Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice has performed numerous different roles as an NFL coach: tight ends coach, offensive line coach, head coach, and now, offensive coordinator.
During his four seasons running the show in Minnesota, Tice called plays during a couple of brief stints. He also played a part in developing the overall offensive scheme, yet never before this season has Tice been solely in charge of creating and implementing an entire offensive system.
It's a goal he's trying to accomplish this offseason in Chicago, an extremely tough task for any coach, especially one without previous coordinator experience. Yet so far, things appear to be running smoothly.
"I think Mike's done a heck of a job. I think he's got probably the hardest job of a lot of guys in this building, being able to mesh all of these offensive players with different schemes," said Jay Cutler. "It's always hard as a first-time coordinator installing your offense and getting it up and running for game one. He's got a tough gig but he's doing great. He's listening to a lot of different guys and taking everyone's opinion into consideration and trying to find the best solution."
OC Mike TIce
A prevailing theme during veteran minicamp was the increased communication amongst players and coaches. It appears the new offense will be a group effort, where Tice will lean on Cutler and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates to advance the passing attack.
"The communication between the coaches and the players has been phenomenal," said Tice. "I've always found that sometimes the players have great thoughts, especially when they're very focused like our players are right now. They're trying to win. They're trying to play fast and explosive, play smart. So we're going to make sure that we put our players in positions to do well and not ask them to do things that we don't believe in as coaches or their body language is telling us that they don't like."
So far, without padded practices, most of the sessions have revolved around the passing game. Running drills are usually just walkthroughs and are instructed solely by Tice, with Bates out of the picture. Yet passing drills are run by Bates, with Tice taking on more of a spectator role. During 7-on-7 drills, Bates calls in the plays to Cutler. The two worked together in Denver and have been culling from the old Broncos playbook.
"It's stuff that I do well. It's stuff that I know," said Cutler. "As a quarterback you want to be in the same offense over and over and over and over again so you can get a good feel for it and so you know all the nuances. This offense, I was in it three years in Denver, so this is my fourth year in it. I'm very comfortable with it."
Nine Bears practices were open to the media this offseason: three for rookie minicamp, three for OTAs and three for veteran minicamp. Bear Report was front and center for all the action. Since then I've also poured over the film work I did during these nine sessions.
Here are some trends I've noticed during the past five weeks.
Get the ball out quickly
Former offensive coordinator Mike Martz was notorious for his seven-step drops, which involved slow-developing plays that invited pressure on the quarterback. Opposing defenses had all the time they needed to get into the backfield and disrupt plays.
Yet in the Bates passing attack, Cutler is regularly getting the ball out in less than three seconds.
"We want to get rid of the ball. The ball is going to be gone. We want to get it to the playmakers," said Cutler. "We want to get the ball to Devin [Hester] and Brandon [Marshall] and Matt Forte and get it out of my hands as fast as possible. I think that's probably something that we're going to work really hard on in training camp and those preseason games, of trying to get that done."
Jeremy Bates & Jay Cutler
David Banks/US Presswire
Gone are the days of seven-step drops in Chicago, and during most of the five-step drops, Cutler just plants and fires. No more standing and waiting for the play to develop.
Martz was also reluctant to utilize the shotgun formation. It's a formation that allows the quarterback a wider view of the field pre-snap, and sets him back away from the line and those hungry defensive linemen. Yet Martz more often than not chose to snap the ball under center, forcing Cutler to make reads as he backpedaled endlessly.
If these offseason practices are any indication, under Bates, Cutler will spend much more time in shotgun on passing downs. Many of those snaps involved only a one- or two-step drop before he released the ball. It's a simplified system in which Cutler appears very comfortable.
Tight ends, tight ends and more tight ends
Going back to Tice's days in Minnesota, he's always made the tight end position a focal part of his offense. With the Vikings, he used both an F-back and an edge tight end, something he plans to do in Chicago as well.
The F-back will serve as a hybrid fullback/tight end. He'll line up all over the offense – in the wing, the backfield, out of the slot and out wide – and will be as much a blocker as a pass catcher.
The edge end will be more of a pass catcher – unlike Martz, who liked his tight ends to block almost exclusively – and will also line up anywhere along the line of scrimmage. In all the practices I watched, there was never a play run that did not use at least one tight end, with many featuring two.
As for their use in Chicago's passing game, most of the balls thrown to the tight ends have been down the field. Bates obviously plans to send his big ends down the seams to put pressure on the middle of the secondary, which should open things up outside for Brandon Marshall.
Cutler to Marshall, then repeat
It's obvious Cutler loves throwing to Marshall. The two had some spectacular seasons together in Denver and appear to have picked up right where they left off. Cutler looks Marshall's way more than any other receiver, sometimes to a fault. If they continue on their current pace, Marshall will end 2012 as one of the most-targeted wideouts in the NFL.
WR Brandon Marshall
Those targets have come in every area of the field. Marshall has been utilized on underneath, intermediate and deep routes. The timing between the two, especially down the field, has been very good and will only get better. Expect big things from this passing combination.
-So far, there have not been many rollouts or bootlegs. Cutler has good wheels and has shown an ability to throw on the run, something he did well under Bates in Denver. I expect this to be a big part of the offense this year but I'm yet to see it. The club may be waiting until the pads come on, and can get the linemen involved, before they start practicing these plays.
-There's also been a lack of screen passes, including bubble screens to the wide receivers. Again, it's likely because the linemen need to be on the field for those reps to mean anything on the practice field. We'll likely see more in training camp.
-Earl Bennett will have a career year this season. If Marshall is Cutler's No. 1 receiver, then Bennett is a close second. Bennett and Cutler have been working together since Vanderbilt and that chemistry shows. Bennett, working mainly out of the slot, will benefit greatly from the attention paid Marshall, as well as the tight ends occupying space in the middle of the field.
-While most of the run game stuff has been bare bones, it's easy to see Tice wants to implement much more zone blocking this year. During one walkthrough, the offense ran nothing but stretch runs using zone blocking from the front five. Running backs employed the one-cut-and-go strategy prevalent in zone sets. This should help get the most out of an offensive line that has more athleticism and quickness than size.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.