Cutler primed for a big season
New scheme, better weapons should mean good things for Chicago's offense
Even though Cutler is the most talented quarterback to hit the Windy City in decades, several fans who attended his first training camp jeered Cutler if he made a bad throw. They see his arm and skills, and they demand perfection.
Three seasons of inconsistent play still have fans wondering, but at this year's training camp, Cutler seems to be among friends. General manager Phil Emery brought in Cutler's former favorite target in Denver, Brandon Marshall. Lovie Smith hired Cutler's former quarterback coach, Jeremy Bates. And Cutler already had former Vanderbilt teammate Earl Bennett on the roster.
Even the crowds seem to be warming up to him. Optimism about the season has the Bears drawing 10,000 to 12,000 spectators to some key practices. All signs point to Cutler having his best season in Chicago.
Here are five more observations from Bears camp.
1. Numbers never added up: What baffled me the past couple seasons was why the arm of Cutler and the mind of former offensive coordinator Mike Martz never produced big numbers together. Martz put together one of the best offenses in NFL history when he was with the Rams. Cutler threw for 4,526 yards in his final season in Denver. With Martz, Cutler never had a 4,000-yard season, and the team needed Devin Hester's special teams heroics to average more than 20 points per game. On Sunday, promoted offensive coordinator Mike Tice completed the installation of the entire Bears offense, and it points to Cutler getting back to the 4,000-yard level.
The Bears offense will have a run-first mentality, but Cutler now has weapons that should bring out the best in him. The key is how Tice uses Cutler. Gone are the seven-step drops that the offensive line couldn't protect. Some routes are shorter. When he passes, Cutler can get rid of the ball quicker. A better receiving corps will also enhance his numbers. Don't forget, the Bears were 7-3 before Cutler got hurt last year. His departure ruined the season, because the Bears weren't prepared to replace him with a quality backup. Should he get hurt this year, the offense won't have too much of a drop-off, because Jason Campbell looks good running the offense behind Cutler. The most important thing for the Bears is that Cutler likes this offense. It reminds him of better days in Denver.
2. The Bears finally added front-line receivers: For years, Bears management tried to get by with a bunch of No. 2 and No. 3 receivers, hoping they would overachieve and play like No. 1 options. Emery made receivers a priority this offseason. Getting Marshall for two third-round picks was a steal. Sure, Marshall has had off-field issues and his 100-catch seasons in Denver dropped into the 80s in two years with the Dolphins, but talking to Marshall, I figured out why. The Dolphins used portions of the Patriots' offense that called for deeper, slower-developing routes. Without a quarterback like Tom Brady to run that offense in Miami, Marshall's value declined for two seasons. That won't happen in Chicago.
Tice and Bates will make sure Cutler gets him the ball quicker and let him gain yards after the catch. Marshall looks great, is in exceptional shape and his close relationship with Cutler should get him back to the 100-catch level. The other plus was the addition of second-round choice Alshon Jeffery, a big target with great hands who is working behind Devin Hester at flanker. When Jeffery is on the field, Cutler has big targets to choose from. When Hester is out there, the Bears can get good yards after the catch, and Bennett is dependable from the slot.
3. Forte is on a mission: Now that Matt Forte has his four-year contract and job security, he's having the best camp of his career. Many observers remarked how much faster he is running. He's a threat as a runner and a pass-catcher out of the backfield. What makes the backfield even better is having Michael Bush as a backup. Bush is a tough inside runner who could produce a 1,000-yard season if asked to fill in, should Forte get hurt. With Tice calling the plays, the Bears will follow Lovie Smith's orders to be a run-first team.
4. The scheme will make the offensive line better: Because he helped rebuild the Bears offensive line, Tice will make sure the unit won't be set up for failure. When Cutler passes, he will be getting rid of the ball quicker. Tice will try to make his runs less predictable. As much as Martz tried to run the ball to fit Lovie's philosophy, he had a pass-first mentality and loved deeper throws. The line couldn't block for them. It appears the line is set this year, though. J'Marcus Webb beat out former first-rounder Chris Williams for the starting left tackle job. Williams has moved to right tackle and is working behind Gabe Carimi. Williams appears to be set as the backup to both tackle positions. Chris Spencer and Lance Louis are the guards. Roberto Garza is the center. Chilo Rachal and Edwin Williams are the other favorites to be backups. Now, the Bears have three backups with starting experience.
5. Time for the defensive line to step up: As much as the Bears need first-round pick Shea McClellin to develop as a pass-rushing threat opposite Julius Peppers, the key to the season may be how Stephen Paea does at defensive tackle. Paea, a second-round pick in 2011, has done well in camp and shown he might be able to get good push against centers and guards. Defensive tackle has been a Bermuda Triangle for the Bears recently. Several high draft choices vanished in the middle of the defensive line and were labeled busts. But Lovie Smith has good things to say about Henry Melton, a fourth-round pick from 2009, and his play at the three technique. As for McClellin, his hustle could make him a threat to quarterbacks. The guy attacks blockers relentlessly. Corey Wootton, a fourth-round pick from 2010, could also get more playing time in the rotation at defensive end. The Bears need these players to develop for the defense to thrive.
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