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Thursday, December 2, 2010
Air and Space: Cutler's short-range success

By Kevin Seifert

Jay Cutler
Chicago's Jay Cutler has taken fewer risks this season, and his 90.4 passer rating would be his career best.
So I was putting together some numbers this week on the season of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler when ESPNChicago.com's Michael C. Wright posted an item on the topic. Cutler, who has completed only eight passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, was quoted saying: "I don't think we've touched on what we're capable of there yet."

Said offensive coordinator Mike Martz: "It'll happen."

To which I thought: "Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!"

There are two ways to interpret Cutler's performance this season, as spelled out in the first chart. One is that Cutler has found enormous success as a short-range passer, limiting his opportunities for mistakes, effectively fighting the urge to force passes downfield while allowing his receivers to make plays on their own.

The other is that Cutler's big arm has been underutilized, and that somehow the Bears must find a way to tap into it during the final push to the playoffs.

For the Bears' sake, I hope the latter isn't true. I hope they will embrace the balance they've found with Cutler and recognize it's part of the reason they've won eight of their first 11 games.

Whether it's been by design, dictated by coverage or a result of poor pass protection, Cutler is having the best season of his career -- and is poised for his first winning season since high school -- by taking the surest bet. He has thrown 35 screen passes, tied for the third most in the league, and overall nearly half of his attempts have traveled less than 10 yards in the air.

Cutler has the NFL's fourth-best rating in those situations, but everything else has been a crapshoot. He's completed only 39 of 96 passes that have traveled more than 10 yards in the air and thrown seven of his 10 interceptions among those attempts.

From my amateur vantage point, I see no problem with the way it's gone. Maybe it's a coincidence, but from the outside, it sure looks like the Bears have at least made some progress in taming a gunslinger. Cutler has a 90.4 passer rating, which would be the highest of his career, and is on pace for the best touchdown-interception ratio of his career. With the exception of his four-interception disaster against the Washington Redskins, Cutler hasn't pushed the envelope. In fact, nearly half of the Bears' total passing yards this season (49.2 percent) have come on yards gained after the catch, the seventh-highest percentage in the NFL.

With December weather upon us, and the magnitude of each pass growing, do the Bears really want Cutler ramping himself up and looking for downfield passes? Isn't it time to rally around your strengths, the so-called "things that brought you here?"

I realize that neither Cutler nor Martz would want to say publicly that they've given up on pursuing the long ball. And by all means, they should take it if it presents itself. But let's also make clear that the Bears -- and Cutler -- have gotten this far without it. There's a lesson to be had there.