NFL Nation: Aaron Kromer

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CHICAGO -- A black Vanderbilt cap pulled low over his brow, Jay Cutler plopped down at the podium, took three questions and bailed before the entire media corps had even descended from the locker room to where the Chicago Bears hold press conferences.

Too bad Cutler wasn't as successful escaping the New Orleans Saints in Monday night's 31-15 shellacking in which he tossed three interceptions, suffered seven sacks and finished with a season-low passer rating of 55.8. For a man receiving $22.5 million in 2014 as part of a seven-year contract worth $126.7 million, the production isn't matching up to the salary.

"Just trying to get better for these next two games," Cutler said. "Just going out and trying to get a good performance offensively."

Cutler failed in that endeavor against New Orleans' 31st-ranked defense, a group that forced the quarterback to extend his NFL lead for turnovers (24) as he tossed two of his three interceptions during a first half in which he generated a passer rating of 14.9.

[+] EnlargeCutler
Matt Marton/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints sacked Bears quarterback Jay Cutler seven times on Monday night.
Both Cutler and Bears coach Marc Trestman downplayed the possibility that the quarterback's performance was negatively impacted by the drama permeating the team during the week of preparation. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, during a team meeting last Monday, reportedly tearfully apologized to Cutler and the offense for criticizing the quarterback to an NFL Network reporter after a Dec. 4 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Kromer revealed he was the anonymous source in the NFL Network report, which stated the organization was feeling buyer's remorse regarding its high-priced quarterback. While Kromer admitted to criticizing Cutler, he denied any other involvement in the report.

"No, I don't think so," Cutler said when asked if the distractions at Halas Hall during the week had a negative impact. "Just have to look at the film. I have to play better. We'll take a look tomorrow and see exactly what slowed us down."

Trestman said the activity at Halas Hall had no impact on the team during the week. "Excellent work during the week, energy, meetings were good," he said. "Absolutely none."

So what happened, then?

The Bears brought aboard Trestman in January 2013 because of his ability to coax the best from quarterbacks. He'd gained a reputation for helping signal-callers such as Steve Young and Rich Gannon improve. In nearly two complete seasons under Trestman, Cutler owns a 10-15 record.

What's worse is that the promise Cutler flashed during his first year working with Trestman sparked general manager Phil Emery to lock up the quarterback with a long-term deal that more and more is appearing to look like an albatross. On top of his NFL-high salary this year, Cutler is scheduled to receive $15.5 million fully guaranteed in 2015.

Such monstrous figures limit Chicago's ability to add more quality players, which wouldn't be as significant an issue if the quarterback were performing at the level of his salary.

As of Dec. 10, five teams around the NFL had at least 14 percent of their salary caps allocated to the quarterback position, with the Pittsburgh Steelers leading the way at 16 percent, followed by the New York Giants (15.9), St. Louis Rams (15.1), Chicago (14.4) and New Orleans (14.4). Obviously, three of those teams have quarterbacks with Super Bowl rings. Even Denver and Green Bay -- teams with Super Bowl-winning signal-callers -- have smaller percentages of their overall caps allocated to the quarterback position than Chicago.

Like Cutler and Trestman, players in the locker room Monday night downplayed the impact of Kromer's confession and apology -- for an act that constitutes a breach of trust -- on the offense's performance against the Saints. The Bears were just 2-of-12 on third-down attempts and lost the total yardage battle 443-278.

"Not at all," right tackle Jordan Mills said when asked about the Kromer situation impacting the offense. "People make mistakes. We're not perfect. That had nothing to do with our focus this week. [Kromer] apologized for it, and we moved on from it. He was sincere about it. But Coach Kromer cares about all of us and he knows we're not perfect, that he's not perfect. None of that affected us. We just need to be more consistent."

Tight end Martellus Bennett likened the offense's struggles to walking through a dark room, arms outstretched, fingers trailing the walls in search of a light switch.

"You can put anything on paper, but when you show up, the game is played on grass," Bennett said. "I think there are some positions on the team that need to step up the leadership and things like that. Overall, I just feel like we need passion to come from certain places, and I don't think the passion is always there. Overall, it just hasn't been there."

