner 220 now. Part of the reason is a touch of maturity and an indication that he can read a calendar as well as a defense.

My diet was different, just standard stuff, Cutler said. Im getting a little older, so I got to get in a little better shape.

I have not been this lean. I can tell the difference in my footwork and just my ability to get up in the pocket. You know, I don't really get as tired as much throughout camp because I'm not carrying around all that weight. Whether it's good or bad, we'll wait to see.

The attack

Next to all of that, a little verbal abuse from players around the league was petty cash.

Cutler was the target of derision from fellow players after he left the NFC Championship in January after one series in the third quarter. The reason: a knee injury that critics doubted. Never mind that it was later diagnosed as a Grade II torn left medial collateral ligament, or that Cutler took an injection at halftime, came out in the second half and tried to play before being shut down after three unsuccessful plays.

Center Olin Kreutz, the Bears enforcer and acknowledged team tough guy, said after the game, His knee was shaking just standing there in the huddle. Dont try telling me he wasnt hurt.

Indeed, a handful of teammates privately grumbled about the Cutler injury, possibly a reflection of the fact that Cutler was in the throes of a dismal performance when he was injured. But the avalanche of criticism from outsiders appeared to bring the team together around their embattled quarterback.

When a questioner at the NFL scouting combine last February raised a question about Cutlers toughness, coach Lovie Smiths terse, testy response abruptly ended that line of inquiry.
Expectations not his friend

The expectations of Cutler have been huge since the start of his NFL career. They became substantially higher in a Bears town than even in Denver, where he had been drafted with the hope that he would return the Broncos to the glories of the John Elway days. That didnt happen.

The Bears took matters to a different level in 2009 when they invested two No. 1 draft choices in a trade for what they saw as their franchise quarterback. Cutler had reached a Pro Bowl, was in the prime of his career and was intended to sweep away years of frustrating quarterback searches.

Other Bears quarterbacks in the past have been fighting for jobs, said former Bears wide receiver Rashied Davis, now with the Detroit Lions. They've been competing and haven't had as much control as maybe Jay does as a franchise quarterback.

He came in as the Pro Bowl quarterback, the franchise. He was 'Jay Cutler, Pro Bowl quarterback' before he came here and had already proved his place in the league. It's different.

The Broncos had spent a No. 1 pick for Cutler. The Bears had parted with two, plus Kyle Orton and a third-round pick. Then, less than two months into his first Chicago season, they gave him a contract extension worth 30 million. For a Bears town, that makes him more than just another football player.

Jay is the guy, Davis said, that the city of Chicago is leaning on."

Lean on me?

More important, he is also becoming the guy more than just the huddle is leaning on.

Cutler was again voted a co-captain on offense. And he has comported himself like one.

When Johnny Knox had his starting job given to Williams during training camp, Cutler sought Knox out to talk and gauge the feelings of the young receiver.

During the preseason and training camp, backup quarterback Caleb Hanie struggled with interceptions to the point of suffering a brief demotion behind little-used rookie Nathan Enderle. It was Cutler, no stranger to interception problems himself, again talking to Hanie, wanting to keep a slump in play from becoming something more.

When a mistake is made in a receivers route in practice, Cutler will look first to receivers coach Darryl Drake. From the eye contact, its decided whether Drake or Cutler will say what needs to be said to the offending wideout.

Cutler can fix a player with The Look but rarely will there be hectoring or a rant. It is a style that is consistent with the demeanors of fellow captains Roberto Garza, Patrick Mannelly, Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher, the other leaders of the team.

Weve never had a rah-rah guy since Ive been here, Urlacher said. I hate those guys, always yapping, running their mouths.

He has a new center in Garza, a good friend of Kreutzs but who projects a far different, calmer persona. Garza is the other captain on offense and projects a different style of leadership himself.

Cutler is not the type to demand attention if he cannot command it.

