Where Can the Chicago Bears Improve Most in 2013?

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Where Can the Chicago Bears Improve Most in 2013?
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The Chicago Bears are finally entering the modern frontier of football this season.

Gone is defensive-minded coach Lovie Smith, who coached the team the last nine years. The Bears missed the playoffs in five of his last six seasons.

Enter Marc Trestman, who has previously worked in the NFL for a staggering 11 different head coaches. A real nomad, Trestman has spent the last five seasons coaching the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL.

This will be Trestman’s first job as an NFL head coach, which will also make him the first offensive-minded coach in Chicago since Abe Gibron (1972-74). Hopefully this works out better, as Gibron went just 11-30-1 (.268).

Gibron had the misfortune of coaching the team in the transition period between Gale Sayers and Walter Payton. Instead, he had Bobby Douglassa quarterback who ran like he thought he was Michael Vick but threw it worse than Marcus.

While so often led by a running back, this is a Chicago offense led by a quarterback and his favorite wide receiver. Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall return as teammates for the fifth time in their careers.

The other Chicago staple missing is a signature middle linebacker. Brian Urlacher retired after 13 seasons and 180 starts for the Bears.

It’s going to be a very different feel for the Bears, but the results also have to get better. The last two seasons have seen strong starts end in disastrous finishes. Last year was especially bad, as the Bears became just the fourth team to start 7-1 and miss the playoffs.

With Cutler playing in a contract year and Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers staring at the age of 33, this is a team with some pressing issues that must be resolved.

 

What Does Chicago Do with Jay Cutler?

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Now entering his eighth season and the final year of his contract in Chicago, the 2013 season becomes the pivotal moment in Jay Cutler’s career.

He’s potentially a career season away from a huge payday that will come loaded with guaranteed money. He’s also a disaster away from leaving town, finding a third team and a fourth head coach in his career.

Oh he’ll be financially secure either way, but there will literally be millions of dollars vanishing with each interception and loss this season. The red zone has to be the “green zone” for Cutler this year.

There will be no extension before the season, as Trestman wants to see what he has in Cutler in his offense. We have seven years of seeing Cutler in the NFL, and much of what we saw in Denver in 2006-07 is still there in Chicago today.

The pretty throws from that powerful arm can mesmerize you, but the bonehead decision that follows keeps things in proper perspective. The problem is Cutler is capable of making either type of play on any given drive in a season.

I am not going to bore you with character critiques of a human being I never met, even if he does come off as a word I cannot use here.  

Instead, let’s just focus on the facts about how Cutler’s lack of career progression makes it very hard to expect the type of greatness in 2013 that deserves the amount of financial commitment required for a franchise quarterback today.

Chicago finally thought they found that franchise quarterback when they made the trade with Denver for Cutler in 2009. His Pro Bowl season in 2008 when he threw for 4,526 yards and 25 touchdowns looked like a quarterback just about to hit his prime. Combine his offensive output with a strong defense that Denver lacked and you had a Chicago team expected to do great things right away.

The honeymoon was cut short when Cutler threw four interceptions in a prime-time loss at Green Bay to start the 2009 season. For his career, he is just 1-8 against the Packers with nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

That’s a bit of a problem when you play in the NFC North.

Even in the one win, Cutler needed 18 penalties from Green Bay, a punt-return touchdown by Devin Hester and a late fumble by James Jones. It’s also the only time Cutler’s team scored 20 points in nine games against the Packers.

Cutler finished 2009 with a league-worst 26 interceptions. The defense was not as good as expected, and the Bears fell to 7-9. Even Kyle Orton, jettisoned in the Cutler trade, had a better season in Denver that year.

In 2010, the Bears did field an elite defense and incredible special teams. Cutler cut down the interceptions to 16 but was sacked 52 times. He pulled out a few games in the clutch, and Chicago won the division with an 11-5 record.

After beating Seattle, the only 7-9 playoff team ever, Cutler had a bad moment in the biggest game of his career in the NFC championship against Green Bay. Contributing just four first downs on 18 dropbacks in the game, Cutler left in the second half with a knee injury, which drew the criticism of analysts, fans and even his peers.

Cutler played his best ball in Chicago in 2011, leading the Bears to a 7-3 start, but this time a broken thumb on his throwing hand ended his season. Backup Caleb Hanie threw a few pick parades to signal the end of another season without a playoff appearance.

