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 establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Eric Kush was in some pain after the Bears win over the San Francisco 49ers. But it was a “good” pain, particularly since part of it was inflicted by a teammate.

The teammate was running back Jordan Howard, and the Bears left guard was learning along with his linemates that when Howard is coming, “he’s a-comin’,” Kush said.

“Oh man, sometimes you’re, ‘[groan-groan-groan], and he’ll hit you right in the back, you fall and try to take your guy down with you and stick him in the snow so you’re not the only one getting soaking wet and cold. But Jordan’s a lot fun and we try to kick some butt for him.”

The rookie running back has become more than simply a draft nugget from the fifth round of this year’s draft. Howard has established himself as an integral part of a winning formula of complimentary football, the concept long favored by John Fox, Lovie Smith and coaches who operate from the foundation of a premier running game, impact defense and solid special teams.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

The Bears’ three wins have come this season in the only games in which Howard has been given 20-plus carries: 23 vs. Detroit, 26 vs. Minnesota, 32 vs. San Francisco. Add to those the 3 pass receptions against the Lions and the 4 against the Vikings and the true centerpiece of the 2016 Bears offense is more than a little apparent.

For obvious reasons beyond simply the rushing numbers.

“Especially pass protection,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “I think he's taken a big jump that way. When you're young in this league, those are the things that can get grey for you. You run the football, he's obviously a talented player there, but in pass pro, he's made his biggest growth.”

As a corollary to Howard, San Francisco was only the second game this season in which the Bears called fewer than 30 pass plays (the only other time was at Green Bay, when the Bears only ran a total of 45 plays, 27 of them pass plays). In that respect, the snow was viewed as an ally by some in the locker room who have been unhappy at the run:pass balance, which was just 36-percent-run coming into the 49ers game.

“It was one of these games where, with the weather, we couldn’t pass the ball like we normally do —  30 times — so we had to keep it on the ground,” said one member of the offense.

Howard’s breakout game as an NFL ball carrier came against the Lions (23 carries, 111 rushing yards, 3 receptions). The Bears, looking for a breakout of their own in the form of a first two-game win streak in more than a year, are expected to keep it simple — and in Howard’s hands.

“I always expected a lot out of myself,” Howard said. “I didn’t really think that things would happen maybe this soon or this fast. I’m definitely grateful for it.”

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

The adage “play the man, not the board” seems somehow appropriate for what the Bears are doing to prepare for the Detroit Lions behind quarterback Matt Barkley.

“The man” is Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, and the Bears have been scouting him as well as his defenses, beyond just Bears games, beyond this season and last, taking in his 2014 Detroit season when Austin prepared defenses for Jay Cutler and Jimmy Clausen.

How did Austin scheme for rookie Carson Wentz when the Lions played (and beat) the Philadelphia Eagles? How did he structure is defense to stop a rookie Teddy Bridgewater when Detroit played Minnesota? (Not very well, apparently, since the Vikings won both games and scored 54 points combined in the two games).

While the John Fox Bears staff went against Austin’s Lions defense twice last year, Cutler was the Bears quarterback. When the Bears beat Austin and the Lions two months ago, it was with Brian Hoyer.

Now the Bears quarterback is Matt Barkley, who has fewer NFL games played (seven) than Cutler has NFL seasons (11), Hoyer (eight), too, for that matter.

“Different defensive coordinators attack young quarterbacks differently,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “Some guys blitz, some guys play a bunch of zone. This group on defense there, they have a really good defensive coordinator, they're really smart, they do a bunch of stuff. On the back end, they run all the coverages.

“As a game, we'll have to make adjustments as the game goes and see what their plan to come out is early.”

Coaches and players may talk about how they prepare for a scheme irrespective of which opposing quarterback, running back, linebacker or whatever they will be facing. But in fact, preparations start with who is orchestrating the opponent’s offense or defense – play the man, not the board.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

A risk can be out-thinking yourself trying to anticipate what a coordinator will do. The first point, Loggains said, is to start with your own strengths.

“We definitely look at that,” Loggains said. “As you go in the league long and longer, you face these guys, you see them in crossover games. We always know how a guy attacks a rookie quarterback or attacks a young quarterback, a veteran, or, in Matt's case, a guy who hasn't played as much.”

Evaluations of Barkley’s performance will broaden, particularly now that he is on tape for defensive coordinators to scheme for and scout. And while they are watching Barkley, the Bears are watching them.