Bates has all making of good coach but pairing him with Cutler sends wrong message
There is no questioning Jeremy Bates' résumé or his football pedigree.
He is the son of a longtime NFL coach. As a freshman quarterback at Tennessee, he was tutored by Peyton Manning. He has worked under two elite NFL head coaches in Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan. He was successful in his previous association with Jay Cutler as the Denver Broncos' quarterbacks coach. And at age 33, he is the assistant head coach of the offense and quarterbacks coach at Southern California.
Would Bates make a potentially good NFL offensive coordinator or even head coach one day?
No question there, either.
Would he be the best choice as the new offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, who have contacted him about the job?
Not necessarily, and there are several reasons.
The first one, which could be applied to many of the candidates who will come through, including the uniquely qualified Mike Martz, is that Bates is not a proponent of the running game Lovie Smith and the Bears espouse. Why Smith is so stubborn in a league in which more quarterbacks than ever before have passed for more than 4,000 yards, and with a quarterback on the roster who threw for more than 4,500 yards in 2008, is anyone's guess -- particularly when you don't have a running back on the roster you can count on to hold up that running game.
But that's another column for another day.
The fact is, Bates likes to throw the ball and on the surface, appears a good fit for Cutler, whose game he knows well enough to maximize his effectiveness. But if Smith is going to fight the love of the pass, it's reason enough to question Bates' hiring.
Another reason is an apparent strength: Bates' relationship with Cutler. Close Broncos observers said at 33 and just seven years older than Cutler, Bates' tendency was to be a little bit too much of a pal to Cutler, more a friend than a coach to the exclusion of being the type of authority figure Cutler clearly needs.
The perception in Denver and in L.A. is that Bates, for all of his football savvy, is somewhat immature and uncomfortable with media attention -- he was the first USC coach in memory to put limits on his own media access -- the last thing you want with an immature quarterback and in the intensely scrutinized job of Bears offensive coordinator.
Bates has taken a beating on USC fan message boards in his first season there. At best, said Garry Paskwietz, publisher of Wearesc.com and co-host of the Trojans' pregame radio show, "the jury is still out on Jeremy."
"You can point to a lot of things," Paskwietz said of the Trojans' uncharacteristic 9-4 regular-season finish and a year plagued by injuries. "It's not really fair to lay all the blame at Bates' feet, but the fans sure are."
Bates and offensive coordinator John Morton ran a pro-style offense with a true freshman (Matt Barkley) at quarterback. Although Bates was thought to be calling the plays (as he did in Denver in 2008, though heavily influenced and supervised by Shanahan), USC head coach Pete Carroll became much more involved with the offense as the season progressed.
"No one really knew if Jeremy was able to call his own plays all the time or completely manage the game without Pete injecting his thoughts," Paskwietz said. "A lot of times, they were tempted by the potential of Matt Barkley and relied on him too much. Was that Pete or Jeremy? We don't know. But it was a lot to put on a true freshman."
The Trojans had two running backs that averaged approximately 6 yards per carry, with Joe McKnight averaging 14 carries per game and Allen Bradford nine.
As for Bates' handling of his young quarterbacks, Paskwietz said there was no question who was in charge.
"Jeremy is a very serious, intense guy," he said. "He takes his job very seriously, and he is very detail-oriented. It's one of his strengths."
Still, fans still yearning for the glory days, seem to welcome a change.
"It just doesn't seem to be working," Paskwietz said, "and I don't think many people would shed many tears if he did leave."
Kirk Herbstreit, an analyst for ABC/ESPN, talked about the USC offense and its new coordinators this week, Bates included, and told the Orange County Register that Carroll needed to make changes on his staff.
"It didn't look like USC was in complete command at all times," Herbstreit said. "Something beyond just being young was going on there."
Cutler has spoken glowingly of Bates and no doubt is pushing for his hiring.
"Jeremy is one of the best offensive minds in football," Cutler said in a statement last year after Bates was hired at USC. "He was extremely innovative with our offense and took our playbook to the next level with some of the things he did, keeping defenses off balance and changing our look but at the same time keeping it simple for us players.
"Some of the things he did were amazing to watch. He was always watching other teams and coming up with new ideas for our offense. He helped me grow into my third NFL season and helped me reach the Pro Bowl along with some of the other goals I set for myself. As a unit, our offense became one of the most productive in the league with Jeremy calling plays. He brought a lot of excitement to the meeting room and on the field. He made me want to come to work every day and get better. Jeremy will do great things in his new role, and USC couldn't have picked a better guy."
If Bates were hired by the Bears for his first coordinator job at any level, he would be given autonomy by Smith to run the offense, and it's very possible it would be a collaborative effort with Cutler. But at a point in Cutler's development when he clearly needs coaching to correct flaws and to keep him from regressing, is that giving the quarterback too much power?
On the flip side, would a strong-willed, authoritative coach simply push Cutler away and further hinder his development? If it was the right coach, with the experience and track record Bates lacks, the Bears should take their chances.
What Cutler needs now is a football coach and a life coach, not to be surrounded with more youth. At 27, when he enters his fifth NFL season and with his ability, Cutler needs to become an elite talent. Otherwise, with a possible lockout looming in 2011, you're looking at a guy closing in on 30, with decent numbers who has never won with a reputation for being petulant. Another Jeff George in the making.
No matter how impressive the respective talents of Cutler and Bates are, in the Bears' current scenario it's not a winning combination.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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