In the Wake of the News
August 16, 2013
By now, nobody has found reason to doubt that Bears players have bought into new coach Marc Trestman, a point Jay Cutler oddly raised on the first day of training camp.
The more pertinent question, after the Bears beat the Chargers 33-28 on Thursday night at Soldier Field in their second exhibition game, poses how confident everybody at Halas Hall should feel buying into Cutler.
Another emerging one: When will it become obvious Cutler has invested in truly changing as a quarterback under Trestman?
Eventually it will, right?
The Bears fired Lovie Smith after a 10-6 season and hired Trestman because general manager Phil Emery wanted a dramatic change offensively — a move easy to justify. But for real change to take hold on the side of the ball that desperately needed it, the Bears cannot tolerate the status quo from the offense's most important player.
Yet more than anything in four series against the Chargers, Cutler looked like the guy most responsible for getting three previous Bears offensive coordinators fired instead of the player most likely to help Trestman succeed.
The Bears' starting offense departed after scoring 14 points in the first quarter, production Trestman received after a demanding week of practice. Matt Forte ran with authority, and the revamped rookie right side of the offensive line — guard Kyle Long and tackle Jordan Mills — provided glimmers of hope. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod appeared agile pulling on Forte's 58-yard run, and Devin Hester finally resembled, well, himself returning the opening kickoff 45 yards.
But the interception Cutler threw with 5 minutes, 31 seconds left in the first quarter left the game's deepest impression by renewing doubts whether Trestman's new offense can survive his quarterback's old habits. Chicagoans have seen that videotape before and know how it ends. Cutler completed 4 of 5 passes for 38 yards and a touchdown, somehow good enough to post a passer rating of 98.3 that will convince statistical analysts that everything is fine.
Look closer. Is it really?
Raising quarterback questions with two exhibitions remaining isn't an overreaction as much as acknowledgment Cutler needs to grow — and still can before Week 1 if he accepts coaching from a man with a track record for fixing the position. Nothing will determine success for the Bears more than the progress of Cutler. So far, evidence has been scant in games and practices that Cutler can put the ball in the right spots at the right time, as Trestman's truer version of the West Coast offense requires.
The latest example came after the Bears had taken over at the Chargers 34 thanks to Chris Conte's interception of Philip Rivers, another quarterback stuck in a career rut. On first down, Cutler stepped up in the pocket and forced a pass to Brandon Marshall as two defenders bracketed the wide receiver. Like so many other telegraphed passes in 2012, this one was going to Marshall regardless of what else Cutler saw. Come to think of it, all four of Cutler's completions went to Marshall too.
Linebacker Donald Butler turned his head and the ball was there, a gift from a quarterback with a history of giving. The rash decision had nothing to do with a different playbook or new scheme and everything to do with impulsiveness an eight-year veteran quarterback facing a crossroads season cannot show.
"I didn't misread," Cutler said. "I knew what I was doing."
That's the problem. It was one measly play in one meaningless game. But given Cutler's erratic past and allergy to coaching, it was relevant to the regular season. Nothing else matters for the Bears this preseason as much as Cutler's learning curve, and through mid-August, it looks alarmingly flat.
"He's shown me he's not going to make the same mistake twice,'' Trestman said.
If only Cutler made that clearer to the rest of us.
On the second straight disastrous opening series — a trend? — Cutler held on to the ball too long on third-and-20 and took a sack instead of throwing it away. On the second series, he rebounded by throwing a beautiful back-shoulder pass to Marshall for a 5-yard touchdown. Then came his defining interception, killing any other good vibe produced. In the small preseason sample size of two quarters, Cutler has played as inconsistently as ever.
The Bears will improve offensively only if Cutler does. He still can, but only if Trestman gets his quarterback to avoid forcing the ball into coverage the way he has since arriving in Chicago four years ago — and in Denver for three seasons before that.
The problem with Cutler never has been executing throws but making decisions. Still is.
Ultimately, Cutler must decide to prove he really can be coached.
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