GM Phil Emery came to the podium yesterday to talk about the firing of Lovie Smith and instead gave a very thorough break down of his plan to mold the Chicago Bears into a Super Bowl contender. The direction of the franchise is clear: Emery plans to develop this team around the franchise quarterback and will hire the coach who can take Jay Cutler to a new level of production.
Throughout Smith's nine-year tenure, Chicago's defense was highly rated in a number of key defensive categories. Most notably the Bears were first in takeaways, three-and-out drives forced and third-down conversion percentage. Yet, despite all of the success on the defensive side of the ball, it never translated into a Super Bowl championship.
They say defense wins championships, but that never materialized under the guidance of Smith.
Now the focus has changed entirely, as the Bears will attempt to transition from a defensive-oriented team, to a team that can score points in bunches.
The Bears have Cutler, a quarterback whose natural ability exceeds every quarterback currently in the NFL. It's now up to Emery to find the guy who will get the most out of a passer who could go from being one of the most inconsistent, to one of the best in the NFL.
This is no secret and Emery proclaimed as much during his press conference.
QB Jay Cutler
"Jay being our quarterback and that being a franchise position in terms of importance, it's very important that that person either himself or staff-wise has the right person to help Jay develop," Emery said.
There was no blame placed on coordinator Mike Tice or quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, just comments that addressed where the Bears failed on offense. Most notably the Bears didn't utilize Matt Forte in the passing game the way Emery envisioned when he re-signed him this past offseason. The club also didn't get what was expected from tight end Kellen Davis or receiver Earl Bennett.
"For whatever reason, whether it was protection or whether it was utilization or whether it was catching, we didn't utilize Matt or he didn't have the opportunity to be fully utilized," Emery said. "Kellen had a rough year. The Kellen Davis that I saw caught the ball in the end zone the previous year. A high percentage of his total career catches, which were not that high, were end zone catches. [He was] reliable in that area."
Based on Emery's statements, the need to provide Cutler with a play-making tight end becomes clear. The Bears didn't attack the middle of the field enough and when they did, their playmakers weren't as reliable as they had been in the past. Earl Bennett has shown that ability and will be counted on going forward to be what he has always been: a slot receiver who works the soft areas of zone coverages.
"[Bennett] has had numerous midfield catches in his career. Whether it was him not having a fast start because he had an ankle [injury] in camp, he missed a little preseason, or the concussions, I don't know," said Emery. "But we need to get more consistency at playmaker. Whether it's adding to the talent mix … I need to do a better job. But we need to get more consistent in that midfield area to provide midfield targets for our quarterback."
Cutler is entering the final year of his contract, which should give him all the incentive he needs to earn a big payday. If he has a huge year under the guidance of the new offensive-oriented coaching staff, then he stands to benefit financially.
This also means that he may only have one year to develop and show that he can improve under the right circumstances. To that end, Emery isn't concerned about Cutler picking up a new offensive system – his fourth in five season in Chicago. With Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery serving as big targets on the outside, and the increased focus on attacking the middle of the field, the pressure will be on for immediate improvement.
"Jay is a very intelligent guy," Emery aid. "I don't see him as somebody that's inflexible or not willing to adapt. I think that Jay wants to get better in all aspects and be a top-level quarterback, so no, I'm not concerned. I'm concerned, again, about that head coach and who he's going to bring and whether they can adapt Jay's talents towards winning."
Under the coaching tandem of Tice and Bates, Cutler regressed as a quarterback. To be fair, there were a variety of circumstances that contributed to his down year. The pass protection was improved, but not consistent, while the play calling and lack of direction on offense played a role as well.
Too often this season Cutler got off to an extremely slow start and couldn't find a rhythm until late in the game. He was the 34th-rated QB in the NFL during the first quarter this year. However, in the fourth quarter, his QB rating was first in the league. These cold starts by Cutler were primarily due to footwork and fundamental problems that led to accuracy issues. According to Emery, fixing those issues will be priority No. 1 for the incoming coaching staff.
This may be the most pressure-filled offseason yet for Cutler. He has to live up to Emery's expectations and prove that he is the long-term solution under center. Emery has stated he will do everything necessary to build around his franchise quarterback but, no matter how many weapons he has around him, Cutler must take it on himself to become a better, more consistent signal caller.
"Am I convinced that Jay has the talent to be [a Super Bowl quarterback]? Yes, I am," said Emery. "I see Jay as a franchise quarterback. We've got to build around him. That's been the goal from the beginning, to build around Jay and to build our team towards championships."
If the new coaching staff can reign in Cutler and help him reach his potential, then Emery's goal of multiple championships becomes a realistic one in the very near future.
Brett Solesky has worked in TV, newspapers and, for the last seven years, in radio. He also co-hosts the best Chicago Bears podcast on the Web, Bear Report Radio, which appears on BearReport.com and his blog MidwayIllustrated.com.