NFL Nation: Aaron Kromer

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Jay Cutler's interactions with teammates and the media always seem to creep into the narrative about the quarterback, and on Tuesday Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said "we've absolutely noticed a difference in Jay."

Cutler admits he's changed, too.

Cutler
"It might be true. Anytime you are in an offense and have the same group of guys around you, it's going to be more comfortable. It is for me anyway," Cutler said. "I like the group of guys we have in the locker room, understand what we are doing offensively. And it's early. It's still preseason with you guys."

Described as petulant to the media in the past with televised on-field blowups with teammates and coaches as evidence that he's been difficult to get along with, Cutler hasn't displayed such qualities so far. But to Cutler's credit, he didn't in 2013 either.

Going into 2014, Kromer believes Cutler is taking on more of a leadership role. He's moved on to a new staff led by an offensive-minded head coach in Marc Trestman. He's finally protected well, and not taking unnecessary punishment every time he drops back to pass. He's surrounded by a bevy of weapons on offense, and playing in an offensive system he believes in strongly on a new seven-year contract.

"I think everyone in the building has noticed a difference in Jay," Kromer said. "None of us knew Jay very well before getting here last year, and we worked through the year and that first year is always hard on everybody. But what I see in Jay Cutler right now is a guy that's the leading the group; a guy that is approachable, and is working to make everybody better because he realizes it's important that everybody is on the same page with him."

New receiver Santonio Holmes admitted as much Monday, saying the quarterback has "taken me under his wing, talked to me, and kept me close." The expectation is Cutler's approach will translate into victories this season. During training camp, Brandon Marshall called Cutler "a totally different person," adding that "I think he has great balance in is life now."

"He's talked with receivers. He's talked with linemen. He's working with running backs constantly," Kromer said. "That's a maturity on his part of knowing the offense, knowing what we want as coaches and feeling good about being the leader that he is. It's been a very good start of the year that way."

Will it continue? Well, it did in 2013 despite the Bears finishing 8-8 in a season in which Cutler was forced to miss time due to injuries on two occasions.

Cutler seems to now totally understand the value of making everyone else around him better, which is part of the reason that within an hour of Holmes signing his contract on Saturday, the two were on the field together working on plays to develop a rapport as quickly as possible. Cutler displayed similar qualities in 2013, too.

"If Santonio Holmes is going to play, Jay's going to rely on him," Kromer said. "Jay knows he has to be on the same page with him. So the faster he can get to know him, the better off he's going to be and that's Jay's goal."
Aaron KromerAP Photo/Nam Y. HuhOffensive coordinator Aaron Kromer works with QB Adam Kennedy during the Bears' rookie camp.
Red-faced, his hair a sticky, wet mess, quarterback David Fales strolled off the field fresh off his first experience with a Marc Trestman football practice during a recent three-day rookie minicamp, describing it as “chaos, bring the rage, intense.”

In 2014, Year 2 of operating Trestman’s offense after a breakout 2013 campaign, that’s exactly what the Chicago Bears hope to deliver to opposing defenses. The plan to do that involves a mixture of comfort in Year 2 of the scheme and a focus in the playbook on what the players did well in 2013, while also finding ways to expand the system based on the latter.

So far, the process looks promising, according to coaches and players.

“I don’t want to say there’s a comfort level, but there’s not a complacent level with how we’re handling things,” Trestman said. “Our guys have worked extremely hard. They have a tremendous grasp of the offense. With that in mind, we started with 'this is a football,' and we worked our way into each and every phase in a normal progression. But there certainly is a sense of confidence, a sense that we’ve got a chance to be a very good offense; particularly because those are guys that have been together. But they’re not taking anything for granted.”

That becomes quite apparent if you’ve tracked any of the moves made this offseason by the club’s veteran offensive players on social media. There you’ll find group selfies such as the one left tackle Jermon Bushrod posted in March that included right tackle Jordan Mills, receivers Brandon Marshall and Marquess Wilson, tight end Fendi Onobun, center Roberto Garza, guard Kyle Long and quarterback Jay Cutler. So it’s apparent they’re spending copious amounts of time together training, running through repetitions on offense, and building chemistry through off-the-field fellowship, as a good portion of the club’s offensive players traveled to Florida to train at FitSpeed Athletic Performance, which is co-owned by Marshall.

In their first season operating Trestman’s scheme, the offense set multiple single-season franchise records. The unit racked up a franchise-best 6,109 net yards and the passing offense set single-season marks in net passing yards (4,281), completion percentage (64.4), passing touchdowns (32) and passer rating (96.9). The Bears also set franchise records with 344 first downs and scored the second-most points (445) in franchise history.

Yet nobody -- especially the players -- is basking in the accomplishments from last year because let’s not forget the Bears finished out of the playoffs with an 8-8 record last season. Cutler has won only one playoff game in eight NFL seasons, and he recently turned 31. Marshall, meanwhile, despite making the Pro Bowl five times in eight seasons, still hasn't played in a postseason contest.