Leadership is kind of a funny thing, said offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Everyone has a different version of what it is. I think confidence, and how you approach your craft, says everything about it, and your ability to exude that in the huddle and how youre playing. Thats where he is right now.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Bears looking beyond individual players in third preseason game

Bears looking beyond individual players in third preseason game

“The all-important third preseason game… .”

Or is it?

The short answer is yes, because “it'll be the most extended play of the starters we have available will play,” said coach John Fox.

In fact, it has been said that before training camps ever begin, upwards of 45 roster spots are pretty well decided. And the combination of camp time and first two preseason games have taken care of perhaps all but the finest of tunings of roster decisions.

“You know we've got some guys that we've evaluated on a lot of football plays before the third preseason game,” Fox said, “so albeit it is important, we have a pretty good idea about some of our players.”

[MORE: Jay Cutler, Dowell Loggains face deepest test yet in Bears' third preseason game]

So while individual players are tasked with taking steps up in their development – wide receiver Kevin White with just two catches so far, for instance – the focus now shifts from predominantly player evaluation to broader questions of how well whole units are performing together. Each unit has its own challenges in a preseason that is still waiting for the Bears’ first win:

Next step for offense

The shutout at the hands of the Denver Broncos in Game 1 was jolting, preseason or not. The 11 points by the offense in New England was promising.

Now what?

The offensive production last season was disappointing but yet respectable because of the unmatched parts Cutler needed to work with because of injuries at receiver besides losing No. 1 tailback Matt Forte for three full games and most of a fourth. Scoring: 23rd. Rushing yards: 11th. Plus Cutler’s career-best passer composite: 92.3.

That won’t be good enough in 2016. Regardless of the myriad changes ranging from coordinator on through running back, tight end and the offensive line, Cutler himself set the bar by pre-emptively ruling out possible excuses.

“Solely just Year 1 to Year 2,” Cutler said. “I think there’s going to be less thinking. I think we have a better idea of what we like in the offense; what we don’t like in the offense; where we need to improve; what we need to add. I think personnel-wise we’re getting better and better.”

The offense won’t put its entire playbook on display against the Chiefs. But “need to improve” is the mantra, and that extends through the running-back “committee,” the offensive line regardless of who’s on the field, and the receivers from White in his biggest dose of playing time to tight ends tasked with replacing Martellus Bennett as well as contributing to a run game that forms the foundation of the offense.

Defensive dominance, if you please

Upgrading the defense was the foremost priority of the 2016 offseason, beginning with inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan and lineman Akiem Hicks, and on into the draft when the Bears invested seven of their nine draft picks, including two of the first three, on that side of the football.

“I think we have a chance to be a better defense than we were last year, but the proof will be in the pudding,” coordinator Vic Fangio is on record saying. “Practice is the quiz; the games are the final exam. So until we start playing and see exactly what we’ve got, that will determine the true answer to that question. But I think we have a chance to be better.”

The first two preseason games involved the No. 1 defense but not to the degree that Game 3 will. And as of now, no starting quarterback has been sacked by a Bear, and no defensive starter has a sack through two games, although rotation’ers Sam Acho, Jonathan Bullard, Leonard Floyd and Cornelius Washington have at least a partial sack.

The Kansas City offense was No. 3 in rushing average, sixth in rushing yards per game and ninth in points per game last season. The Bears have yet to make a definitive statement that they are close to an elite defense, which is a prerequisite to moving significantly past the 6-10 record in 2015.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

How “special” are ‘teams?

The Bears were a respectable 12th in the special-teams ranking of Dallas Morning News legend Rick Gosselin, a mix of 22 categories that produces a meaningful evaluation of special teams. But the Broncos’ average starting position was their 32, vs. the Bears’ at the Chicago 21. Based on 12 possessions, that loosely translates into 132 field-position yards the Broncos had on the Bears.

The Patriots’ average start was the New England 32; the Bears’ was their own 24, meaning eight yards average on 10 possessions. However, one New England possession started at the Chicago 15 because of a Brian Hoyer interception, skewing the overall.

