Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery had his work cut out for him this offseason. He had to upgrade the offensive line, get more weapons for quarterback Jay Cutler and then find a coach who could improve Cutler's play. On paper, it appears that he's accomplished all three goals, but the question is, how will it all work out when the pads are strapped on?
It's no secret that the Bears need Cutler to step his game up. Ever since he was traded to the Windy City in 2009, he's been viewed as the franchise quarterback, a position the team hasn't had much success at. With Cutler, they received a passer with unreal arm strength, uncanny ability to throw from various platforms and one of the league's toughest players.
They also received one of the league's most frustrating players, however, and arguably one of its most inconsistent quarterbacks.
Cutler threw only 19 touchdowns and 14 costly interceptions in 15 games last season. The latter number isn't high, but many of the turnovers came at the wrong time. Part of the reason is because of his decision making and mechanics.
He tends to go flat-footed in the pocket, consequently taking more time to rotate his hips—when he actually does it—and transfer his weight. This is one of the biggest obstacles for Cutler and new head coach Marc Trestman, who has an impressive history of working with quarterbacks. The names include Jake Plummer, Rich Gannon and Steven Young, among many others.
Trestman will have to break Cutler's habit of failing to rotate his hips and step through his throws. The reason is because it affects the velocity and accuracy of his passes.
This was obvious on what should have been a routine throw off of play action against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 12.
Cutler was under center with two receivers split wide in each direction and run personnel in the backfield. The play was designed for Cutler to fake the handoff to his left and then make a quick throw on an inside breaking route to the right.
At the snap, he did a wonderful job of executing the fake to running back Matt Forte. He stuck the ball out, dipped his shoulders and then pulled it back out prior to snapping his head around to find his receiver. Then he stopped, set his feet and went to make the throw.
This is where things started to go wrong. With a wide base established and plenty of time, Cutler could have transferred his weight from his back foot to his front and found his open target just outside the seam. Instead, he chose to generate power by contorting only his upper body, a big mistake.
As a result, the pass was off the mark. It was too tall for his receiver and ended up in the hands of cornerback Antoine Winfield, who returned the ball 31 yards to the Bears 40-yard line.
In order to elevate his game, Cutler will have to break this habit and become a more patient passer. It's a tough task for him, and I have doubts that he will be able to do it. It's one that quarterbacks don't always overcome, especially when they've been doing it for so long.
Another part of the problem last season was the team's pass protection. The offensive line struggled immensely, and as a consequence, Cutler was beat up over the course of the season. By Pro Football Focus' standards, the line was fifth worst in the league, registering an appalling grade of -22.2.
They weren't able to give Cutler enough time, and there were many occasions when he threw the ball under a crumbling pocket. That exacerbated his mechanical issues and made it difficult for him to find his weapons.
That was clear in Week 14 during the second annual meeting with the Vikings.
Cutler was in a shotgun set with Forte and receiver Brandon Marshall in the slot to his left. Marshall was set to run a slant route just inside the strong-side linebacker and behind the middle linebacker, where Cutler was set to find him for a catch.
When the ball snapped, Cutler took a three-step drop and looked to the outside left receiver. That drew the strong-side linebacker to the flat and created an easier path for Marshall to run his slant route. Then Cutler looked to Marshall, who ran behind the middle linebacker, as he was ready to throw the ball.
When he went to throw it, he was faced with pressure from the interior. The Bears' right tackle failed to block the stunting defensive end and now the end was in Cutler's face. Cutler stood flat-footed, with little room to step into his throw, and launched the ball.
It sailed well over the head and outstretched arm of Marshall and straight into the hands of Vikings free safety Harrison Smith. Smith weaved past Bears skill players at the middle of the field before finding the sideline, where he ran to complete his pick-six.
Going into the 2013 season, the Bears look in better shape on paper than they were on the field last season.
They've improved the offensive line by adding left tackle Jermon Bushrod from the New Orleans Saints and left guard Matt Slauson from the New York Jets and drafting Oregon's Kyle Long, a versatile blocker who is slated to play right guard. They've also added Martellus Bennett, a tall and athletic tight end who played with the New York Giants last season.
And they've added Trestman, a trusted quarterback guru who has the ability to fix passers and mold them to his West Coast offense. Trestman will likely use quicker pass plays to get the ball out of Cutler's hands, but that will only do so much. It'll ultimately be up to Cutler to elevate his game in 2013, which he can do by taking in coaching and developing better technique.
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