So, who's missing the passion?

"Several people," Bennett said. "But I don't really get into the name thing. They know who they are."
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Aaron Kromer broke locker room code and breached the trust of quarterback Jay Cutler, but in the wake of this latest demonstration of dysfunction at Halas Hall, it’s worth pondering what the Chicago Bears brass would actually accomplish now by firing the offensive coordinator. Not that it's been discussed.

While Kromer likely brought about at least a small amount of distrust within the locker room by criticizing Cutler on background to an NFL Network reporter last week, on the flip side, there are players in that locker room who believe the offensive coordinator simply said what needed to be said. According to the Chicago Tribune, Kromer, during a meeting on Monday, made a tearful apology for criticizing Cutler, which led to a report by the network Sunday that the organization is feeling “buyer’s remorse” after signing the signal-caller to a seven-year, $126.7 million contract.

[+] EnlargeAaron Kromer
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsFiring Aaron Kromer for his criticism of QB Jay Cutler wouldn't solve the problems that continue to plague the Bears.
Kromer apologized again during a news conference Friday and Cutler said he respected that and the relationship is good.

Kromer's sentiment shouldn’t come as a surprise. If you buy a Ferrari and it handles like a bobsled, wouldn’t you have buyer’s remorse, too?

“It doesn’t always fall on (Cutler),” Bears receiver Brandon Marshall said Monday during “The Brandon Marshall Show” on ESPN 1000. “I guess that's why those guys are the highest paid players out there because when you win and everything is going good, they get all the glory. When it's bad, they take more than what they should take. But I can understand that. As far as a businessman, I would have buyer's remorse, too."

That’s only natural for a team coming into the season with high hopes hinging on a quarterback the organization believed had finally turned the corner and was poised to finally live up to the promise of his immense physical gifts.

The Bears acquired Cutler from the Denver Broncos in a 2009 trade, and since the quarterback's arrival in Chicago, the team has advanced to the postseason only once (2010). In five-plus seasons with the Bears, Cutler has played in four offensive systems for four coordinators, and it seemed possible the latest revelation could result in the club bringing in No. 5.

But what would that accomplish at this point?

After all, Kromer doesn’t call plays or make important personnel decisions. That’s all on head coach Marc Trestman. Kromer is this team’s offensive coordinator in title only.

Cutler, 31, leads the league in turnovers (a league-high 15 interceptions and six fumbles), but currently owns the highest passer rating (91.7) of his nine-year NFL career.

Trestman on Monday remained committed to Cutler as the club's starting quarterback.

Perhaps he should, considering Cutler was actually involved in the interview process that brought Trestman to Chicago. Let’s also remember the Bears chose Trestman over current Arizona head coach Bruce Arians.

Was it because Cutler preferred the subdued Trestman over the demonstrative, take-charge Arians?

Regardless of what the answer to that question is, the fact is Cutler has been coddled for way too long in Chicago. Some players in the locker room know that. They also probably know that firing Kromer won’t change anything as the man who calls the plays, makes the decisions, and seems to struggle to hold Cutler accountable will still be in place.

Make no mistake, what Kromer said wasn’t wrong. It was just the manner in which he did it.

Ultimately though, while firing Kromer now might restore a little of the trust in the locker room, the truth is such a move would only do what the organization has done all along, and that’s to bend over backwards for a quarterback who isn’t providing real return on investment.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Dating all the way back to September, the Chicago Bears brass routinely spouted rhetoric about the need to achieve a more balanced run-pass ratio. Yet the Bears haven’t delivered.

With the Bears coming off a 34-17 loss at Detroit in which they called 48 passes and eight runs -- a franchise low for runs in a game -- such talk continued at Halas Hall Monday as they prepare to host the Dallas Cowboys Thursday night at Soldier Field.

“We’re just trying to get some balance in our offense. We’ve got to take the mistakes we made last week and turn them into a positive this week,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “One of the things we know we have to do is we have to attempt to run the ball more. As I said to our team, ‘We don’t have to run the ball for 7 yards a carry.’ Running the football has a residual effect on a lot of different things. It helps your movement game. It helps your play-action game. We all know these things. We didn’t get it done last week. We admit to that, and we have to move forward.”