Last season was much more of a mediocre performance from Cutler, but the dominant defense paced the early 7-1 start. With Cutler hurt again and missing one full start, the Bears finished 10-6 and missed the playoffs after a tiebreaker with Minnesota.

Cutler’s gunslinger ways have drawn comparisons to Brett Favre, but the Jeff George comparison also isn’t too bad. Cutler’s somewhere in between those two quarterbacks.

When it comes to turnover rate, Cutler’s 4.63 percent ranks 69th all time. That’s only 23rd among active quarterbacks (minimum 1,500 attempts). Believe it or not, George (38th at 4.07 percent) beats Cutler and Favre (59th at 4.44 percent) in that stat.

We can keep it simple too. Cutler’s only thrown for more than 3,700 yards one time. He’s never had more than 27 touchdown passes in a season. He hasn’t topped 60.5 percent completions in Chicago. He’s thrown at least 14 interceptions in every full season he’s played.

In seven seasons, Cutler has never had a passer rating higher than 88.5, which actually came in his rookie season when he had only 137 attempts. Even with a flawed formula, we know the best quarterbacks often put up seasons with at least a 90.0 rating.

You can pick out the other advanced stats, whether they come from Football Outsiders (DVOA), ESPN (QBR) or Advanced NFL Stats (Win Probability Added or “WPA”), and they all point to the same thing: Cutler is the definition of a mediocre quarterback.

If you want to get advanced stats to love you, be great on third down. It will also help your team win. For his career, Cutler has been subpar on third down in every year except 2008:

An elite quarterback needs to be converting third down around 45 percent of the time. It’s not uncommon to see the best in the game get near 50 percent. Cutler has consistently been in the mid 30s with two of his last three seasons producing exactly 56 conversions in 153 attempts.

The “Avg. Distance” is the average yards needed on third down to gain a first down. There have been some long ones in Chicago the last few years, but that comes back to playing better on first and second down.

Part of Cutler’s bad stats come from sacks, which advanced stats utilize as a function of quarterback play. Many will say it’s the offensive line in Chicago that’s the problem, and Cutler is the rare case with the ammunition to support that claim.

In Denver, Cutler was sacked on 4.01 percent of his passes. In Chicago, he has been sacked on 7.86 percent of his passes, which is nearly double the rate.

In Cutler’s best season (2008), he was sacked just 11 times on 627 passes (1.75 percent). For the Bears in 2010, Cutler was sacked 52 times on 484 passes (10.74 percent). Amazingly, Cutler was sacked 26 times on third down alone in the 2010 season.

That’s a wide range of sacks that would definitely suggest the offensive line has mattered in Cutler’s career.

Taking every quarterback who started their career since the 1970 merger, I looked at their lowest sack rate in a season compared to the highest sack rate (minimum 200 attempts) for everyone with at least three such seasons.

Cutler’s range of an 8.99 percentage point difference in sack rate is the seventh largest. The average of the 143 quarterbacks to qualify for the study was 4.70 percentage points. Matt Ryan has the smallest range (3.77-4.39 percent).

If you’re wondering how Randall Cunningham was sacked 25.62 percent of the time in 1986, blame first-year coach Buddy Ryan for using him on third-and-long situations. Then again, the 1986 Eagles allowed 104 sacks total, so Bears fans can’t ever say their line is the worst.

One thing Cutler’s been very good at is forcing the ball to Brandon Marshall in his career. It was there in Denver, and last season it may have never been betterwith Marshall catching 118 passes for 1,508 yards and 11 touchdowns. He did have 192 targets, which made up 39.6 percent of the team’s total pass attempts.

For this offense to expand, Cutler will have to show a bit more trust in second-year receiver Alshon Jefferywho needs to cut down on his mistakes and present a cleaner target for Cutler.

An area where Cutler has historically had success is in close games when he needs to engineer a fourth-quarter comeback and/or game-winning drive:

Not only does Cutler rank highly among active quarterbacks (minimum 10 games), but his 17-18 (.486) record at overall game-winning drive opportunities is one of the best in NFL history.

This one’s a little hard to explain in a brief setting, but part of this could be that Cutler has a lot of bad losses where his team just wasn’t close enough in the fourth quarter to be within 0-8 points of the opponent.

