The Chicago Bears did a lot of things wrong in 2014 en route to a 5-11 record. The defense allowed more points than any team in the league and special teams struggled in nearly every phase the entire campaign.
Yet the true disappointment, the one that led to arguably the most embarrassing season in Bears annals, was the offense.
Remember, this was on offense that finished 8th overall and 5th in passing in 2013, and returned all 11 starters. It was an offense most assumed would take a substantial step forward in the second year of Marc Trestman’s system.
That never happened. Instead, the offense looked like a train wreck for most of the year.
As with any NFL offense, the quarterback runs the show. When a QB struggles, the offense struggles, and vice versa. It’s the nature of the position. The quarterback touches the ball on every play and it’s his job to read defenses, make adjustments and then produce under enormous pressure.
So when we analyze how Chicago’s offense performed this year – 21st in total offense, 15th in passing, 27th in rushing, 23rd in points per game – it’s fair to heap most of the blame on Jay Cutler.
Or is it?
Some folks point to his 2014 numbers as indication it was Trestman, and not Cutler, who was the architect of failure.
Cutler last season posted career highs in completion percentage (66.0) and touchdowns (28). He threw for 3,812 yards, second only to the 4,526 he threw during his Pro Bowl campaign in 2008, and had his second highest passer rating (88.6). In addition, he stayed healthy all year.
On the surface, Cutler had the best season of his nine-year career.
Yet those statistics are little more than smoke and mirrors. In reality, Cutler had one of his worst seasons as a professional.
Consider this, the Bears averaged less than eight points (7.9) in the first halves of their 16 games this year and were shut out in the first quarter of nine contests. Cutler’s numbers look great because the team was typically down by multiple touchdowns in the second half, forcing the ball into his hands against prevent defenses working under big leads. Most NFL quarterbacks can post good numbers in those conditions.
A much more telling stat is Cutler’s 24 total turnovers, which led the league.
Trestman was hired to “fix” Cutler. A supposed “QB guru”, the Bears felt Trestman could clean up Cutler’s fundamentals and help him reach his immense potential.
Instead, Cutler regressed in nearly every facet as a quarterback last season. He threw countless balls off his back foot, locked onto receivers on nearly every passing play, never looked off a safety and showed almost no anticipation.
If the receiver wasn’t wide open, Cutler couldn’t find him, which is why Matt Forte broke the all-time single-season receptions record for a running back (102 catches).
The downfield passing attack was abysmal. Trestman’s playbook was predictable, the receivers struggled to get open and Cutler’s field vision was non-existent. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), he attempted 61 passes of 20 yards or more, completing just 19. His 32.8 completion percentage on downfield passes was 21st of 25 qualifying QBs (at least 20 passes attempted).
Cutler’s downfield percentage was better than only Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, Geno Smith and Cam Newton. In comparison, Josh McCown had a 42.0 downfield completion percentage, nearly 10 points higher than Cutler.
Additionally, there was absolutely no emphasis on play action. Ball fakes under Cutler were laughable, with him barely pulling the ball away from his body long enough for it to be even considered play action. His 6.6 yards per attempt in play-action passes was 24th of 27 qualifying QBs in 2014, per PFF.
Yet the blame doesn’t all fall on Cutler. The Bears allowed 41 sacks this year, allowing pressure on 30.9 percent of his drop backs, per PFF. Also, his pass catchers dropped a whopping 29 passes this season, led by Martellus Bennett’s eight drops.
And when you’re running a stale playbook that features just four legitimate receivers –Bennett, Forte, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery combined for 338 receptions, while the rest of the team had 58 total catches – it’s tough to be a successful passer on a weekly basis.
That said, Cutler was bad this year in nearly every phase of his game. He’ll be 32 next season, so there’s very little chance he’ll suddenly correct the problems that have plagued him his entire career.
Which brings us to his future in Chicago. Cutler signed a seven-year, $126.7 million contract this past offseason. He made $22.5 million last season and is guaranteed $15.5 million next year, and another $10 million on the third day of the 2015 league year.
On March 12, the Bears will owe $25.5 million to a quarterback who was benched last season. The same goes for any team the might be interested in trading for Cutler, which is going to make it very difficult for the Bears to ship him to another franchise.
Seriously, who is going to take on $25.5 million AND ship a player to the Bears for Cutler?
The situation is so bad there were reports late in the season that the Bears, and not their trading partner, would have to send a draft pick along with Cutler just to get rid of him.
Outright cutting Cutler is an option. It would save the club the $10 million he’s owed on Day 3 and if another team signs him, the Bears will only have to pay the difference between his new contract and the $15.5 million they owe him. So if the team waives him and he’s signed by the Tennessee Titans for $6 million, Chicago would only be on the hook for $9.5 million, which is only $1.5 million more than the dead money they ate on Julius Peppers’ contract this year.
The problem with both scenarios is the organization’s lack of a backup option. Jimmy Clausen is not the answer and neither is David Fales. The free-agent quarterback class is very weak, as is this year’s crop of passers in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Is Brian Hoyer or a mid-round signal caller a better option than Cutler for the Bears next year? Doubtful.
Talk of Cutler’s future is a bit premature at this point, as the Bears still haven’t found their next GM or head coach. Yet once those positions are filled, the first order of business will be deciding Cutler’s fate. If Chicago hires Mike Shanahan or another coach who feels he can be the one to finally get the most out of an aging, turnover-prone quarterback, then Cutler will be in the Windy City through at least 2016.
Yet if the new staff sees what almost every one else sees – that Cutler has a huge arm but will never be an elite quarterback – then we’ve seen the last of No. 6.
Prediction: The Bears will attempt to trade him but will ultimately be forced to stick with Cutler for two more seasons.
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.