So despite the breakout performance on offense last season, there's still a feverish sense of urgency for the group in 2014 to reach its full potential. Ask any of the skill-position players about 2013, and there's a good chance you get the standard we-left-a-lot-on-the–field line.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler and Brandon Marshall
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhQB Jay Cutler and WR Brandon Marshall will draw from their leadership skills and two seasons playing together to help elevate the Bears' offense in 2014.
“You know, it was a long journey last year from this first day when we started, just to get the cadence,” offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said. “It was like rookie camp with veterans, and it’s always hard when you have a new staff because you’re working so hard on just the plays, how we call things, what we should be looking at, the technique we want different from other teams, that you don’t get the nuance of the play. You have to get yourself past the whole, ‘This is who I block, this is what route I run, this is who I throw it to.’

"So it’s been refreshing being with Jay Cutler, the offensive line and the running backs. And when you install a play from last year, they look at you like, ‘I remember.’ I’m making a big point, and we as a staff are making a big point of, ‘listen closely to what we’re coaching because you probably missed a couple of things last year.’ So we’re doing everything we can to have them pay attention to the little things.

“What are the little things? The little things are things they didn’t get before.”

When the Bears hired Trestman in January 2013, the staff didn’t even know what type of offense it would run. The coaches had an idea of how the players might fit, but not how they’d actually operate within the system the staff was installing.

That’s why as the year progressed last season “we became more efficient as an offense,” Kromer said.

The club gradually narrowed the playbook to feature what the team did well and what the players -- especially Cutler -- liked to do most. That narrowing continues this offseason. But at the same time, the team wants to broaden the system, as Kromer explained, “from that spectrum” of what the players already do well.

“Any group that can play together for a few years is good,” Marshall told the “Carmen & Jurko” show on ESPN 1000 on Tuesday. “It’s going to be awesome to see us grow because of the experience and the time we’re able to put in during the offseason. Now we bring in Coach Trestman going in his second year, and he’s really putting science behind all of his madness. It’s bringing everybody together, and it’s really cool to see what’s going on in our locker room. I’ve never been with a bunch of selfless guys like this. Everyone is just all-in, whether it’s the running game, the passing game. Everyone believes [and is] pulling for each other. It’s cool, man. It’s awesome to be part of this crew.”

Trestman called the process of working with Kromer, the staff and Cutler this offseason to tweak the playbook for 2014 “excellent.”

“We’ve narrowed some of the things we did last year, and we’ve expanded to some of the things we want to take a look at,” Trestman said. “We still have a pretty long list of plays in our playbook, so to speak, to keep it simple. It’s just the daily process of working through the plays, getting better, evaluating what we did last year, working to improve, and then working into the new football that we’ve put in.”

Will it all work this season? That’s the big unknown. But the body of work the offense put on the field in 2013 provided plenty of reasons to be optimistic headed into the season. In addition to the new coaching staff bringing in an unfamiliar scheme, the Bears put together a brand new offensive line as Garza was the only returning starter from 2012. It’s also easy to forget Marshall spent all of last offseason rehabbing from arthroscopic hip surgery, and was hobbled throughout the early part of the season.

Now, everyone’s healthy, and familiar with the system. Most importantly, they're hungry.

“Team goals, I would say just enjoy the journey,” Marshall said. “But of course we definitely want to be in Arizona [for the Super Bowl]. That’s going to be really tough. We have to put it together. On paper, we look great, but we have to go out there and do it. We have the guys that can upstairs, [and] downstairs. So we’ll see how it goes.”
As Chicago eyes free agency next month, we’ll take a look back at the top players from the 2013 class of free agents, how they performed in their first year with the Bears and their prospects for 2014. Here we look at offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod:

Bushrod
Money: Signed a five-year contract worth a little more than $35.965 million that included $17.715 million in guarantees.

Stats: None, but as one of four new starters on the offensive line, Bushrod helped the Bears set a franchise record in yards (6,109) as the club finished with a 4.9 sack percentage on 609 drop backs, which ranked as the club’s sixth-lowest sack percentage since 1982, when sacks became an official statistic.

2013 role: Of all the free-agent offensive linemen available, Bushrod had allowed the most combined sacks, hits and hurries, but he still represented an upgrade over the inconsistent J’Marcus Webb. Bushrod became an immediate starter on the offensive line, and protected the blindside of quarterback Jay Cutler in addition to helping his position group adjust to the new blocking schemes brought to the club by coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, who the tackle had previously worked with in New Orleans. A Pro Bowler in 2012, Bushrod started all 16 games at left tackle for the Bears.