Cutler’s lost 43 games as a starterincluding the playoffs. He did not always finish every loss, which is what makes this a difficult stat to calculate. If only 18 of his losses were close in the fourth quarter, that’s just 41.9 percent of his losses.

Meanwhile, someone like Aaron Rodgers keeps the Packers close in almost every game he plays. He may have a terrible record in clutch situations, but he’s technically hurting his record by playing well enough to have that opportunity in the first place.

Rodgers has 29 losses as a starter, plus a significant game off the bench in 2007 against Dallas. That would mean 24 of his 29 losses (82.8 percent) have been close.

That’s nearly double the rate of Cutler.

So it would appear Cutler is one of the quarterbacks gaming the system and inflating his record in these situations by simply not playing well enough to have more opportunities. Tom Brady has similarly done the same thing in his career.

The thing is, Brady’s done it on big stages. Which one of Cutler’s 13 comebacks and 17 game-winning drives actually stand out?

Honestly, I think of the San Diego game in 2008 when referee Ed Hochuli blew the call on a Cutler fumble in the red zone that would have won the game for the Chargers. Instead, Cutler went to Eddie Royal on back-to-back plays for the touchdown and two-point conversion in a 39-38 win.

If the Bears can keep it close, then Cutler’s been fairly reliable. Keeping it close more often needs to be another goal though.

If only Brian Urlacher could have come back for one more year, announced it would be his last, and then this summer, Cutler could have told the media he was an elite quarterback. That’s an instant path to a Super Bowl MVP and $100 million these days.

Just ask Eli Manning and Joe Flacco.

Before last season, or before the playoffs even, Flacco was lumped in the same tier with quarterbacks like Cutler, Matthew Stafford and Matt Schaub. Not many expected the type of big playoff run he had on his way to a Super Bowl, but there was at least evidence of Flacco having big games against playoff teams. He also has protected the ball quite well in his career.

With Cutler, there is no such track record. There’s a lot of mediocrity and a lone playoff win against one of the worst playoff teams ever.

After seven seasons with such little progress, the best hope is Trestman becomes the guy that’s going to turn it all around. Mike Shanahan might have done it if he wasn’t fired. Ron Turner couldn’t do it. Mike Martz couldn’t do it. Mike Tice couldn’t do it. Lovie Smith wasn’t the right fit.

Trestman has worked with many quarterbacks in the NFL—including Vinny Testaverde and Bernie Kosar in the ‘80s, Steve Young and Elvis Grbac in San Francisco, Scott Mitchell (1997 Lions), Jake Plummer (1998-00 Cardinals) and also Rich Gannon (2001-03 Raiders).

Now he must stir something in Cutler, or else the Bears face the tough decision of offering in excess of $15 million per year for a quarterback who continues to play mediocre football. There’s no backup plan in Chicago either with Josh McCown and Matt Blanchard (undrafted out of Wisconsin-Whitewater) behind Cutler.

Chicago did not draft a quarterback this year.

The worst-case scenario is another average season where the Bears just miss out on the playoffs. A poor season by Cutler would make it easy to move on, but if there’s just enough positive to make it a hard decision, then that’s going to be trouble.

We’ve had seven seasons to evaluate already. Is this really the guy you want to invest in for the long term? Giving him an extension during the season after a little hot streak would also be a rash decision. Chicago should let this one play out.

If 2013 isn’t the best Jay Cutler season ever, then it should be the last one in Chicago. Start the search for the next quarterback. It’s not like this franchise hasn’t been waiting over 60 years since Sid Luckman retired for that next guy.

A few more years won’t hurt.

 

Was There Really a Defensive Slide?

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At one point last season, we were talking up the Chicago defense in terms of the 1985 Super Bowl team. Maybe that was always naïve, but there were some sterling numbers being put together by this group in the first half of the season.

Through Week 9, Chicago led the league in scoring differential (plus-116 points). While the stats suggested the Bears allowed 120 points through eight games, only 104 were surrendered with the defense on the field.

Now subtract the 48 points the defense scored on return touchdowns, and the Bears were allowing a net of 56 points in eight games. That’s just a touchdown per game.

Chicago’s often been great with takeaways, but last year, the Bears were especially elite with 28 takeaways halfway through the season. A whopping seven were returned for scores.

