When people use the term ‘Career year’ they’re usually only referring to a player’s individual statistics. Often times, one player’s statistical dominance overshadows, and serves to divert attention from, the team’s sub-par record. One could argue that Smokin’ Jay himself had his career year in 2008 while playing for the Denver Broncos. In his third NFL season he tossed up 25 TD’s, had just 18 picks (this is good for Cutler), averaged 282.9 yards per game (still his career best) and threw for 4,526 yards (also a career best). Since then he hasn’t thrown for more than 3,812 yards (2014) and his season high TD’s is just 28 (2014). During Jay’s career year in 2008, in which he finished 3rd in passing yards behind Drew Brees (5,069) and Kurt Warner (4,583) the Bronco’s posted a gloriously unsatisfying record of 8-8.
In 134 career starts Mr. Cutler has a perplexing record of 67-67, the epitome of average. So what do I mean when I say the 2016/2017 NFL season could be a career year for Jay?
He knows the system
Despite OC Adam Gase taking the head coaching job at Miami during the off season, this will be Cutler’s 2nd season in this system. Head Coach John Fox has already confirmed that the system will not change much, if at all. New OC Dowell Loggains was the QB coach in 2015 and reportedly has an open, no nonsense relationship with Cutler. This increased familiarity should translate into more synergy and greater cohesion on offense. Brian Hoyer has also joined the team which means that for the first time in his career, Cutler will have a QB actually capable of starting an NFL game pushing him for playing time. Hopefully having the possibility of being benched hanging over his head will finally give Cutler the impetus to break through that glass performance ceiling that he’s been squashing his face into for the past eight seasons.
IIII! (clap-clap-clap) D IIII! (clap-clap-clap)
In 2015 the Bears switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under first year DC Vic Fangio. An adjustment period is expected in situations like this as shuffling out 4-3 scheme players (Jared Allen) and acquiring 3-4 scheme players (Danny Trevathan) takes time. The Bears 3-4 defense has had a season to settle in and should provide Cutler and his offense more time on the football. They should also allow fewer points, thus taking some of the burden off of Cutler. He has a reputation of being a bit of a gunslinger and can at times try to squeeze balls into tight windows when chasing the game. Less of this can only be good for the Bears.
He has two big, quality targets
Alshon Jeffery is healthy again and can hopefully remain so for the entire season. He’s also the proud recipient of the Bears’ franchise tag, meaning he is in a contract year for the second straight season. While not a deep threat in the traditional sense, his massive wingspan and Cirque du Soleil-esq body control make him without a doubt one of the league’s best when it comes to high-pointing, and thus winning, jump balls. He knows better than anyone that it’s in his best interest to put up #1 WR numbers if he wants to be paid like one. Kevin White has recovered from the broken shin which kept him side-lined for the entire 2015 season. Getting him back is as if the Bears had an extra 1st round pick in the 2016 draft. Plus, unlike an actual rookie, he’s had all of 2015 to study the playbook, watch film and just generally acclimatize to life in the NFL. Should hit the ground running in 2016.
The running backs will actually run
Despite GM Ryan Pace letting the best running back since 2008 walk during the offseason (before you get all upset and start sending angry tweets and sad emoji’s, I’m basing this on the simple fact that Forte has more yards from scrimmage than any other back since 2008), the Bears have a good, young group of backs at their disposal. RB’s coach Stan Drayton has a reputation for developing and mentoring young runners (Ohio State 2011-2014) so shouldn’t have any problem with the task at hand. He’s a seasoned vet at the college level and the effect he had on Ohio State’s ground game is there for all to see. Things cooled off a little when Braxton Miller was out with a medical redshirt in 2014 but Ezekiel Elliott had a fine season under Drayton and was subsequently drafted 4th overall by the Cowboys.
While question marks surround Jeremy Langford, he has shown brief flashes of being a genuine #1 back. His workload was obviously lighter than Forte’s but the Bears don’t seem reluctant to use him when he’s on the field. He played 392 snaps in 2015 amassing 170 touches (getting the ball 43.3% of the time he’s on the field) while Forte had 262 touches in 597 snaps (43.9%). Forte was traditionally more of a pass-catcher than a bruising runner, evidenced by his 102 receptions in 2014. He had just 44 in his first year under Fox. It’s no secret that Fox likes his running backs to actually run, combine that with the fact that Forte has lost a step since his mid-20’s, (average yards per rush dipped from 4.9 in 2011 – long of 46, to just 4.1 in 2015 – long of 27) and letting Forte walk was a no-brainer from a business standpoint. Enter Fox’s new running back committee – Langford, Ka’Deem Carey and Jacquizz Rodgers.
Yes, Forte is undeniably one of the greatest Bears of all time but Cutler dropping back to pass him the ball is still Cutler dropping back to pass. Rather than having to put eight in the box, teams can key on the pass and staff their defense with faster, more athletic players. ‘Establishing the running game’ is one of the oldest clichés in football for a reason; it works. Teams can’t simply drop back and drape players all over the receivers. Imagine you’re a boxer who only throws punches at your opponent’s head. If this is the case, he’ll just cover up his head while you tire yourself out punching the backs of his gloves and forearms. Long story short, you need to sock him in the gut every once in a while. Remember, Cutler’s arm strength and accuracy aren’t the issue here, it’s his decision making (or lack of it) and his gunslinger attitude that get him into trouble.
So, many people forget that statistically speaking, Jay Cutler is the greatest QB in Bears history. Despite the fact that Jim McMahon led the Bears to a Superbowl victory in 1985, his stats were nothing to write home about. That year McMahon posted a TD/INT ratio of 15/11, threw for 2,392 yards and had a QB rating of just 82.6. Being backed up by arguably the greatest defense in the history of football is a difference maker to say the least. During Cutler’s reign however, the Bears defense has been decidedly hit or miss (mostly miss):
You’ll notice they did have a good defensive unit in 2010, allowing just 17.9 points per game. Chicago finished 1st in the NFC North (11-5). They beat the Seahawks 35-24 in the first round to advance to the NFC Championship where they then lost 21-14 to the Packers. A good season by anyone’s standards.
Snake bitten in 2012 the Bears somehow finished 3rd in the NFC North despite posting a 10-6 record, causing them to miss the playoffs. Other than these two seasons Cutler and his offensive unit have pretty much shouldered the load themselves, all the while receiving unjustifiable and downright ignorant criticism. During Peyton Manning’s record breaking 2004 season in which he tossed 49 touchdown passes, the mighty Colts averaged 32.6 points per game. This is viewed by many, and rightfully so, as the greatest year by a QB, ever. Jay Cutler is no Peyton Manning so when you think about it objectively, with the defense they had, the Bears had no chance in 2013, 2014 or 2015.
I feel like we’ve shown that a player putting up great individual stats doesn’t always correlate to the team being successful, and vice versa. But, could Cutler emerging as a reliable game manger and leading the Bears to a 12+ win season (something he’s never done before) be considered a career year? The Bears are in a good position with regard to coaching, playbook familiarity and talent. Cutler himself wouldn’t necessarily need to put up the huge aggregate numbers we traditionally associate with upper echelon quarterbacks, just to tie all of these resources together and stay within himself. Oh and he’ll need a little help from his defense of course.