The good: Chicago surrendered just 30 sacks, which ranks as the club’s fewest since 2008 and the second fewest for the Bears in seven seasons, and Bushrod played a major role in that. On the season, Bushrod was responsible for four sacks, and that number perhaps could have been greater when taking into account the Bears now utilize an offense designed to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quicker. Perhaps one of Bushrod’s greatest accomplishments in 2013 came in helping the rest of the offensive line learn the team’s new blocking schemes because of his experience working with Kromer in New Orleans. Bushrod was slightly better than average in pass protection. But when Chicago ran the ball behind Bushrod over left tackle, it averaged 5.03 yards per attempt, which ranked as 12th in the NFL.

The bad: In addition to the four sacks Bushrod surrendered, he also allowed nine hits and 42 quarterback pressures. By comparison, in 2012 Webb gave up seven sacks, five hits and 30 hurries. But Webb’s salary wasn’t near what the Bears paid to land Bushrod. So he’s got to perform at a level commensurate to what the Bears are paying. In addition, Bushrod tied with tight end Martellus Bennett for the team lead in penalties (seven). Luckily for the Bears those penalties resulted in only one stalled drive. Five of the flags were called for holding (three) or false start (two). Bushrod’s 2013 season was an improvement over what he did in 2012, but not by much. In 2012, Bushrod gave up four sacks, eight hits and 45 hurries.

2014 outlook: Bushrod is set to count $7.3 million against Chicago’s salary cap in 2014. So while he didn’t play horribly in 2013, he needs to play at the level he’s being paid: as an elite pass-protector. Bushrod knows that, and should improve in Year 2 with the Bears as the offensive line continues to develop chemistry. Down the stretch of 2013, Bushrod displayed signs of improvement. Over the last five games of the season, he surrendered a sack, two hits and six pressures after giving up a sack, three hits and 20 pressures in the five games previous. So perhaps Bushrod can carry that momentum into 2014 because he’ll certainly need to for the Bears to improve upon a strong 2013 campaign in the first year of Trestman’s offense.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- So who’s next in line to be coach of the Tennessee Titans?

My first choice would be Stanford coach David Shaw, but I don’t think the Titans could lure him away from Palo Alto.

General manager Ruston Webster is connected to a lot of coaches who could be candidates from his time in the front offices in Tampa Bay and Seattle.

[+] EnlargeRich Bisaccia
AP Photo/James D. SmithCowboys special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia is a possible candidate for the Titans' head job.
I pondered many of those connections on Christmas Eve. Lovie Smith is off the board, hired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His ties to ownership there would have made it tough for the Titans to get involved even if they had fired Munchak earlier and liked him. Jim Mora appears set on staying at UCLA.

But a few other coaches Webster knows could surface. Dallas Cowboys special teams coach Rich Bisaccia is a name I’ve already heard Webster will consider. Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden or Chicago Bears offensive coordinator and line coach Aaron Kromer might be of interest.

Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, whose current office is only a couple miles from LP Field, is a high-energy coach who’s very popular in Nashville. He has a bit of NFL experience. Adam Schefter says Franklin interviewed with the Houston Texans before they hired Bill O'Brien.

A Pennsylvania native, Franklin is reportedly in line to talk to Penn State about its opening. I feel he’s a better fit with college kids than the NFL, but Webster certainly could feel differently.

Like Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean before me, I’ve heard Bisaccia and Seattle Seawhawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn are guys Webster is likely to interview.

Before the Titans hired Munchak in 2011, I wrote about why I thought Bisaccia would be a good candidate for the job. It included a rave review from Jon Gruden and Derrick Brooks. (And a bad assessment by me of Raheem Morris.)

From what I’ve heard about Bisaccia, I think he might be a Franklin-type in the energy department. He’d bring far more experience coaching guys in the pro ranks. Already on Twitter some are crushing the idea. I’m asking them if John Harbaugh was a bad hire for the Baltimore Ravens. He won the Super Bowl with Baltimore last year and was hired by the Ravens with a resume that was predominantly overseeing special teams with the Philadelphia Eagles. A top special teams coordinators should have head coaching qualities, and it's an outside-the-box idea worthy of consideration.

Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton have been popular names with regard to remaining openings and it would be no surprise if Webster considered them. Greg Roman of the San Francisco 49ers is among the most popular offensive coordinators in the NFL right now.

One guy I do not think will draw Webster's attention: San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, the former coach of the Cardinals. I don't think Webster is a big fan.

Mike Mularkey (not working this season) and New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell interviewed with the Titans when Munchak was hired in 2011. Mularkey got the Jacksonville Jaguars job in 2012 and was a one-year disaster.

Pondering Ruston Webster's connections

December, 24, 2013
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak said on Monday he hopes for the support of general manager Ruston Webster going forward.

We know the two have a good working relationship.

We know Webster has not offered any indication he doesn't support Munchak, but he also has not been out front banging the drum that the coach will or should be back for his fourth season in 2014.

[+] EnlargeRuston Webster
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsTitans general manager Ruston Webster will have some hefty team and personnel decisions to make once the 2013 season ends.
It's not his drum to bang.