Charles “Peanut” Tillman had one of his finest seasons ever. He returned three interceptions for touchdowns and was named All-Pro. He even forced 10 fumbles (previous career high: four).

Tim Jennings barely escaped Indianapolis without a pitchfork escort for his disappointing play, but he exploded in the scheme he never shined in with the Colts to lead the league with nine interceptions. He had seven interceptions in his first 85 games.

Jennings is the first Bear to lead the league in interceptions since rookie safety Mark Carrier had 10 in 1990. It would take Carrier six seasons and 93 games to record his next 10 interceptions, which just goes to show the fluky nature of the play.

We knew the historic pace of returning these plays for touchdowns would not continue, but little did we know the team would falter the way they did, going 1-5 at one point.

But how much of that was really on this defense?

The defense more than held its own against Houston on a sloppy field. Despite the loss, there was no reason to panic yet in Chicago. Cutler’s injury in that game did force Jason Campbell to start in San Francisco, which may have been the turning point of the season.

It was Colin Kaepernick’s first-career start, and it was on Monday Night Football for all (with ESPN) to see. Kaepernick brilliantly picked the No. 1 defense apart, building a 27-0 lead in an easy 32-7 win. Kaepernick completed 16-of-23 passes for 243 yards and two scores. San Francisco had zero turnovers, which marked the only time in 2012 the Bears failed to get one.

This was clearly the low point of the season for Chicago.

Chicago had 16 takeaways in the second half of the season. Two of those were returned for touchdowns. Of course, both happened to come in the game in Arizona, recalling for a brief moment that “the Bears are who we thought they were.”

It was too late though, as even with wins over the Cardinals and Lions, the Bears were eliminated from the playoffs with Minnesota going in their place.

For the most part, the Bears were still a strong defense in the second half. The offense failed to produce, partially due to Cutler’s absence, and there’s also the fact that the Bears just played better competition.

In the first half of the season, the Bears played Indianapolis in Andrew Luck’s debut game in Week 1. Green Bay started slow, but still beat Chicago 23-10 in Week 2. The Rams and Cowboys were better teams in the second half of the year. Teams like Detroit, Carolina and Tennessee had their issues and share of losing all year long.

Though in that second half, the Bears did have to play Houston and San Francisco in consecutive weeks (both losses). Both games against Minnesota came in a three-game span. That was a split with Adrian Peterson on his epic run of rushing performances.

Chicago lost again to Green Bay in a huge game at home, but the real kicker was probably the Week 13 game against Seattle, which had struggled on the road in early afternoon games.

For 56 minutes, the Chicago defense looked awfully good, but that’s when Russell Wilson took over with 3:40 to play at his own three-yard line. With 97 yards to go against a vaunted defense, Wilson sliced and diced his way down the field, at one point converting a crucial 4th-and-3 play that probably would have won the game right there for Chicago.

With the go-ahead touchdown coming with 0:24 left, it looked like the defense had blown it, but Cutler and Marshall forced overtime with that miraculous 56-yard play. However, Seattle won the coin toss and Wilson again had few problems moving the offense, converting three more third downs on an 80-yard game-winning touchdown drive.

Given that Seattle finished 11-5 to be a Wild-Card team and Chicago missed the playoffs at 10-6, this defensive collapse was a huge blow.

Mobile quarterbacks had their way with the Bears a few times last season. They can move around and avoid some of the turnovers that come from a stiff pocket passer against this defense.

While there’s no removing Aaron Rodgers out of the NFC North, at least the 2013 schedule does not include Seattle or San Francisco. The Bears will likely see Robert Griffin III in Washington on October 20.

Mel Tucker comes over from Jacksonville as the new defensive coordinator. He should be a good fit with this 4-3 defense that can get pressure by only rushing four. This is much more talent than what Tucker was working with in Cleveland (2005-08) and Jacksonville (2009-12).

Despite what could be an offensive shift in terms of philosophy, the defense is still going to be better than the offense in Chicago this year. If players like Tillman and Jennings can somehow come close to the play-making production they had last season, then this defense has a good shot to remain elite.

It just may not be as flashy or historic as the start we witnessed last year.

 

Departures and Arrivals: The 2013 Starters

Credit to Ourlads for this chart of potential starters in 2013:

The offense has certainly made some changes. Josh McCown will back up Cutler now rather than Jason Campbell. Matt Forte leads the ground attack, but Michael Bush is still the No. 2 back. The wide receivers have little change at the top, with Earl Bennett being the third best on the roster.

