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 numbers don't indicate 3-13, yet still lie

Bears numbers don't indicate 3-13, yet still lie

In doing some post-season wrapping up of my Nerdy NFL Notebook as we begin turning the page to the 2017 season, part of it involves compiling where each team finished in big-picture team offensive and defensive categories: overall ranking (total yards), as well as team rushing and passing ranks on both sides of the ball.

So if the Bears wound up ranked 15th overall in total yards gained and allowed, they should've finished…oh, 8-8, right? It adds to the deception of some of the deeper issues that focus on a lack of playmakers, which tied into their inability to make plays when it matters most. In John Fox's 9-23 start, 18 of those games have been decided by six points or less. They've won just six of those games. 

Offensively, the Bears ranked higher in total offense than five playoff teams: Kansas City (20), Detroit (21), Miami (24), New York Giants (25) and Houston (29). They wound up 17th in rushing offense, better than four teams who advanced: Seattle (25), Green Bay (26), New York Giants (29) and Detroit (30). And their 14th-ranked passing offense ranked better than the Giants (17), Kansas City (19), Dallas (23), Miami (26), Houston (29).

On the other side of the ball, they'd be even better off before allowing 109 points over the final three losses. Their total defense ranked better than Detroit (18), Green Bay (22), Kansas City (24), Atlanta (25), Oakland (26) and Miami (29). After being gashed for 558 rushing yards the last three games, they fell to 27th in the NFL against the run (better than only 30th-ranked Miami). But the seventh-ranked pass defense, despite collecting a measly eight interceptions (among only 11 turnovers), was better than nine playoff teams: Miami (15), Pittsburgh (16), Kansas City (18), Detroit (19), the Giants (23), Oakland (24), Dallas (26), Atlanta (28) and Green Bay (31).

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

What do all the hollow numbers indicate? A lack of complementary, opportunistic football, playmakers on both sides of the ball, a minus-20 turnover ratio, and a lack of quality and continuity at the quarterback position — to name a few. All of those playoff teams have more impact players (or kept more of their impact players healthy) than the Bears in 2016.

While some of the numbers aren't that bad to look at, and some even raise an eyebrow, there's still a deep climb from the most significant numbers: 3-13.

Bears' best rookies will have another learning curve

Bears' best rookies will have another learning curve

There's a sense of irony and, to a certain degree, concern about what changes the Bears' coaching staff has undergone.

Think of the best of Ryan Pace's 2016 rookie class: Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair, and Jordan Howard. They were brought along under the position group tutelage of outside linebackers coach Clint Hurtt, offensive line coach Dave Magazu and running backs coach Stan Drayton. The latter was the first to depart, shortly after the season ended, to return to the collegiate ranks on Texas' new staff.

He's been replaced with former 49ers and Bills offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins (also serving as that position coach in Detroit, Buffalo, Arizona and Kansas City). Howard certainly adapted to the NFL game well, more than anyone expected, as the NFL's second-leading rusher. One would think Drayton played a part in that.

Longtime John Fox assistant Magazu was also let go after the season despite the impressive move of second-round pick Whitehair to center the week of the season opener after Josh Sitton was signed following his release by Green Bay. Whitehair was sold as a "quick study" following his selection out of Kansas State, where he was a four-year starter at three different positions (but not center).

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Like Howard, he wound up making the All-Rookie team, but whether he remains in the middle of the line or not, he'll be getting his orders now from Jeremiah Washburn.

Rounding out the trio of All-Rookie selections was Floyd, who was brought along by Hurtt. He impressed Fox enough to be kept around from Marc Trestman's staff, and moved from defensive line to outside linebackers.

That's where he assisted Willie Young in morphing to a foreign role, yet still managing 14 sacks over the last two seasons. The Bears have yet to name a replacement for Hurtt, who's joined the Seahawks in taking over one of their strengths in recent years, the defensive line.

These three were already good, and the jewels of last year's draft. But if they're to grow and ascend into impact contributors if and when this team becomes a regular playoff contender, it'll come from new faces, new voices in their respective classrooms and position groups.