Webster will have input, but the final decision belongs to the head of the new ownership group, team president and CEO Tommy Smith.

Webster may tell Smith he believes completely in Munchak and thinks he should be back. He also may say otherwise.

Munchak was the hire of late owner Bud Adams, and Mike Reinfeldt was general manager at the time. Reinfeldt moved up a notch in the front office to senior executive vice president and chief operating officer in 2012, and Webster was then promoted to GM.

Then Adams fired Reinfeldt after the 2012 season, largely for his failure to chase Peyton Manning as aggressively as the owner wanted him to.

Smith made it clear when he recently spoke to Nashville media that Webster is well liked and completely safe as the team’s top football executive in Nashville.

Webster is low key and hardly a power-hungry guy. But his reputation is on the line when he gives Smith his assessment. He may never have a position of more strength, and if he believes the Titans would be better served by a new coach, he will say so. And he would have a big hand in putting candidates in front of Smith.

If Webster backs Munchak, the coach stays and things don't get better, Webster’s rep gets dented, too.

I don’t know what his answer will be when Smith says, “What should we do?” But I don’t think it’s a certainty that he feels married to Munchak in the way many seem to assume.

Webster worked for the Buccaneers from 1988-05 and for the Seahawks from 2006-09.

I looked at the staffs of those teams to create a list of guys he could look to if he’s asked to provide candidates to take over for Munchak. A front-office guy isn’t always in position to get to know coaching staffs well, but Webster certainly knew many of these guys on a level where he gained some insight. Maybe no one with a previous connection would be a candidate, but usually there would be at least one guy with some prior connection in the mix.

Webster has worked with head coaches Ray Perkins, Richard Williamson, Sam Wyche, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden and Mike Holmgren in addition to Jeff Fisher and Munchak.

It's rather amazing some of the coaches he has worked with when they were assistants with the Buccaneers and Seahawks. Eleven of them went on to be head coaches: Mike Mularkey, Herm Edwards, Rod Marinelli, Lovie Smith, Jim Caldwell, Mike Tomlin, Raheem Morris, Ray Rhodes, Jim Zorn, Jim Mora and Gus Bradley.

And he’s been with the same organization as some well known, quality assistants: Sylvester Croom (again now with the Titans), Mike Shula, David Culley, Monte Kiffin, Clyde Christensen, Rich Bisaccia, Kyle Shanahan, Bruce DeHaven and Greg Knapp.

Mularkey was one of the guys the Titans looked at when Adams wound up promoting Munchak. Mularkey flamed out in one season in Jacksonville in his second stint as a head coach, and I doubt his overbearing, controlling style would be attractive at this point.

Smith, Caldwell and Jay Gruden are on the NFL’s Career Advisory Development Panel’s list of head coaching candidates, per Peter King of The MMQB.

I’ve not talked to Webster about any of these guys. If he’s creating a list, it wouldn’t surprise me if one or more of these names are on it based on his previous experience with them.

Lovie Smith had a good run with the Bears before being fired after a 10-6 season in 2012. He’s a cool and collected coach from the Dungy tree. The issue is that he’s a defensive coach who consistently failed to develop a quarterback with the Bears and could never find the people or formula to build an offensive line that offered sufficient protection. Smith was linebackers coach in Tampa from 1996 through 2000. The Titans have severe linebacker issues.

• Current Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was an offensive assistant with the Buccaneers in 2004-05 while Webster was also in Tampa. Gruden has passed on some head coaching interview opportunities in the recent past, but might feel ready for them now. My one big concern based of what I saw of him on "Hard Knocks" is the super complicated play calls in his offense. I like him as a candidate if he promised to scale back and simplify.

Aaron Kromer was a senior assistant with the 2005 Bucs and is now offensive coordinator and offensive line coach of the Chicago Bears. Things have gotten a lot better with the Bears offense this season, but how much of that has been because of him and how much is because of his boss, Marc Trestman? Kromer worked as an interim head coach during one stage of Sean Payton's suspension with the Saints in 2012. That was hardly a raging success. They started 0-4 and finished his six games 2-4. I’m told he’s dry publicly, but confident.

• UCLA coach Jim Mora coached defensive backs for the Seahawks in 2007 and bumped up to assistant head coach and defensive backs coach in 2008. I have no idea if he’s interested in a return to the NFL. But in three seasons as Atlanta’s head coach (2004-06) he compiled a 27-23 record. Perhaps he’ll be regarded as a guy whose second turn as a head coach after time away from working as an NFL head coach could be a lot better. It worked that way for Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Shaking his head and smiling, Josh McCown paused for a couple of seconds Thursday to consider how someone could hear his thick Texas drawl in the huddle and think it’s reminiscent of “a combination of Jesus and Ben Stiller,” as tight end Martellus Bennett had just described it minutes earlier.

“Uh, I’m trying to process Ben Stiller and Jesus,” McCown said, laughing. “I just want to be there to listen to them two talk, because I think that would be cool.”