Forte
Forte
That’s all been said before by Trestman, quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Matt Forte and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. With an offense featuring one of the league’s best rushers in Forte, the team has called more runs than passes only once this season, and that was during a 38-17 loss to Green Bay Sept. 28.

Even during the team’s five victories, the Bears called 109 runs to 163 passes. The closest to achieving true balance with the run and pass was the club’s Nov. 23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in which the Bears ran 26 times and called 27 passes.

“It’s of the utmost importance, especially if we’re playing outside with the weather and stuff,” Forte said. “You can’t just sit back there and throw 50 passes a game and expect to win. [Against Detroit], the front four were pinning their ears back. They didn’t have anything to do but pass rush. They’re not respecting the run, and then if you play fake, they’re not going to take the play fake because you haven’t been running the ball. It’s a big part of the play-action game, to keep the defense off of keying on exactly what to do, whether it’s pass rush or trying to stop the run.”

Considering Chicago hadn’t scored a touchdown in the first quarter of six consecutive games until Thursday against the Lions, the Bears have been playing from behind in many cases. But even then, Kromer believes the Bears can still benefit from running the ball because it opens up other facets of the game.

Headed into the matchup with Detroit, the game plan was to hit the Lions with the quick passing game and screens before leaning on the rushing attack.

“But then the game didn’t present itself the way we hoped at that point where we got down by two touchdowns, and then we had to try to throw it to get back in it, we felt,” Kromer said. “A (part) of it is individual game plans. So you’re playing Detroit and they’re giving up very limited amount of run yards and so you say to yourself, ‘Well, but they’re not doing a great job on the perimeter versus the quick screens,' and so like I said, we’re trying to establish that at first, and then start to run it more often as the game went on. But what’s not happening is we’re not in the game when we’re going to start running it more, and then it becomes a passing game.”

That complicates matters for the entire offense.

Cutler
“It’s hard, it makes things hard,” Cutler said. “If you’re running the ball efficiently and giving the illusion you’re going to run the ball, it definitely helps. You want to throw the ball. You want to throw touchdowns. You want to throw for big yards. But you definitely want to win football games, and I think anyone who has been doing this for a while realizes you’ve got to have the best of both worlds. You’ve got to be able to run the ball. You’ve got to be able to do some play-action. There’s no one out there who can drop back 40 to 50 times consistently and win football games. It’s really hard.”

That’s why the Bears hope to flip the script against Dallas, which currently ranks 22nd against the run (allowing 119.6 yards per game) and is coming off an outing in which LeSean McCoy ripped the defense for 159 yards and a touchdown.

“I trust our offensive line and those guys want to run the ball, too,” Forte said. “I know they were upset about the outcome last week. This defense that we’re going up against is really good against [the run], too. They might be ranked lower, but ranks don’t mean anything in the NFL.”

In 8-degree temperatures with a wind chill of minus-9 at Soldier Field last season against the Cowboys, the Bears racked up 490 total yards, with 149 of that coming courtesy of the rushing attack. The Bears called 32 runs and 36 passes in that outing and will need to achieve similar balance Thursday against the Cowboys to come out on top.

“We’ve got to get some more balance in our football, and part of that is being able to run the ball, not just more effectively, but to allow it to [be in] balance with the other things we do. We’ve got tremendous targets outside,” Trestman said. “We’ve got three tremendous targets and we’ve got a very good running back. We’ve got to continue to work to try to balance all that out. We would have liked to run it more [against Detroit]. It didn’t happen that way, and we’ve got to move forward to Dallas. We could have that discussion forever.”
Observed and heard in the locker room after the Chicago Bears' 21-13 victory over Tampa Bay:

Although the Bears constantly harp about forcing turnovers, several players in the locker room said they expected to gobble up more takeaways as the weather worsened.

As the game progressed Sunday, the rain began to fall harder and the Bears forced three turnovers in the third quarter alone -- four for the game.