Meaning: The Bears improved from Week 1 to Week 2 in gaining field position. That needs to develop into a trend that benefits both the offensive and defensive units.

The overall goal is clear: “Improve from Week 2 to Week 3,” Fox said. “We’re here. It’s not a season; they call it preseason for reasons; it’s to evaluate, put your players in positions, take a look at players.”

Jay Cutler, Dowell Loggains face deepest test yet in Bears' third preseason game

Jay Cutler, Dowell Loggains face deepest test yet in Bears' third preseason game

Third preseason games come with added significance simply because it is the one practice game in which the starters play the closest to a full game prior to the start of the regular season. But for the Bears, Saturday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs is potentially far more important for another reason.

The Kansas City game looms as something of a new tipping point in the one relationship that must function above all others for immediate success of the franchise:

The working relationship/bond between offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and quarterback Jay Cutler.

The two-plus quarters that Cutler is expected to play will be the longest yet trial by fire for his trust in Loggains. The latter has been a coordinator previously in his career, but with less time and success in the position that most of Cutler’s previous list of coordinators.

And few of those relationships survived, let alone flourished once Cutler lost faith or belief in their messages, whether under an avalanche of sacks, poor play selection or design, or whatever.

Cutler put up the best season of his eight-year career in 2015 with Loggains as his position coach. Adam Gase was the coordinator, Gase came in with credibility from having worked with Peyton Manning in Denver. The credibility traced to not necessarily what Gase might have taught Manning, but rather because of what Gase undoubtedly LEARNED from Manning.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Saturday’s test will be far short of the ones the regular season holds, when Loggains’ offense has been scouted and schemed for. But after a stretch of “quizzes” for Cutler-Loggains, this is a “test.”

Buy-in with Loggains?

Loggains has traction with Cutler – for now. Cutler was consistent in his compliments of Loggains last year, but it was Gase ultimately in his ear on game days. Indeed, the entire offense believed in Gase: “When I’m in the huddle…and we get a play call,” offensive lineman Kyle Long said at the time, “there’s never a time where we look at each other and think, ‘Oh [darn].’”

The NFL reality is that Loggains, who has stressed an even stronger commitment to running the football (Long and associates love that), has to earn, or re-earn that gut-level trust.

Most of all, from Cutler.

The lurching start to the preseason – the Bears’ 22-0 home loss to Denver, in which the offense with Cutler netted 13 yards in 10 plays, two of them ending in sacks of Cutler – was test No. 1. The Cutler-Loggains relationship appeared to emerge intact.

“We talked,” Cutler said. “We talked a lot about that game. I think the major point for us was, ‘Let’s not panic. Let’s not hit the fire alarm and put guys in a panic.’

“Because it was the first preseason game and we watched the film and a lot of the stuff that went wrong was because of mistakes… . So it was a matter of just kind of cleaning that stuff up and just going back to work. Which I thought we did a really good job of offensively [at New England]. Hopefully we can do that this week, too.”

Tough warm-ups

NFL schedule-makers did Loggains and the Bears no favors. Their first three preseason opponents – Denver, New England, Kansas City – were all top-10 run defenses. Meaning: The Bears are working to establish Loggains’ run-based offense right into the teeth of three of the NFL’s best at stopping that.

[RELATED: Rookie class making much-needed impact from Bears]

The Bears want to run. But just consider: What if they can’t run against a monster Chiefs front that includes Jaye Howard and Dontari Poe and which held the Bears to 3.3 yards per carry, tied for their second-lowest of 2015, in their meeting last season?

Which then tasks Loggains with getting the offense to the right solutions, and those traditionally have not been – and should not be – solely found in Cutler’s right arm. The Bears streamlined and simplified Cutler’s decision-making last year, by design, and it was the right strategy, minimizing a Cutler weakness.

But now Loggains is front-and-center in those decisions. And Cutler has never appeared to suffer from an excess of patience through his career, even the new, more mature Cutler.