McCown took some ribbing for his accent at Halas Hall this week, with offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer joking the quarterback’s drawl “slowed [offensive calls] down just a little bit.” But nobody inside the locker room or the organization is complaining about the results produced by McCown, who is 2-0 in relief of starting quarterback Jay Cutler.

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJosh McCown's play has earned him high praise indeed from his Bears coaches and teammates.
McCown has completed 61 of 101 passes for 754 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions, to go with a passer rating of 100.0, and the Bears' offense hasn’t seemed to skip a beat without Cutler in the picture.

Coming into the season, McCown, 34, owned a record of 13-20 as a starter, which makes his recent success seem somewhat improbable.

“Someone once said a long time ago, the difference between a very good player and an average player is reps,” St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “And that’s clearly what we see on tape with Josh. He’s a fine football player. He’s playing very well. His numbers reflect that.”

McCown attributes his success to a combination of factors, ranging from a more mature approach to the game to the bevy of weapons surrounding him, not to mention a strong belief in the scheme brought to Chicago by Bears coach Marc Trestman. McCown hasn’t started more than two games in a season since 2007, when he struggled to a 2-7 record with the Oakland Raiders.

Even after that bout of adversity, a year out of the game in 2010, and mostly fruitless stops with two more teams (including Chicago), McCown doesn’t “know if I allowed myself” to consider whether he’d ever again receive an opportunity to start in the NFL.

“I wasn’t hoping it would happen. I wasn’t going, ‘I can’t wait until Jay gets hurt so I get a chance,’” McCown said. “It was just more of every day trying to get better so that if I have to play, I’ll be ready to play and be productive. Nothing more than that, and nothing more than just so I can be productive for this team right now. On whatever day that is, can I go out and play good football and give us a chance to win the ballgame?”

McCown obviously has answered that question in the affirmative in his last two outings. Asked about the quarterback’s winding career path, Trestman said, “You just learn that every quarterback’s on their own journey.”

“You look at the history of the game and where quarterbacks come from. Some are drafted in the first round and do well, others don’t. Others are drafted the 199th pick in the draft, and they wind up winning three Super Bowls and are Hall of Famers. Other guys are working in a grocery store one year and the next year they’re MVPs in Super Bowls,” Trestman said. “Another guy I coached didn’t start playing until he was 29 years old, and he’s in the Hall of Fame today. So they all have their own way of reaching this moment.

“Josh in an unselfish guy who works very hard, who just has been working hard his whole career, doing whatever’s asked of him to do, and he’s in a position to help this football team, and I don’t think he’s carrying it on his shoulders. Everybody is on their own journey in their own place emotionally, physically, and you know Josh is in that place right now.”

In the huddle, however, McCown seems right at home, despite Bennett’s colorful description.

Asked how McCown sounds in the huddle, Bennett said, “Ben Stiller, maybe, but Ben Stiller in ‘Heavyweights.’ Yeah, it’s a little country, but it’s a combination of Jesus and Ben Stiller.”

“We’ve all heard Jesus,” the tight end added. “But some of us aren’t listening.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Jay Cutler’s drop-backs against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday likely won’t include the familiar sight of him patting the ball indecisively, as the pass rush comes barreling through the protection.

Instead, expect rhythmic, on-time throws from what might be shaping up to be a new Cutler in a new Bears offense under coach Marc Trestman.

“In the new offense and where we’re at right now, I think this is probably the most comfortable I’ve felt in a new offense, [despite] not having as many reps as somebody [who is in] Year 2 or 3 of the offense,” Cutler said. “We want to get rid of the ball quick. You don’t really want to give 97 [Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins] and those other guys a lot of time to work into their second moves because they get to the quarterback. They get to the quarterback a lot, and they show you a lot of different fronts, which makes it even more difficult trying to figure out who’s who. So we’ve got to be on it with our protection game, and on the outside, guys have got to get open quickly.”

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Rob Grabowski/USA TODAY SportsFiery Bears QB Jay Cutler appeared to be a happy camper this summer. Will that hold during the regular season?
Although the Raiders took on the look of inferior competition when the Bears faced them on Aug. 23, Cutler’s performance provided a glimpse of what this new offense might blossom into at some point this season. Given that it was the third preseason game -- widely viewed as the most important -- it marked the first time the coaching staff actually game planned a defense, and pulled real plays from the playbook as opposed to keeping the scheme basic as a deterrent to revealing too much to future opponents.

Cutler responded by hitting 3 of 5 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown during Chicago’s first two drives, before finishing the game with 142 yards passing and a 93.8 rating in two quarters of action.

The staff expects a similar performance Sunday with more extensive game planning and the team going deeper into the playbook to utilize concepts that work best for Cutler.

“I think Jay, just as we saw in the third preseason game when we really amped it up and ran our offense, I thought he did a good job with getting the ball off is what we said at the time, and the timing with which he did that, and the way he ran the offense was impressive, and he’s done it ever since,” offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said. “So we feel good about entering this game.”

