Quick: what do Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Tom Brady have in common?
There are two acceptable answers. (1) Each leads one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL and (2) each has executed one system/vision for the entirety their entire tenure with their current team. Aaron Rodgers spent a few years learning the Mike McCarthy system prior to playing in it for the Green Bay Packers. Drew Brees and Sean Payton arrived in Booze Disneyland together in 2006 and haven't stopped scoring since. (Notice what the absence of Payton has done to the offense.) Eli Manning had Kevin Gilbride as his quarterbacks coach before Gilbride took over as the full-time offensive coordinator in 2007. (The winning started almost immediately after.) Tom Brady has had a cavalcade of thirty-something coordinators go on to fail at Notre Dame, the Denver Broncos, the St. Louis Rams, Tyler Chicken...etc. But each of those coordinators does the bidding of one Mr. William Stephen Belichick.
Jay Cutler has played three seasons and three games for the Chicago Bears. One season with Ron Turner, an unmitigated twenty-six interception disaster. Two seasons with Mike Martz, a mixed bag of seven-step drops and sideline F bombs. Now Mike Tice is the offensive coordinator but Jeremy Bates - the ghost of Broncos past - is "coordinating" the passing game. One can criticize the play-calling and approach of Turner and Martz but one would have a hard time arguing they were not coordinators with distinct systems and unique visions for how to run an offense. Succeed or fail, we knew what the Bears offense was under both men.
After three games of the 2012 campaign it is not the struggle of the left tackle to block everyone that concerns me. J'Marcus Webb is not very good and I don't believe he's going to get considerably better. It is not the lazy decision making by the quarterback that's bothersome. Jay Cutler is who he is and he'll have far more good days than bad. I am not even overly worried about the growing trend of dropped footballs by Marshall, Jeffery and Devin Hester - though if it continues I will be.
The concern, if that's the appropriate word to use in Week Three, is I would not have an answer to the question, "What is the Mike Tice/Jeremy Bates approach to offensive football?" What is their system? What is their vision? How do they want to move the football? What I've seen through three games is a team that wants to run the ball but doesn't do so with much purpose. (Yesterday's thirty carries almost seemed to be given begrudgingly.) They want to make big plays down the field but struggle to block it. (If you want to see a team overly committed down the field, watch the Baltimore Ravens play. I think Cam Cameron's playbook is wholly contained on a bar napkin.) The slants to Brandon Marshall I thought would dominate on Sundays have yet to be seen. The comeback route to Alshon Jeffery I never expected has become the reliable fourth-quarter go to call. I've got a hundred tiles on my Scrabble rack but for the life of me I can't spell any words.
There are a multitude of reasons Mike Tice and Jeremy Bates MUST be the men to stabilize the offensive brain trust for the Chicago Bears.
- First and foremost it is becoming very apparent to me that Lovie Smith is growing as a head coach and his defensive staff is second-to-none in this NFL. Henry Melton, Stephen Paea, Corey Wootton? Are any defensive coaches in this league doing a finer job developing young defensive linemen? The defensive system is sound and he's the right man to lead this group. (I'm confident Phil Emery agrees.)
- Cutler gets into trouble when he doesn't know where to go with the football. Watch Rodgers, Brady and Eli closely. They know where they're going with the ball a second or two after they've taken the snap and they bench receivers who don't get to their spots. This passing game needs to get smoother. It needs to feel less random. It needs to rely more on timing and less on the quarterback freelancing in the pocket. That is coaching.
- The Bears simply can't bring in a fourth coordinator to work with Cutler and expect anything other than half a season of struggles as the QB/coordinator get acquainted with one another. And this is not a league/division where the Bears can continually afford eight games of struggle.
There are new offensive and passing game coordinators. There are two new receivers and a new short-yardage running back. There is no reason to panic about the state of the offense in Chicago because it would be delusional to believe these pieces would all naturally fall into place over the course of a single offseason. Reuniting a quarterback and receiver in a new system is the equivalent of reuniting a divorced couple in a new town, new house and with new children. Their chemistry may still be dynamite but the structure of their existence has been entirely altered.
The Bears go to Dallas Monday night, into the sport's premiere facility, in front of an electric crowd. It is unfair to expect the defense to shut down the Cowboys as brilliantly as they did the Rams Sunday at home. (And it would apparently be unfair to ask the NFL to stop sending the Bears into hostile prime time environments.) They'll then travel to Jacksonville to face quite arguably the best running back in the sport pound-for-pound, Maurice Jones-Drew. Possession of the football will be a hot commodity in the Florida sun. They'll follow these two games with fourteen days before hosting the Detroit Lions on Monday night, October 22.
That's when the run begins. The run to the postseason for a team talented enough to make it there. In order to do so Mike Tice, Jeremy Bates and Jay Cutler must answer one simple question: what are the Chicago Bears on offense? If they don't answer that question, they'll be answering another one: why is a team this talented watching football at Buffalo Wild Wings in January?
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