One of the big storylines since the Bears hired Marc Trestman as their head coach was his ability to fix quarterback Jay Cutler's mechanics. However, they're not nearly the issue many believe them to be.
There is no defending Cutler's mechanics. He throws off his back foot way more than any quarterback should, which leads to inconsistent passing. Those poor mechanics aren't preventing Cutler from being effective, however.
Since he came into the league, Cutler's biggest problem has been throwing interceptions. Since he became a starter in 2007, Cutler has thrown at least 14 interceptions in five of his six seasons. His mechanical flaws have led many to conclude that they are connected. That's not entirely true.
When going through each of his 14 interceptions, I found that only one was directly caused because of faulty mechanics. The first interception he threw against Green Bay in the team's Week 2 game was an off-balance pass despite little pressure. The ball wound up being well behind Earl Bennett, but Tramon Williams still had to dive for the ball.
At least three of the interceptions thrown by Cutler were balls that his intended receivers should have caught and a few more were passes in which he and the receiver shared blame.
If Trestman is going to get the most out of Cutler, he's going to have to refine his mechanics. That doesn't mean Cutler is a bad quarterback—there are bigger issues for Trestman to deal with.
The most obvious area Cutler needs to improve on is how he starts the games. He had a passer rating of just 55.2 in the first quarter, by far his worst quarter. In fact, half of his interceptions came within his first 10 passing attempts.
Over the last three years, 14 of his 37 interceptions—roughly 38 percent—have come on his first 10 passing attempts of the game.
That could have a lot to do with scheme. Both Mike Martz's and Mike Tice's offenses relied heavily on throwing the ball deep, making it hard for his quarterback to get into a rhythm. Tice's passing game also seemed predicated on players beating man coverage. When that didn't happen, Cutler had to throw into tight windows.
The expectation is that with a West Coast offense, Trestman will scheme to get his players in open space. Matt Forte alluded to that when speaking about the difficulty of the Bears' new offense after a practice during minicamp.
"It's easy to learn what you do, but to actually have to learn the concepts of why I have to run this route to get that guy open and all kinds of other stuff...makes it more difficult but also more intriguing as well," Forte said.
If the Bears are able to execute Trestman's offense, it should lead to some open receivers. With shorter routes. That means easier throws that should help the quarterback get in rhythm and open up the deeper passing lanes.
With that, the Bears should be able to get the ball out of Cutler's hands faster. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Cutler had a passer rating of just 77 when he held onto the ball for more than 2.5 seconds. Again, part of that is the fact that they played in an offense predicated on him taking deeper drops and holding onto the football longer.
This is an issue they started working on with Cutler right away, as offensive coordinator/line coach Aaron Kromer told the team website after their first organized team activity.
"I think you create plays that ask him to get rid of the ball quicker," Kromer said. "I think we need to get the ball out of our hand quickly."
The next area Cutler needs to work on is going through his progressions. He locked onto one receiver—usually Marshall—far too often, causing him to miss some underneath routes that may have been open.
The general perception seems to be that Trestman needs to fix Cutler, but that's hardly reality. Cutler has had a passer rating over 85 in five of the seven years he's been a starter. Far from spectacular, but it also isn't indicative of a quarterback that needs fixing.
This is not to say that Cutler's fundamentals don't need work—they do. He has to do a better job of sensing pressure and knowing when he can plant and throw. While it may not lead to fewer interceptions, it should help his completion percentage. Of course, so should playing in a West Coast offense.
Kromer comes from New Orleans, where they ran a system very similar to what the Bears are going to run. According to the splits on ESPN, the passes of New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees travelled 10 yards or fewer 67 percent of the time. Cutler, meanwhile, threw just 60.5 percent of his passes that short of a distance.
Cutler completed 74 percent of those throws, had he thrown short as often as Brees, his overall completion percentage would have jumped to 62.4 percent. Brees completed 63 percent of his passes in 2012.
What those who criticize Cutler's mechanics almost always fail to mention is the number of plays he makes with less than spectacular mechanics.
Part of what makes Cutler special is his ability to make plays that otherwise weren't there. That's part of the reason he was able to complete 54.8 percent of his passes while under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the third best rate in the league. Nobody else who was pressured more than 35 percent of the time completed even 50 percent of their passes under duress.
Ultimately, the biggest thing the Bears need to do is provide Cutler with a good and consistent support system. If they can give him a clean pocket, have his receivers run good routes and make the plays they're supposed to make, he will have a big season.
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