The staff and Cutler expect some mistakes, though.

“There’s gonna be bumps in the road. There’s gonna be some missed assignments; just want to minimize them as much as we can,” said Cutler, who Trestman has described all preseason as being “even-keeled.”

Throughout Cutler’s career in Chicago, “even-keeled” seems to have been the antithesis of the quarterback.

Even Trestman admits he “really won’t know” the truth about Cutler “until some adversity hits.” But the coach expects Cutler to not deviate very far from the quarterback he’s been.

“He’s a fiery guy and I think people know that,” Trestman said. “He’s a very competitive, tough man and tough player. So I expect some of that to come out as we move along. I think he’s been very even-keeled as far as his preparation, work ethic and determination to learn and get things done from his position standpoint.”

Trestman considers the fiery element of Cutler as something “universal in guys who are confident in their abilities, their skill set, both physical and emotional skill set. I think that’s pretty common.” That’s why Trestman won’t attempt to quell Cutler during those times when he does suffer the occasional blowup.

“His demeanor, because he is the quarterback, is critically important. I think there’s going to be moments like that, that’s just part of who he is and I’m not going to take that away from him,” Trestman said. “From my standpoint, I don’t think you’re going to see somebody firing back. I’m going to let him wear himself out, get it off his chest, tell him to go back and play the next play. At the end of the day, I know that when a player gets that way, that’s not really who he is. It’s an emotional game, and guys are going to lose it for a minute. The most important thing is to get back to move on to the next situation. That’s what I hope to do is to, just be there to help him get on to the next play, the next quarter, the next game, whatever it might be. That’s part of my job to help him do that.”

Cutler’s job, meanwhile, is to move the offense; put it in the best position to succeed by making smart, timely decisions and taking care of the football. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod recognizes the potential difficulty in that.

“He has a lot that he has to take on, mentally, to take Coach Trestman’s and Coach Kromer’s ideas and philosophies from the classroom to the playing field. Then, he has to take it to the [game] come Sunday,” Bushrod said. “He’s doing a great job picking it up, and I can see it every day with him making calls and putting us in the right position to do what we have to do.”

Trestman thinks this year “we’re going to find out where [Cutler] is” as a quarterback.

Cutler, meanwhile, seems to relish the challenge.

“I’m just kind of a piece of the puzzle. It takes those 10 other guys to do their jobs for me to do mine,” Cutler said. “That being said, at the quarterback position we do have a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of responsibility. I own up to that each and every day.”
We're taking a league-wide look at the impact new head coaches will have on their teams. The NFC South doesn't technically have a new coach, but a familiar face will be back from a long absence. Let's take a look at how the return of Sean Payton from a season-long suspension will affect the Saints.

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsHow much the defense improves may dictate the results in Sean Payton's return as Saints coach.
Biggest change to expect: Interim coaches Joe Vitt and Aaron Kromer did as well as they could under some incredibly difficult circumstances. But Payton has said that watching the Saints last season was like watching children with a babysitter. Things weren’t run exactly the way Payton runs them. He’ll be back in control, and that means he’ll have his eye on everything, so there should be a lot more order.

What success would look like: The whole world knows the offense is going to be good as long as Drew Brees is at quarterback. But the defense needs to be markedly better than it was a year ago when the Saints ranked No. 32 in the league. The organization and its fans have come to expect double-digit wins. That will only happen if new coordinator Rob Ryan can get more out of the defense.

Don’t forget the running game: Payton has said he wants more out of the running game this year. Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas will have roles. But I think this is the year the Saints start to really use Mark Ingram. A first-round pick in 2011, Ingram was underutilized in his first two seasons. He has the ability to run between the tackles, control the clock and take some of the pressure off the defense.

More or fewer wins? The Saints will play enough defense to get to 10-6 and into the playoffs.
Three years of horrendous pass protection has finally compelled the Chicago Bears to address their offensive line. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter and others, the Bears have agreed to terms with free agent Jermon Bushrod, who spent his first six seasons with the New Orleans Saints.

Bushrod
Bushrod has been named to the Pro Bowl the past two seasons and gives the Bears their first legitimate left tackle since John Tait retired after the 2008 season. A patchwork journey that included Orlando Pace, Chris Williams, Frank Omiyale and most recently J'Marcus Webb -- Oh, the memories! -- led the Bears to pay what will likely be a premium price to lock down the position. The Bears chose Bushrod over fellow free agent Jake Long, presumably, because offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer coached him in New Orleans.

Kudos to Kromer, coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery for recognizing and finally acting on such an obvious liability. We've spent so much time discussing the state of the Bears' offensive line, and their annually unreasonable requests of former line coach Mike Tice to patch it together, that is feels surreal to acknowledge such a significant move.

Webb presumably will be given a chance to compete at right tackle, the position where he began his career and where 2011 first-round draft pick Gabe Carimi has flopped.

