It was no secret last season that Jay Cutler, coming into his eighth NFL campaign, was still a work in progress. From a mechanical and technique standpoint, Cutler was a borderline mess. The shotgun arm was still there but fundamentally, he had to be re-built from the ground up.
That duty fell on Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh, who says he's seen substantial improvement in Cutler the past year-plus.
"I've seen incredible progress," Cavanaugh said. "When we got in here last year and evaluated him we had a real good conversation with him about certain things we think every quarterback should do: ‘Jay, it might not be natural to you, but we want you to try it.' And he did.
"To his credit, he's taken every bit of suggestion that we've given and he's embraced it. Everything from how he holds the ball, to how he lines up in the gun pre-snap, to how he drops back, to his throwing base, to his follow-through. Every little fundamental we have considered talking to him about, he's embraced and he's worked real hard at it, so I think it is night and day."
By the numbers, Cutler had one of his best years as a pro in 2013. His 63.1 completion percentage was the second highest of his eight seasons, while his 89.2 passer rating was a career high. He threw 19 TDs in 11 starts, which extrapolates to 27 touchdowns in a 16-game season, which would have tied his career best.
For a talented player like Cutler, sound fundamentals and yearly consistency in system and play book could turn him into one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league.
"We're going into my ninth year," Cutler said. "I think this is only the second or third time I've been in an offense multiple years. It's still a little bit new to us. We did some good things last year, we're still in the learning process, but guys have a much more familiar with what the concepts are and the formations and everything so that's definitely going to be a help, less thinking and able to go fast.
"We have the same guys we had last year, which is always good. Talent-wise it's hard to top our O-line and some of the guys we have on the outside and Matt Forte, who is hugely underrated. Talent-wise and being in the system two years and the way the guys work, all that adds up. Hopefully we can stay healthy and see where this thing goes."
Improved technique and fundamentals are solid steps forward but those alone won't guide Cutler to the upper echelon of NFL passers. As far as he's concerned, the offensive line, which allowed the third fewest sacks in the league last year, is a far bigger factor.
"I was [injury free] until I got here for awhile and it was a hit parade back there. It takes its toll from time to time," said Cutler. "Once you start getting hit a lot you start taking guys off the secondary, you lose a lot of trust up front and it gets difficult to play quarterback that way. You look across the league and you see guys that are getting hit a lot, they're probably not going to be doing very well. The guys who stay pretty clean are in offenses year-in and year-out and get a feel for the guys, those guys are going to be the ones who are in the top of the league every year."
It also helps to have a system that emphasizes quick passing and getting the ball out before the pass rush gets to the quarterback.
"We stress quarterback footwork everyday," Cavanaugh said. "We want the ball out. Where in the past he may have been willing to hold onto the ball for an extra hitch, wait for someone to come open we now tell him, get off of it, go to the next guy. If you are waiting on a guy that may come open if he doesn't, you're late to the next guy. We just taught a real rhythmic passing game that I think Jay saw the benefit in. ‘I can get more completions. I'm not waiting on someone that might come open and I get the ball out of my hand and I get hit less.' Those are all positives."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.