Fuller
Fuller's status uncertain: Rookie Kyle Fuller left Sunday's game with a knee injury, but the extent wasn't immediately known. Fuller dressed at his locker with no wraps or bandages on either knee and appeared to be walking just fine.

Kromer stays late: Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer stayed in the locker room and met for several minutes with tight end Martellus Bennett before going over to offensive linemen Jordan Mills and Kyle Long. Bennett appeared to be discussing better ways to get open for Jay Cutler.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Jay Cutler owns a 1-10 record against the Green Bay Packers, but when asked Thursday whether a common denominator existed in the futility, the quarterback gave little explanation.

"Different coordinators, different teams," Cutler said. "It’s different circumstances every time."

Yet the results remain the same on most occasions.

In 10 regular-season games against the Packers, Cutler has passed for 2,184 yards, 13 touchdowns and 19 interceptions to go with a passer rating of 67.0.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Scott BoehmJay Cutler and the Bears need to win the turnover battle if they are to upset Green Bay on Sunday.
Cutler’s last victory against the Packers came in 2010, and in that outing, the quarterback completed just 59.3 percent of his throws for one touchdown and one interception and a passer rating of 82.5. The Bears used a 62-yard punt return by Devin Hester, a timely strip from Brian Urlacher and a Tim Jennings recovery to win the game 20-17 on Robbie Gould's 19-yard field goal with four seconds left.

Another notable from that game: officials flagged the Green Bay Packers 18 times.

Still, Cutler and the Chicago Bears (3-5) believe they have a chance to turn around what’s thus far been a disappointing season for a club which came into the year with high expectations.

"If we didn’t believe we might as well go home," Cutler said. "That’s the only thing we can do is stay positive, keep working. I thought the guys have done a fabulous job of coming back and staying positive, and keep working and improving on things. You look at the film, and we’re definitely doing things to hurt ourselves. There’s no doubt about that."

Cutler certainly shares in some of that, having turned over the ball an NFL-high 12 times, leading to 44 points by opponents. Under Bears coach Marc Trestman the past two seasons, the team owns an 8-0 record when it finishes on the positive side of the turnover margin.

Yet the Bears have ended up on the negative end of the turnover margin in all five of their losses this season, and are 2-9 in those circumstances the past two seasons under Trestman.

"Obviously, he’s a huge part of the offense being the quarterback," running back Matt Forte said of Cutler. "Every offense has that guy, but we count on everybody as a group. We got to come together as an offense. Everyone has to be on the same page for it work. We’re all on the same page, it’s just we haven’t been executing the plays. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the same page sometimes. Everybody is not perfect. There’s going to be mistakes out there. We just have to do less of those mistakes. The main factor of those games that we lost, every game that we lost, we lost the turnover battle and that’s the most compelling fact about it."

Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said that nothing in particular stood out last week when they conducted a self-evaluation of the offense during its time off, and a source indicated the staff doesn't plan to tweak much with the scheme or play-calling, despite the bye-week analysis. Kromer noted that Cutler "seems refreshed" since the club returned to Halas Hall to begin preparation for Sunday’s game against the Packers.

"Everybody on the team has gotten an opportunity to watch what happened throughout the [first eight games of the] season. They spend so much time during the week getting ready for the next opponent. They study themselves, and then they go right into the next opponent right away," Kromer said. "What it’s given everybody is an opportunity -- the bye week, that is -- an opportunity to study themselves. I think it has helped Jay, as well as everyone."

It’s unclear whether it will help Cutler finally put forth a winning performance against the Packers. The quarterback turned over the ball twice during a 38-17 loss to the Packers on Sept. 28 at Soldier Field.

But Trestman expects Cutler to take on a lead role in the team turning around the season.

"Your quarterback is always a significant person to do that, because he handles the ball on every play. We all know that. So certainly he's part of it, but I don't just think he's the only one. I think we want to do it together. We do it as coaches. We want to do it as a complete team," Trestman said. "But certainly Jay is a big part of that. He's a team leader. He's around the guys all the time. He's influential in our locker room. He's influential in our meeting rooms and certainly on the field his component, his level of play is going to be indicative of where we're going to go in the next eight weeks."
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.

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