In 40 regular-season games over the past three seasons, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has absorbed 113 sacks -- the highest per-game percentage in the NFL and the third-most in raw sack numbers among quarterbacks during that stretch, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Cutler's shove and verbal harangue of Webb in Week 2 last season was but one illustration of his frustration in the Bears' pass protection over his tenure.

The Bears still have work to do, even after signing Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett. Right guard Lance Louis remains unsigned, as is left guard Chris Spencer. The Bears want Louis back but will need to find a replacement for Spencer. It's also a bit scary to know that the top two candidates to play right tackle are both previously deposed starters. And let's not forget that center Roberto Garza has always been considered a stopgap replacement for Olin Kreutz, not necessarily a long-term replacement.

But left tackle is by far the most important position on the offensive line. The Saints didn't have the salary-cap space to keep Bushrod, and quite frankly I don't know how the Bears did, either. That's a discussion for another day. In the end, the Bears decided to stop their five-year charade at the position and have finally addressed it in a substantive way. Can you believe it?
The New Orleans Saints have lost left tackle Jermon Bushrod.

He has agreed to a contract with the Chicago Bears, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Although Bushrod is the guy that was responsible for protecting Drew Brees’ blind side, this isn’t a total surprise. The Saints knew Bushrod was going to have a pretty strong market value and they knew their cap situation was going to limit what they could do to keep him. Bushrod will also be reunited with former Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, who now is the offensive coordinator in Chicago.

I don’t want to diminish the loss of Bushrod, who made it to two Pro Bowls with the Saints. But this isn’t the end of the world for the Saints because they put their offensive line together differently than most teams. The Saints build from the inside out.

They paid huge money to guard Jahri Evans and good money to fellow guard Ben Grubbs. As long as the Saints are strong at the two guard positions, their philosophy is that they can get by with average guys at the other spots on the offensive line.

There’s precedent there. In recent years, the Saints let right tackle Jon Stinchcomb and left tackle Jammal Brown leave. They replaced them with Zach Strief and Bushrod. That worked out all right.

Maybe now is the time for Charles Brown to step up. Or maybe it’s time for the Saints to bring in some marginal guy from outside. Either way, history has shown that playing with strong guards in New Orleans can make a tackle look good.

Bears: First glance at Mel Tucker

January, 21, 2013
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New Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman largely completed his coaching staff during the extended weekend I took away from the blog. Based on this roster on the Bears' website, it appears he still needs position coaches for receivers and linebackers but has most of the major hires in place.

[+] EnlargeMel Tucker
Jason O. Watson/Getty ImagesMarc Trestman hired Mel Tucker (above) to run the Bears' defense.
That includes all three coordinators: Aaron Kromer on offense, Mel Tucker on defense and Joe DeCamillis for special teams. Given how much we've already discussed Trestman's role in revitalizing the Bears' offense, I thought it was worth taking a first glance at Tucker's history as an NFL coordinator.

A few graybeards might join me in recalling Tucker as a defensive back at Wisconsin from 1992-95. His first job as an NFL coordinator came with the Cleveland Browns in 2008, when he was 36, and if he has a connection with Trestman, I'm not aware of it.

More simply, Trestman just moved quickly to hire one of the league's most respected young coordinators after Rod Marinelli turned down his offer to remain with the team. Tucker has been sought after for years, including last season when the Minnesota Vikings tried to hire him as their defensive coordinator, and with some quick success in Chicago he could be a strong head-coaching candidate.

The Bears offered Tucker a pretty decent platform to succeed, given Trestman's focus on offense and their returning nucleus of three All-Pro players. Trestman seems open to the most basic decisions, including whether Tucker runs a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. (His patience in that regard could be a different story. As Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune noted, Trestman went through four defensive coordinators in the past four years as the Montréal Alouettes' head coach.)

It's difficult to compose a comprehensive statistical profile of a defensive coach. In many ways, you would hope that his tendencies change with the ebb and flow of personnel. But to start off the Tucker conversation, at least, I pulled the blitz percentages of all five defenses he has coordinated -- one year with the Browns and four with the Jaguars.

As the chart shows, Tucker has never had among the top 10 heaviest-blitzing defenses. And in his past two years, he has been one of the lightest blitzers in the NFL. Even Marinelli, a devotee to the four-man standard rush that distinguishes the "Tampa 2," sent extra rushers more than Tucker in both the 2010 and 2011 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

We should be careful about drawing too many conclusions from that information. It doesn't necessarily mean Tucker is passive and/or somehow doesn't believe in pressuring the quarterback. Most coordinators will tell you that they want to apply pressure with the fewest amount of defenders as possible.

It's true that the Jaguars had the second-lowest rate of sacks per drop backs (4.5 percent) in the NFL over that stretch. But sacks alone aren't always the best measure of a pass rush. Opposing quarterbacks averaged 2.63 seconds in the pocket against the Jaguars over that time period, the eighth-lowest in the league. That's a statistical way of suggesting quarterbacks threw the ball before the rush could get there.

