Two exhibition games is hardly a conclusive sample size, but Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has displayed some of the same worrisome traits this preseason that were expected to be eliminated under new head coach Marc Trestman.
At the very least, Cutler has proved in a pair of appearances that he still has plenty of work to do in evolving from his erratic, gun-slinging past to the efficient and confidence-inspiring version Trestman is attempting to mold.
The 30-year-old quarterback has already been intercepted twice over just 13 preseason attempts, a sign that his long-running habit of questionable decision making isn't yet smothered. His one giveaway against the San Diego Chargers Thursday night stunk of the quarterback Cutler is trying to erase.
Just as troubling, Cutler targeted receiver Brandon Marshall on all five of his attempts in the 33-28 win. The Trestman offense is attempting to change that dynamic, which saw Cutler target Marshall at a higher percentage than any other quarterback-receiver combination last season.
Luckily for Trestman, the Bears still have two remaining preseason games to continue his goal of refining Cutler as a passer.
Sensing a looming shift in the culture of his organization, Bears general manager Phil Emery fired long-time head coach Lovie Smith, who was widely respected for his work on the defensive side of the ball, and hired Trestman, an offensive-minded leader with deep roots at the quarterback position.
With two championships in the CFL and nearly 15 years of NFL experience coaching quarterbacks, Trestman arrived in Chicago with the kind of resume needed to instill real change in a veteran quarterback with engrained tendencies.
What grade would you give Jay Cutler's performance against the Chargers Thursday night?
It's certainly possible some habits are impossible to break, no matter the teacher.
To be fair, Cutler's lone interception in the preseason opener wasn't an unmitigated disaster. Second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery appeared to break off his slant route prematurely, and Cutler's inside throw was rather easily intercepted by cornerback Josh Norman. While it was obviously not the way any offense wants to start a season, such a mistake could be chalked up to rust or uncertainty within a new offense
There was no excusing Cutler's turnover against the Chargers Thursday.
San Diego played a base zone coverage look, with safety Eric Weddle patrolling his half of the field and linebacker Victor Butler dropping into the deep middle. It's a look every NFL quarterback has seen hundreds of times.
Yet, despite a clean pocket, Cutler forced a deep post to Marshall, who was clearly double covered by Weddle and Butler. It was the easiest of interceptions for Butler, who wasn't in any kind of man-to-man coverage and could read Cutler the entire way.
The turnover came on first down and was just a play after the Bears had intercepted Philip Rivers in Chargers' territory. Great field position and a chance to score were eliminated in a flash.
For most quarterbacks, such a decision could be brushed away in the preseason. An exhibition interception is about as meaningless in the grand scheme of a season as it comes.
However, these kind of easily-avoidable turnovers hold a higher meaning for Cutler.
Source: Pro Football Reference
Since arriving from Denver in 2009, Cutler has thrown the fifth-most interceptions in the NFL at 63. He's averaged nearly 16 a season with the Bears, and his four-year interception percentage of 3.6 is simply too high.
Many of Cutler's turnovers have been of the head-shaking variety, whether he's forced a ball into double coverage, thrown off his back foot or felt pressure and panicked. For every "wow" throw he makes, there's a cringe-worthy one waiting in the wings.
Cutler's start to the preseason has followed this same script.
While his interception was inexcusable, Cutler did deliver a pin-point, back shoulder throw to Marshall for a five-yard score in the first quarter. The scoring toss was the kind of play that has helped make Cutler such a polarizing quarterback.
If he can make a throw the elite quarterbacks can make, why do the rookie decisions happen?
At least one aspect of the problem can be tied to his dependence on Marshall, who caught all four of Cutler's completions on Thursday.
According to Chase Stuart of Football Perspective, Marshall led the NFL in percentage of total targets last season by a wide margin. In fact, he saw 39.9 percent of Cutler's attempts, which dwarfed second-place Reggie Wayne, who saw 31.7 percent.
|WR||Team||No. of Targets||% of Total Targets|
Source: Football Perspective
As Stuart concludes, using Chicago's 5.17 adjusted net yards per attempt (25th in the NFL), that the Bears were a poor passing offense in 2012. With limited receiving options available, Cutler went to Marshall frequently, but also to a fault.
Replacing Mike Tice with Trestman as a play-caller was a move away from the "Marshall Ratio," a variation of the "Randy Ratio," and towards a more evenly distributed passing offense. To that effect, the Bears added tight end Martellus Bennett to help open up the middle of the field. Jeffery will also be expected to take a second-year jump.
Through just two preseason games, are you worried the progress from QB Jay Cutler?
Yet Thursday night, Cutler targeted Marshall with all five of his passes. Four were completed; a quick hit to pick up a first down, a bubble screen for seven yards, the five-yard touchdown and a 19-yard dump off from a bootleg. The fifth was intercepted.
Only the interception came off a play that wasn't scripted to have Marshall as option No. 1, so it's possible that the increased work was by design. But for Cutler to evolve, his target distribution will need to as well.
On Thursday night, the fans in Chicago were treated to the same Good Jay, Bad Jay that has defined his stint with the Bears. There was some positives and negatives, plus a couple of sacks mixed in for good measure.
In theory, Trestman's arrival was supposed to eliminate the head-scratching decisions, while allowing everything good about Cutler to finally shine through. Through only two preseason games—a minuscule sample size that provides no conclusions—Trestman hasn't been able to fully accomplish his goal.
There's no need to worry yet, but it's worth wondering when the results from Trestman's work with Cutler will finally become more than just theory.