I surprised myself with this one.
Every year I've done this exercise I've had Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler atop my Most Important list.
Every year except this year.
I obviously place a lot of importance on Cutler this season, he is number 4 after all, but I also see the new regime game-planning things a bit differently in 2015. I'm sure by now head coach John Fox and his staff have pored over every snap in Cutler's professional career to determine exactly what works, what doesn't work, and how best to construct the offense.
Bears fans have been asking for a play action / bootleg style offense for Jay Cutler since the day he was traded to Chicago. Cutler put up decent numbers playing that way in Mike Shanahan's offense, throwing for the most yards in a season in his career (4,526 yards in 2008) while a member of the Broncos.
Cutler also seemed to play good football in Mike Martz's system, putting up his lowest interception percentage of his career (2.2% in 2011).
Jay Cutler is what he is
Why does the narrative have to continually change when discussing Jay Cutler? I think it's because he's such a polarizing figure and people have a hard time putting their biases aside when talking about him. Both from fans and members of the media.
With John Fox calling for the Bears to get back to being a running team, and with offensive coordinator Adam Gase having the ability -- and experience -- to morph his offense into something that suits his personnel, we may have a football team that can win with the QB simply being a cog in the machine.
Cutler should be put in better position to succeed in this offense, but ultimately it's on him to cut down his turnovers. If he can't find a way to limit his turnovers, nothing else matters.
Last year his 18 interceptions tied for the league lead with Philip Rivers and his 12 fumbles tied for 3rd with Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton. He only lost 3 of those fumbles, which was was tied for 14th with numerous other players, but turnovers have been an ongoing issue throughout his career. And I can already feel the pro-Jay supporters drumming up a reason for his mistakes.
Cutler's 21 total turnovers was only behind Rivers' 22, but if he turns it over 20+ times again, I can't see this regime sticking behind him in 2016. Even with the big guaranteed money due him, rolling the dice with the QB you inherit for one season is one thing, sticking with him after back to back turnover prone seasons is another.
An emphasis on the run game, a legit deep threat, an improved defense and a coordinator that (hopefully) will play to his strengths are all necessary for Jay Cutler to play winning football.
And I can already feel the anti-Jay crowd readying a witty comment about Cutler not able to win games. While it's true that the last 2 seasons the Bears didn't win much, from 2010-2012 Cutler led teams went 27-13. These were the Martz/Tice eras of offense in Chicago and a time when Cutler averaged about 30 passing attempts per game.
During the last two years under Marc Trestman, Cutler averaged over 35 attempts per game. Last year, during the horrendous 5-11 campaign, his average attempts per game was 37.4. That's just too many passes for a player of Cutler's caliber.
For a little perspective, Andy Dalton averaged 30 attempts per game, Alex Smith was at 30.1, Aaron Rodgers was 32.5 and Peyton Manning was at 37.3.
Keep in mind Adam Gase was coordinating John Fox's offense in Denver last year, so to break that Manning stat down a little, from games 1-10 Manning averaged 40.7 passes per game. But from games 11-16, that number dropped to 31.7. Head coach John Fox wanted to keep his quarterback healthy, so he directed Gase to emphasize the run a bit more during the stretch run.
I think an average of right around 30 passes per game is where Jay Cutler should be in 2015.
Cutler has his faults, but he also has talent. He has his share of bad games, but he has good games too. The ongoing conundrum for coaches every season is finding a way to limit his poor decision making and tightening up some mechanics. And unless you have one of the handful of truly elite quarterbacks in the league, this is just how it is every year.
The quarterback position will always be important, that's just the nature of the beast in the NFL, but with the 2015 Chicago Bears, less could be more.