Searching for red (zone) November
Cutler, Bears need to improve red zone efficiency
CHICAGO -- Someone posed the question to me the other day: Do you think Jay Cutler wishes he were back in Denver?
It's not such a silly question. Denver offers a better offensive line, more experienced and physical receivers and basically a better overall team. And wouldn't you know it, boy wonder coach Josh McDaniels isn't a total rube after all. As a matter of fact, he's looking like a coach of the year candidate, the anti-Eric Mangini, as it were.
I still don't think Cutler lies awake at night missing anything Denver-related, aside from maybe a sweet birthday party at Casa Bonita. Everywhere he goes in Chicago, aside from Harpo Studios or President Barack Obama's house, he's the most famous person in the room.
Cutler forced his trade for a reason, and Chicago was a target market with its big-city opportunities, reasonable distance to his hometown of Santa Claus, Ind., and legacy of bad quarterbacks. Just by putting on a jersey, he became one of the Bears' most skilled quarterbacks of all-time. Plus, he just got $20 million in new money a third of the way into his first season and presumably has a long time to make his mark.
But so far, Cutler hasn't provided the Bears with much of a lift offensively, even by their middling standards. This is not all his fault, but the blame and the credit often falls on the guy who is under center.
Football Outsiders ranks the Bears' offensive efficiency at 28th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) in the NFL. Cutler's numbers are almost all in the bottom third of his peers, despite his above-average arm and playmaking prowess. Even more amazing, quarterbacks are having a banner year. Twelve quarterbacks have rankings of 90 or above, from Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers' 110.4 (despite getting sacked twice as much as Cutler) to -- gulp -- Kyle Orton's 95.5. Cutler's 80.8 ranks 20th.
Perhaps, Football Outsiders guru Aaron Schatz (who also writes brilliantly for ESPN.com) theorized, Cutler's worsening numbers help prove that the team can make the quarterback, not the other way around.
Cutler has had trouble, especially in the red zone. The Bears rank 29th in DVOA in the red zone and are tied for 25th in touchdown percentage at 44.4 percent. The Bears haven't been bad all season in the red zone. According to a story on the team's Web site, the team scored touchdowns on 8 of 11 opportunities during a three-game winning streak. Accordingly, they were 4 of 13 in losing two of their past three.
"You have less field to work with," Cutler told reporters this week. "The defense is going to sit on more things. They know they've got to protect that. Everything gets a little faster down there. Your decisions have to be made quicker. Everyone's got to be more precise. You've got to be exactly where you're supposed to be when you're supposed to be there. If one little thing goes wrong, there's not a lot of time to make things happen afterwards."
Here's the problem. Cutler has had previous problems executing in the red zone. Last year Denver had 30 touchdowns in 55 red zone chances, a 54.5 touchdown success rate that was slightly worse than the Bears' 56 percent (18 for 50).
With the Bears' penchant for causing turnovers and their league-best average starting field position (their own 35-yard-line) thanks in part to outstanding special-teams play, the Bears should have a better drive success rate than 19th (65.7 percent).
We all love Robbie Gould, but last week was a good example of the Bears' inability to score touchdowns in the red zone. Against a terrible Cleveland defense, the Bears scored a pair of touchdowns on Matt Forte runs in six chances. Cutler's DVOA rankings differ wildly between overall and red zone. Football Outsiders ranks him at a minus-7 overall (which is pretty terrible) and minus-48 in the red zone. That sounds Jonathan Quinn-bad, but there is a silver lining here. For one, the Bears are getting to the red zone, which is good. Opportunities tend to be a trend. And Schatz told me that quarterbacks' red zone numbers tend to regress toward their overall performance. Basically, Cutler has nowhere to go but up. Schatz figures he has 59 red zone passes left.
Everyone has their own ideas about what the Bears should do to try to increase their touchdown ratio. Last week, they inserted smallish running back Garrett Wolfe during a red zone possession and ran him like he was a power back. I don't know of anyone who thinks Wolfe is the answer here, even in a spread offense formation. Personally, I'd like to see them roll out Cutler more, because, as evidenced week in and week out, he has the wheels to make plays. His helicopter-dive touchdown against Detroit remains one of the Bears' best plays of the season. The Bears need to get creative, because defenses aren't having many problems against the Bears' offense, regardless of field position.
If the line -- and the Bears' blitz protectors at running back, receiver and tight end -- can't protect Cutler long enough for him to throw downfield, the Bears have to get their mojo back in the red zone. For all the disgust thrown Ron Turner's way, I think the offensive coordinator will duct-tape this crack in this offense. Maybe it will start this week, maybe not.
So worry not, Bears fans, even if Cutler doesn't shred Arizona's defense Sunday, things will pick up. Then all you have to worry about is the Bears' red zone defense, which ranked 31st.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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