In his first nine years in the NFL, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler averaged 1.09 interceptions per game. Including fumbles lost, he averaged 1.35 turnovers between 2006-2014.
As such, Cutler has always been widely regarded as a turnover-prone quarterback, which most believe has kept him from fully reaching his potential.
Yet this season, the turnovers, which used to come in bunches, have been few and far between. Through 12 starts, Cutler has just 7 interceptions and 11 total turnvers. He's averaging 0.58 interceptions per game, nearly half his average the previous nine years, and less than one total turnover (0.91) per contest.
“We do a lot of stuff in individual, a lot of stuff with the other quarterbacks to get that [number] down," Cutler said. "It goes back to a lot of the scheme and the way [offensive coordinator] Adam [Gase] calls plays and designs stuff, and the coaching. There is always an emphasis of knowing where everyone is at and not forcing balls. If we have to punt, we have to do it.”
Cutler is right, this new offense has clearly put him in the best position to succeed. According to Pro Football Focus, just 51.5 percent of Cutler's passing yardage has come before the catch, which is 22nd in the league. That indicates a system that puts value on shorter, high-percentage passes that keep the ball out of harm's way.
Gase and new quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains have turned Cutler into a competent game manager that has been judicious with the football. He has five games this season in which he hasn't thrown an interception and he's yet to throw two or more picks in any single contest. Last season, Cutler had seven games with more than one interception.
While Cutler attributes his reduction in turnovers to the new system and coaching staff, Gase believes credit goes to his quarterback, whose on-field intelligence and decision making has improved dramatically this year.
"He’s been right a lot," said Gase. "He’s taken those few times where there’s been some plays where he’s had to really ad lib, he’s made the right decision. Very rarely has he made a decision where we were all sitting there going ‘why would he do that?’ He hasn’t done that. He’s stayed within the offense. He hasn’t tried to venture out. He’s done a good job of taking some of these play calls and getting us actually out of some bad plays and putting us in some better situations. So he deserves a lot of the credit for what’s going on. He can say it’s the scheme but it’s been him making the right decisions and putting our offense in the right position."
Cutler's improvement this season is even more impressive when you consider the unreal amount of injuries that have plauged his receivers all year. That includes Martellus Bennett, Marquess Wilson and Kevin White, all of whom are done for the season, while Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal have missed a combined 11 contest in 2015.
“He’s never panicked. He’s never wavered," said Gase. "He’s just gone about his business as if the starting three, from what we thought were going to be in the beginning of spring, have been out there the whole time. He’s just moved on week to week and whoever’s been out there has stepped up and made plays and he’s done a good job of just staying focused on his job.”
Cutler is 32 and has grown dramatically, both personally and professionally, the past three years. The whiny, contentious, argumentative, spoiled quarterback the Bears traded for in 2009 has been replaced by a mature, magnanimous and, dare I say it, wise quarterback, who is playing the best football of his 10-year career.
This hasn't been a surprise to Gase, who saw early on this past off-season the type of player Cutler has become.
“He didn’t have any problems mentally with what we’re doing," Gase said. "I think the hardest thing in his job is just trying to get everybody else caught up and being on the same page as him. When you’re the quarterback and you’re thinking two or three steps ahead of everybody else, it doesn’t help you if everybody else is way behind you. You have to be able to make a step and then they have to take that step with you, so that when you change things they’ve got to change with you, and that hasn’t always happened this year.
"I do think we’re pretty close to being on the same page with all our skilled players and him, so we’re starting to really be on the same page. We just need to take that next step to where, like that end of the game, of making those plays in crunch time.”
Gase and Cutler are in their first year together and if they have the opportunity to grow side-by-side, there's a very good chance the best is yet to come from Chicago's franchise quarterback.