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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Back from the Depths: Phil Emery, Marc Trestman and the Re-Building of Jay Cutler

I keep going back to the game between the Bears and Cardinals in December of 2012. Following two disheartening losses to the Vikings and Packers (where Jay had been underwhelming at best) that dropped the team out of the playoff hunt, the Bears desperately needed a win against the Cardinals and some help in order to stay alive. During the game against the lifeless 5-9 Cardinals, Jay completed less than half of his passes for a measly 146 yards and looked lost. This wasn't a young, reckless, frustrated QB responding to breakdowns in protection by firing fastballs into double coverage. It wasn't even Jay forcing deep balls downfield in a futile attempt to make a play. It was just a quarterback who looked erratic, inaccurate, and lost.

Phil Emery saw the same thing. Jay Cutler was lost, and Phil had a choice to make. Keep the head coach and coordinator who was supposedly so estranged from his own quarterback that the two barely spoke and lose the quarterback forever, or replace them and dedicate one more year to trying to reclaim the talented young passer who threw for over 4500 yards and made the Pro Bowl in his last year in Denver.

As we know, Emery made the choice to roll with Cutler, and the result was a 2013 season that was, despite being cut short by injury, Cutler's best in many ways. He set career highs in passer rating, had the highest completion % of his Bears career, the second highest yards per game average of his career, and the highest TD%. Emery saw enough in Cutler's progress in 2013 to reward him with a long term contract extension. With Cutler the Bears starter at quarterback for the foreseeable future, it's worth looking back at Emery's plan and seeing how he and Marc Trestman turned Jay back into a viable starter.

1) Find the Coach: There were different reasons why the previous offensive coordinators that handled Jay in Chicago had all failed. Ron Turner's scheme was vanilla and outdated, and incapable of producing without a dominant run game.

Mike Martz simply lacked the very specific set of skill players required to run his offense, and lacked the willingness to adapt to the talent at hand. Mike Tice was just really, really bad at everything. But one thing all three had in a common was a lack of a close relationship with Jay. Whether they or Jay are more to blame for the situation is up to you to decide, but there's no denying that whether you're talking about Payton and Brees, Belichick and Brady, Peyton Manning and long-time OC Tom Moore, or even Brett Favre and Mike Holmgren, few of the great quarterbacks in the NFL reach that status without a long and close bond with their offensive coordinator or head coach. Jay never came close to establishing that with any of his three coordinators before Trestman.

Emery sought a man who had a reputation for working with quarterbacks and who understood the paramount importance of the QB-coach bond. All of the candidates who made it the final rounds of his head coaching search were known for their development of QBs, from Bruce Arians to Darrell Bevell to Trestman.

Trestman has advocated the importance of the QB-coach relationship above all else since his days as a graduate assistant at Miami in the 1980s, where he gave Jim Kelly instructions on how to dress, talk, and act as a QB both on and off the field. His work with Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Steve Young, and Rich Gannon among all of the other quarterbacks he coached in his time in college and the NFL made him the ideal candidate, in Emery's opinion, to work with Jay.

While some (like our own Travis) questioned just how much of an influence Trestman really had on the production of those quarterbacks, what mattered most was that Jay truly bought into Trestman's reputation and track record and respected him as a person who understood the demands and responsibilities of the quarterback position, something Jay clearly felt Tice in particular lacked.

2) Fix the Protection: I'm not going to bother recounting the statistics of the shoddy protection Jay received his first four years in Chicago here. Suffice it to say he took a beating, and it clearly affected him on and off the field. It was easy to see his frustration and bitterness with a front office that seemed loathe to do anything more than give projects like J'Marcus Webb time to develop and hope the problem would go away, and a coaching staff that continually advocated that the players they had were good enough to get the job done.