And not only WHAT Loggains tells Cutler, but also HOW he tells him, will matter. Gase was generally quiet; that worked. Loggains is very expressive, which Cutler said he now appreciates.

“He sets the tone every day,” Cutler said. “There’s never a gray area. He sets the tone, sets the standard, and if you don’t live up to that, meet those expectations, he’s going to be vocal, he’s going to let you know.

“As a player, that’s all you can ask for: A coach telling you how to do it, and when you don’t do it, you expect him to push you and help you achieve those goals.”

Preseason game No. 3 will be the biggest test yet for the synchronicity that is there now but needs to stand up to inevitable failures.

Rookie class making much-needed impact for Bears

Rookie class making much-needed impact for Bears

Preseason games are about evaluations as well as fusing together the component parts of offense, defense and special teams. But for a handful of Bears, a little more is at stake, for the franchise itself, not just for themselves.

The foundation of any franchise ultimately is the draft, and the Bears are seeing at least preliminary impact from key members of this draft class, and not simply down in the lower third of the projected roster. Why that becomes particularly relevant this weekend is that preseason game No. 3 is when starters and key rotational players, and the top picks in this year’s draft are in fact already firmly ensconced in roles at the top of the depth charts.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Among the most significant:

No. 1 - OLB Leonard Floyd

The No. 9-overall pick has not dominated through two games but insiders told CSNChicago.com that Floyd has not only played the run very well, but also delivered impact pass rushes even if only netting him a half-sack on stat sheets. Floyd has played 68 of opponents’ 126 presesaon snaps already and is a critical part of the current edge rotation with Sam Acho, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young as well of the future Bears defenses.

Floyd has missed practice time with three separate issues but “we've been very, very pleased with his progress,” coach John Fox said, an extra “very” always being noteworthy.

No. 2 - LG Cody Whitehair

After a brief flirtation with him replacing injured Hroniss Grasu at center, Whitehair has resumed his upward-trending at left guard. He has been the starter there since the opening of training camp, given an opportunity with an injury to Ted Larsen, and Whitehair has never given the job up.

“He’s done well,” said quarterback Jay Cutler. “He’s a smart kid. He’s quiet, he kind of fits in with that group and he’s doing exactly what we ask him to do. He’s really talented. You can see some stuff he does, the way he passes things off, it comes natural to him.”

No. 3 - DE Jonathan Bullard

Bullard has been given significant playing time (71 of opponents’ 126 snaps) and has produced four tackles, one for loss, and a half sack. He is part of a rotation with Mitch Unrein primarily and has demonstrated starter-grade impact already. “Our expectations are big,” said Fox. “My experience has been, you don’t expect much, you don’t get much. I think he’s lived up to expectations so far.”

No. 4’s - S Deon Bush/CB Deiondre’ Hall

The Bears selected safety Deon Bush three picks ahead of Hall in the fourth round; Bush did play 44 snaps and make two solo tackles against New England but has been out with an injury this week. 

Hall tied for team high with five tackles vs. Denver, plus two pass breakups, and followed that with two tackles at New England as he took over when starter Jacoby Glenn went out with a concussion.

“[Hall] has improved,” Fox said. “When you bring in rookies you don’t really know. You get them out there, they play. He’s played a lot. He’s actually shown up pretty good. We’ll see where that takes us.”

No. 5 - RB Jordan Howard

Howard was given the ball 11 times during his 31 snaps at New England and netted 46 yards along with rave reviews from scouts. His workload may diminish against Kansas City with Ka’Deem Carey back from injury and Jeremy Langford and Jaquizz Rodgers doing heavy time with the No. 1 offense. But he has already made a strong impression.

“Howard, the rookie, has kind of followed along, picked it up as he goes,” Cutler said. “So with those four guys, you’ve got a lot of options.”

Safety DeAndre Houston-Carson (No. 6) and wideout Daniel Braverman (No. 7) have played but their main work will come next Thursday in the game four at Cleveland.