The Chicago Bears will enter training camp this year with renewed hope. The club hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010 yet with a new regime now in place, including veteran head coach John Fox, the postseason may no longer be out of reach.
In the NFL, a team’s fortune often follows the performance of its quarterback, who is by far the most important player on the field. If your field general is incompetent, so then will be your offense and your ability to score points.
Let’s break it down.
Cutler is coming off what many perceived as one of the worst seasons of his career. He started 15 games in 2014, led the league in total turnvoers and guided the team to a 5-10 record.
Yet the widely held belief that Cutler sunk the Bears last year is a severe overstatement. He struggled immensely at times, yet he wasn’t the only one. The offensive line failed to provide consistent protection, the run game was an afterthought and the defense was historically bad.
Everyone contributed to the failure of 2014, not just Cutler. In fact, last season was one of his best in terms of statistics. He posted career highs in completion percentage (66.0) and touchdowns (28), while his 3,812 passing yards and 88.6 QB rating were the second best totals of his nine-year career.
Those stats are a bit misleading, as much of his production came in garbage time after the Bears had fallen behind by multiple touchdowns, but the fact remains that Cutler can still sling it.
He’s a flawed quarterback for sure, one whose production has never matched his potential, but he’s not the sole reason Chicago can’t win on a regular basis, no matter how much the national media tries to force feed that storyline.
With new offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Cutler will work under his fifth playbook in the past seven seasons. Installing a new playbook isn’t an ideal situation, as most offenses take at least a year to fully grasp a new system, but for Cutler, it’s all par for the course.
"You've got to try to forget the last one as quickly as possible and just wipe the slate clean. I've gotten better at that over the years,” Cutler said during mandatory minicamp. “I feel great about the offense we're in right now. I know the guys like it. I know the receivers like it. We just have to keep heading in the direction we are going and keep studying. We are not where we want to be yet."
Fox is a hands-off head coach, so it will be entirely up to Gase to develop both Cutler and Chicago’s offense. Gase, who had Peyton Manning under center his only two previous seasons as an offensive coordinator, must now create a system that can build on Cutler’s strengths.
Ideally, that includes a run-heavy attack with an abundance of play-action passes and rollouts, where Cutler can utilize his athleticism.
The key will be to take as much off his plate as possible through creative play calling and a balanced approach. Make no mistake, Cutler can have success in that type of system, it’s just a question of whether or not Gase has the wherewithal to execute on such a plan.
Cutler is an imperfect signal caller who struggles to see the whole field and throws into coverage far too often. At 32 years old, no one is going to “fix” him. All you can do now is try to contain him. If Gase succeeds in that effort, the offense will post plenty of points this season.
In 2010, playing under John Fox his rookie season in Carolina, Jimmy Clausen threw three touchdown passes in 10 starts. He then rode the pine behind Cam Newton for three seasons before the Bears signed him during OTAs last off-season.
In his one start for the Bears – Week 16 against the Detroit Lions, a 14-20 loss at Soldier Field – Clausen passed for 181 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT, good for a 77.0 QB rating. It was a decent performance against a tough defense, one that earned him another one-year deal in Chicago and reunited him with Fox.
Clausen does not have great size (6-2, 217) or arm strength but he’s a five-year NFL veteran that has grown immensely since his forgettable rookie season. He played with poise against the Lions, who at the time were still battling for the NFC North crown, and nearly pulled off the upset.
That said, Clausen is little more than an NFL backup. The offense won’t collapse under him but if he’s asked to start more than a game or two, the scoreboard will suffer.
At times this off-season, Clausen has looked very uncomfortable in Gase’s offense, which is concerning.
As a backup Clausen is good value but he’s hardly reliable, although the same could be said for every backup QB in the league.
The Bears used a sixth-round pick in last year’s draft on David Fales, who threw 66 touchdowns in two years as a starter for San Jose State. In 2012, his 72.5 completion percentage was the best in the country.
As you might have guessed, accuracy is Fales’ calling card.
Beyond that, he has many flaws, which include a lack of height (6-1) and arm strength. He struggles on sideline patterns and does not have enough zip to fit passes through tight windows.
Fales spent last season on the practice squad and will need a strong training camp and preseason if he plans on filling that role again in 2015.
In three years as a starter for East Carolina, Shane Carden posted passer ratings of 143.0, 150.0 and 140.8. That’s an impressive feat, no matter the conference.
Yet like Fales, Carden does not have NFL-level arm strength, particularly on deep balls, which was prevalent during off-season workouts.
Still, Carden has a bit more upside than Fales, which puts him on equal footing in the battle for a spot on the practice squad. If Carden shines in camp, he might be able wrestle that job away from Fales.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.