Emery attacked this problem on a two-pronged front. One, he replaced the personnel, with the 2013 Bears offensive line featuring four new starters. Two, in Trestman and Aaron Kromer he hired two offensive coaches who put the protection of the quarterback as their top priority. Not only did Trestman's short-passing dominated scheme limit the damage by it's very nature, Trestman specifically stated after the Bengals game that their primary concern early on was to "get through the first half clean". It was more important to them, at least early on, to demonstrate to Jay that they were no longer going to be so cavalier with his health than it was to abandon caution in order to point points on the board.

The result? A drastic reduction in the number of sacks taken, and a quarterback whose production (particularly downfield) increased steadily throughout the year as his faith in the five guys in front of him grew for the first time in his career in Chicago.

3)"Ask not what Jay Cutler can do for you, ask what you can do for Jay Cutler" Tice and Martz had been seduced by Cutler's arm strength and the perceived opportunities it created for plays downfield. Because of this the focus of the offense became low % deep throws, that often fell incomplete at inopportune moments and generated turnovers. Trestman's approach was to carefully manage Jay's shots downfield by putting the focus on maintaining possession of the ball through a controlled, short-passing game. The big plays came once teams moved up to take away the underneath routes that Trestman loves, leaving Marshall and Jeffery singled up on the sidelines for those glorious jump balls that proved so profitable as the season went on. By asking Jay to do less early on, Trestman was actually to get More big plays out of him later in games. The ultimate result was that Jay ended up as Pro Football Focus' top ranked deep passer while he also posted the lowest bad-decision rate of his career.

The effectiveness of Trestman's "throw short to set up the long ball" approach is visible both in Jay's 1st half vs. 2nd half splits (7.08 YPA 83.9 rating in the 1st half of games vs. 7.7 YPA, 94.8 rating in the 2nd) and in his overall increase in YPA and rating as the season wore on and he gained both faith in his protection and teams over-compensated against the Bears short-passing game and opened up opportunities downfield (6.8 YPA, 85.1 rating through his first four starts, 7.8 YPA, 92.1 rating in his last seven).

4) Eliminate Excuses. I think we all grew tired of the constant "JAY CUTLER HAS NO EXCUSES NOW" articles last offseason, but while I disagreed with the tone of most of those articles (which was that Jay's failures before last year were largely of his own making and the line, receivers, coaching were just that, excuses), they had a point. Jay's concerns had all been addressed in the addition of playmaking receivers like Marshall, Jeffery, and Martellus Bennett, the offensive line received an influx of talent, and a new, QB-friendly system was in place. All that was left was Jay's own internal problems.

For much of Jay's career in Chicago the external factors that clearly dragged down his production gave both him and his supporters an easy out to explain his struggles. There's no denying, however, that those who criticized his mechanics, footwork, and attitude all had their points, even if they weren't the leading causes of his struggles. In order to get over the hump Jay needed to address his own shortcomings.

By all accounts, he did so. He worked tirelessly on his mechanics with Trestman, he devoted himself to mastering the new playbook, he spent the offseason working in Florida with his receivers and teammates to help all of them familiarize themselves, and became a more vocal leader in the locker room. When he suffered his groin injury, he stayed behind in Chicago on the bye week to get platelet injections and rehab in order to return as quickly as possible. Finally, in a surprising display of humility, he went to each member of the offense before replacing Josh McCown against Cleveland and asked if they were comfortable with the change. Even those of us who felt the frequent complaints about Jay's immaturity were overrated had to admit he showed considerable growth off the field this past year.

Jay Cutler, even at age 31, is far from a complete product. Despite the doubts that he could do so at age 30, he showed dramatic improvement last year, and seems poised to post his best numbers yet with a healthy season in 2014. While I doubt he'll ever completely conquer his reckless streak or manage the consistency of Manning, Brees, or Rodgers, he's clearly capable of producing good numbers in this offense and being the kind of quarterback Bears fans hoped they were getting so many years ago. This was certainly the answer Phil Emery was hoping for when he set out to fix what was clearly broken a year ago, and it certainly seems to have been worth the effort.

1 comment:

Keith said...

When people say "Cutler still has a lot to prove" I say "What the hell were you watching last year? Were you just masturbating to McCown highlight clips?"