Again, this post offers just a glimpse of the coach who will lead the Bears' transition from a scheme they have run for most of the past decade. I'm sure we'll add to the conversation as we move forward.
As we've discussed, the Chicago Bears retained most of former coach Lovie Smith's assistants to give their new coach the option of keeping them as part of his new regime. The Bears did allow special teams coordinator Dave Toub to depart for the Kansas City Chiefs, and it appears new coach Marc Trestman at least will bring in new offensive coaches as well.

ESPN's Adam Schefter has already reported Trestman's first hire: Former New Orleans Saints assistant Aaron Kromer as offensive coordinator/offensive line. Kromer and Trestman worked together on the Oakland Raiders' staff in 2001 and 2002, and their respective backgrounds suggest that Trestman will call the plays in 2013. It also means that Mike Tice, the Bears' offensive coordinator in 2012 and offensive line coach in 2010 and 2011, will be looking for a new position.

On the other hand, you wonder if Trestman would consider keeping defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and the rest of the Bears' respected defensive staff. That decision will be based in part on whether Trestman wants to continue the "Tampa 2" framework that Smith brought to the Bears in 2004 and has been well coordinated by Marinelli since 2010.

Hopefully Trestman will shed some light on that possibility during a news conference scheduled for 11 a.m. ET on Thursday.

Saints lose Kromer to Bears

January, 16, 2013
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The drama that’s been following the New Orleans Saints for the last 10 months hasn’t stopped.

The latest development is that the team lost a valued member of its coaching staff. Adam Schefter reported that offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will be the new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach in Chicago.

Kromer was highly respected by the Saints and that was reinforced when he was named the interim head coach for the first six games of the season. Although the Saints started off 0-4, Kromer drew wide praise for keeping the team together during some difficult circumstances.

Kromer’s contract expired after the season. Although general manager Mickey Loomis said new contracts were offered to the coaches whose contracts had expired, the opportunity to be a coordinator for new Chicago coach Marc Trestman apparently was too tempting for Kromer.

When coach Sean Payton returns from suspension after the Super Bowl, one of his first tasks will be to find a replacement for Kromer.
Sean Payton’s second rebuilding job might be more of a chore than his first.

Friday night’s news that Payton and the New Orleans Saints have agreed to the outline of a new contract extension should bring joy to a fan base that’s been suffering since the bounty scandal broke back in March. Go ahead and celebrate a bit, because this means Payton isn’t jumping over to the Dallas Cowboys.

Payton
But don’t automatically assume that Payton stepping back in will instantly repair all that’s wrong with the Saints. Assuming the deal gets finalized and is approved by the NFL, which nullified Payton’s previous contract extension, the coach is going to have his work cut out for him when he rejoins the team.

The league previously has said Payton will be eligible to return from his season-long suspension the day after the Super Bowl. It’s a good thing that Payton recently competed in a half-marathon, because he is going to have to hit the ground running if the Saints are going to get back to what they once were.

With Aaron Kromer coaching the first six games and Joe Vitt taking over after that, the Saints are 7-8 heading into Sunday’s season finale against Carolina. The Saints are missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

There’s no doubt Payton’s absence played a major role in the Saints’ decline. But does his return mean New Orleans will immediately bounce back?

Payton still will have quarterback Drew Brees and one of the NFL’s most imaginative offensive playbooks, but it’s not going to be easy to fix everything in one offseason.

The Saints are an aging team in some areas and Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis are going to have to make some difficult decisions, because New Orleans currently has $135 million committed toward a 2013 salary cap that is expected to be around $120 million.

That means veterans such as linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Will Smith, safety Roman Harper and others could be salary-cap casualties. The Saints have a defense that’s ranked No. 32 in the league and may end up setting a record for yards allowed in a season. It’s not going to be easy to fix that defense when you don’t have salary-cap room. The offensive line and wide-receiver corps also could use some work, but any improvements will have to come at bargain-basement prices.

But there is reason for optimism, too. Back in 2006, Payton took over a franchise and put it in the playoffs in his first season. In his fourth season, Payton won a Super Bowl.

Report: Mike Sullivan on BC's radar

December, 2, 2012
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We’ve known that New Orleans assistants Aaron Kromer and Pete Carmichael were on the radar for the head-coaching job at Boston College. But, apparently, they aren’t the only NFC South coaches being linked to the job.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter just reported that Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan has expressed an interest in the Boston College job.

If Sullivan were to land the Boston College job, it would be a big blow to the Buccaneers. In his first season as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator, Sullivan has revived quarterback Josh Freeman’s career and given the Bucs the most entertaining offense in franchise history.

In addition to what he’s done on the field with the Bucs, Sullivan could have one other edge in getting the Boston College job. Sullivan previously was an assistant to New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who is a former Boston College coach with deep ties to the school.

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