To say the tight ends were a disappointment in 2012 would be an understatement. Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth combined for just 25 receptions and 257 yards.

That’s why the team went after Martellus Bennett, who just had a career-best 626 yards and five touchdowns with the Giants. His hands are suspect, but he can make plays in the passing game and should give the offense a boost.

Cutler’s been at his best when he’s had a competent tight end like Daniel Graham, Tony Scheffler and Greg Olsen.

Pinpointing the offensive line as a continuous weakness, many changes have been made.

The plug was pulled on tackle, a 2011 first-round pick, after just 16 starts. He was traded to Tampa Bay for merely a sixth-round pick.

Jermon Bushrod was the coveted left tackle target in free agency from New Orleans. He made a name for himself in 2009 when an injury put him in the valued position to protect Drew Brees’ blindside. The Saints won the Super Bowl, and he has been a four-year starter.

With offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer also coming over from New Orleans, where he was the interim coach early last season in place of Sean Payton, there’s a good Saints connection here, but fans must realize the Bears are not going to turn into the Saints over night.

As much as Bushrod may be an improvement over J’Marcus Webb, who has moved to right tackle, it still helped a lot to have Brees at quarterback. Brees is underrated at how he manipulates the pocket to buy time to throw. Cutler is not as natural at stepping up.

Also, just adding a left tackle means little for an offensive line. All five players must play well together for it to really work, which is why the Bears also brought in Matt Slauson at left guard. He’s been a solid starter for the Jets the last three years.

Potentially the biggest move, especially for the long-term outlook, was drafting Kyle Long with the No. 20 pick. He only started four games on the offensive line at Oregon. Yes, he has good genes (son of Howie, brother of Chris), but that couldn’t possibly be enough impressive tape to justify a first-round pick. His last name boosted his stock.

Long may start out at guard and play tackle, but for now, it’s a risky decision.

Defensively, things are fairly consistent. After nine seasons, defensive end Israel Idonije has moved on to the Lions. This puts Corey Wootton in the spotlight on a line that’s still led by Julius Peppers. Henry Melton is also a rising star on the interior.

Lance Briggs will no longer be roaming the field with Brian Urlacher, which is obviously the biggest hole to fill here for Chicago. Though Urlacher was getting long in the tooth and not the same player, he was still the leader of this defense.

Denver released D.J. Williams after nine years, a length that seems to be a common theme here, so with Chicago scooping him up for a one-year deal, he looks to be Urlacher’s initial replacement. He’s no Dick Butkus or Mike Singletary, but it’s a stop gap. The Bears also drafted Jon Bostic out of Florida in the second round.

That’s really the future here.

With Nick Roach and Geno Hayes also departing, the Bears signed James Anderson from the Panthers. He’s another veteran presence with 52 career starts.

There are no changes in the secondary, just expectations to live up to by Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman after what they did last year.

 

Conclusion: Strong Team, Stronger Conference

At the end of the day, this just feels like another Chicago team that will max out at 9-10 wins, which may not be enough for the playoffs.

If you acknowledge San Francisco and Seattle as two elite teams who will make the playoffs, give the NFC East just one team, then that just leaves two spots for Chicago to battle with the likes of Green Bay, Minnesota, Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay for the NFC North and the Wild Card.

The NFC has few teams in bad shape right now, while the NFC North is playing the AFC North, which is one of the toughest divisions in the league.

There’s barely a game on Chicago’s schedule that we can look at in July and confidently say “that’s an easy win.”

If you want to believe in the Bears in 2013, then you have to hope that an offensive coach brings out something new in Cutler. Something that eliminates some of the mistakes we have watched for the last seven years. Maybe it’s as simple as better protection schemes that Mike Tice didn’t always have the talent or lead in his pencil to implement.

You have to hope Alshon Jeffery has a breakout season in year two so that it’s not just the Marshall show like last year.

Then, if the offense improves, pray that the defense resembles some shade of its former-dominant self. That’s one thing about the Lovie Smith tenure. The defense was often very good at allowing the offense to stay in the game, and we also know the special teams were usually great with huge advantages in field position.

With a new regime in town, a new philosophy and a defense seeking a new leader in the middle, it’s hard not to expect growing pains.

 

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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