Commentary

The QB and the coordinator

Jay Cutler's woes aren't completely Ron Turner's fault

Updated: December 2, 2009, 7:03 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

It might be the easiest, most non-controversial decision the Bears make this offseason. But if Ron Turner does, indeed, end up the scapegoat for Lovie Smith and his players' failures, it will be far from an instant solution to Jay Cutler's woes.

Starting with Turner's first go-round as the Bears' offensive coordinator, the franchise has made five changes at that position in the past 16 years -- from Turner to Matt Cavanaugh to Gary Crowton to John Shoop to Terry Shea and back to Turner in 2005 -- a span that has included 21 different starting quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Scott Boehm/Getty Images Jay Cutler has thrown 20 interceptions through 11 games.

If the Bears elect to make a change this offseason, it would technically be Cutler's third different coordinator in as many years. He worked with a combination of Mike Shanahan, Mike Heimerdinger and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates in Denver. And if a new Bears coordinator were to last only as long as Lovie Smith's contract, which expires after 2011, Cutler could well be looking at his fourth a short time later.

"That's a very difficult situation," said former Super Bowl-winning quarterback and current ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who makes it clear he does not feel the Bears' problems are Turner's fault. "The secret sauce you need for good offensive play is synergy between the playcaller or coordinator and the quarterback, and the trust established there. And it's very hard to do it in a short period of time. Can you do it? Yeah. Is it likely? No."

Cutler reiterated Wednesday that the Bears' offense is "a process" and simply takes time to come together.

"This stuff doesn't happen overnight," he said. "We hoped it would happen a little bit sooner than it has. I said it could take up to a year, maybe longer and that has proven to be the case ...

"In Denver, in my third year out there, we were still coming into a groove, still having problems in the red zone. We went through a lot of running backs. But the offensive line, receivers, tight ends and myself were starting to come together and it took us three years."

At the same time, Cutler used Brett Favre as an example of a quarterback who can learn a new system quickly if he's familiar with it and comfortable with the new coaches.

"So there's certain cases where you can stick a guy in and make it happen. But it's more than just the system, it's getting the right guys in place," Cutler said.

While there is no evidence to suggest Cutler does not get along with the even-keeled Turner, whose contract runs through the 2010 season, there is a basic trust issue that must exist between quarterback and coordinator.

"The biggest thing is the coordinator trusting the quarterback," said Dilfer, "because he's only going to dial up the best plays and when Jay Cutler throws 20 interceptions, that drastically hinders Ron Turner's ability to succeed. That's arguably 15 to 20 possibilities you've lost as a coordinator, so that's a lot of yards, a lot of points given up."

On the flip side, said Dilfer, if the quarterback can't trust his coordinator, "he's going to play out of his element, he's going to force the ball, do things that aren't wise because he's not going to trust that it's a good play dialed up with the best player.

"It's a two-way street and no one ever talks about it, which is shocking because it's so important. I'd put it in the top three elements of offensive football. The synergy between the quarterback and playcaller is paramount to the success of the team."

Dilfer calls any attention paid to the relationship between the head coach and quarterback "one of the stupidest, most overrated things in all of football."

"I would argue that tension is good between the head coach and his quarterback because head coaches are usually conservative, paranoid and afraid of mistakes," he said. "There are exceptions, like Sean Payton and Drew Brees, because [Payton] is a coordinator at heart. But if a defensive head coach and quarterback like each other, they're in deep trouble."

Bears players defend Smith, whose style makes him unquestionably easy to play for, and there is no outward sign of tension between Smith and Cutler, both of whom have been accused of possessing all the sideline passion of a couple of headset cord carriers.

[+] EnlargeRon Turner
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhThe Bears are ranked 23rd in the NFL in total offense with Ron Turner as offensive coordinator this season.

So if Turner goes, who would be capable of waking up Cutler? Either Gary Kubiak or his offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, possibly on their way out of Houston after the season, would appear to be a good fit having sprouted from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree (Kyle quite literally as Mike's son), and Cutler was comfortable in that system.

But some think the personality of a new coordinator would weigh more heavily than the system.

"I think Jay is one of the few guys who could be successful with any offense in the NFL," said Tim Hasselbeck, ESPN analyst and a backup quarterback in the NFL for seven seasons. "I've been very critical of him, but there are only a couple of guys as physically talented as him."

Hasselbeck compared the comfort level Cutler had in Denver with Shanahan and particularly with Bates to the relationships between Favre and his then-quarterbacks coach Steve Mariucci in Green Bay, and his brother Matt's rapport with Jim Zorn when Zorn was the quarterbacks coach in Seattle.

Word around Halas Hall is that Cutler does not have that kind of relationship with Bears quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton, a well-regarded football man who came from San Francisco to Chicago in 2007, when he tutored Kyle Orton to the fifth-highest completion percentage in team history.

If it's clear Cutler can't work with Hamilton, a seemingly minor switch might make more sense for Smith, who hasn't made a change in his offensive coaching staff since going from Shea to Turner after the 2004 season.

"Part of it is understanding how you communicate with the quarterback," Hasselbeck said of the QB coach. "Some guys are sensitive to criticism, take it the wrong way and go in the tank. At times, it's nice to have the quarterbacks coach as a little bit of a buffer between the playcaller and the quarterbacks."

It also might be hard to lure a quality coordinator to a situation in which the head coach has only one year remaining on his deal, unless, perhaps, that coordinator is head-coach material, like Kubiak.

Whoever coaches Cutler next season, the quarterback has some work to do, and Dilfer believes the Bears have to exercise some tough love.

"I think Jay Cutler can be a phenomenal player if handled properly, with very strict boundaries on his game," Dilfer said. "So much of what Mike Holmgren [preaches] is that you make your quarterback earn the right to run different plays and get more opportunities.

"When we're talking about Jay, it's how he prepares, how he plays the game. When we tell you to go, 'One, two, three [on pass progressions], if you don't, you won't throw the ball. You have to prove you can run the play exactly the way we want you to run it and until you do that, we're not going to give you any more.'"

"If you give a teenager keys to a '96 Honda Civic and he wrecks it, are you going to go buy him an Escalade? It doesn't make sense."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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