Filling the holes in Chicago

By nearly any measure, Jay Cutler's first season in Chicago has been a disappointment. AP Photo/Andy King

Brace yourselves. It’s time to revisit and perhaps conclude the bitter argument we started the morning after Chicago acquired quarterback Jay Cutler. At the time, I suggested the trade was a pivotal point in the 2009 NFC North race: It would either hand the division title to the Bears or bury them in a debt of unfilled holes and lost draft picks.

Larry David would probably join me in saying we’re getting pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty close to wrapping up that debate. Cutler’s arrival has coincided with the collapse of the Bears' defense and exposed several personnel gaps that limit his strengths as a downfield passer. Worse, the Bears are headed toward their second consecutive draft without a first- or second-round pick -- a substantial hindrance for upgrading/retrofitting their roster to make the Cutler trade work.

We hashed through the Bears’ defensive woes a few weeks ago. So today, let’s look at the impact of the Cutler trade on their offense -- and the entire franchise -- with 11 games of evidence to cull from.

Let’s be clear: Cutler has exacerbated the Bears’ issues with an NFL-high 20 interceptions and a sour demeanor that makes him easy to target. But I think we can safely say he parachuted into a team built for someone else.

The bus stalled out

When he was hired in 2004, Bears coach Lovie Smith announced his teams would “get off the bus running.” That was Smith’s way of describing an offense built around the power running game, a time-honored tradition in Chicago and the entire Black and Blue division. Smith had a 1,200-yard rusher in three of his first five seasons, along the way building a roster designed for that approach.

That style began to erode on that fateful day in March, when they acquired Cutler and signed former Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace -- known more for his pass blocking than a bull-dozing even in his best days with St. Louis. Free agent Frank Omiyale, their new left guard, was also better known as a pass-blocker during his time in Carolina.

Neither Omiyale nor Pace has played to expectations this season, leaving the Bears with a double conundrum: Their run blocking has weakened and their pass blocking is less reliable than they had hoped for. Incredibly, the Bears now have the NFL’s lowest-ranked rushing game; they are averaging 85.1 yards per game. Even more surprising, their 232 rushing attempts are also a league-low.

Few quarterbacks, Cutler included, can succeed when a huge chunk of the playbook is rendered moot. Sunday, the Bears passed on their first three plays and punted. Then they ran on their next three plays before punting again. From that point, they passed on 17 of their next 20 plays.

Was that really the Bears? Or was it Texas Tech?

“We didn’t really even try to establish a running game,” lamented tailback Matt Forte, a smooth runner who has proved unable to gain much in the way of unblocked yardage.

The idea in acquiring Cutler was to give the Bears a passing threat to match their long-held rushing prowess. Instead, he climbed aboard the bus just as it was stalling out.

Unbalanced roster

Unfortunately for Cutler, the rest of their offensive personnel wasn’t equipped to handle a shift to the passing game. If their receiving corps has been a pleasant surprise, it’s mostly because expectations couldn’t have been lower. Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox have combined for 136 receptions, but they’re still inexperienced and -- importantly -- none of them command a double-team from opponents.

That inexperience was on display early in the third quarter Sunday at the Metrodome. Knox’s 77-yard return of the second-half kickoff put the Bears in position to get back into the game, but on second down from the Vikings’ 8-yard line, Cutler looked confused and took a sack. Afterward, offensive coordinator Ron Turner said Cutler’s primary receiver ran the wrong route.

Turner wouldn’t identify the culprit, but in watching the replay, you see Cutler look to the left side of the end zone where Hester and tight end Greg Olsen were both running routes.

“[Cutler] is looking for a guy that’s supposed to be there that would have been wide open,” Turner said. “But he’s not there so he gets sacked. It’s a matter of us executing better offensively and giving him an opportunity. When you give him an opportunity, he’s a hell of a player. But we have to give him a chance on each and every play.

“It’s easy to look at the quarterback and blame the quarterback or whatever you want to blame,” Turner added. “But everybody has to execute. If one guy doesn’t do it, it’s tough for any quarterback to execute and that’s kind of been the story of what we’ve had. … We seem to bust base plays that we’ve had in [the playbook] and not give ourselves a chance. We have to clean that up.”

Limited options

Focusing only on the offense, you could argue the Bears have two and perhaps three critical needs entering the 2010 draft. They need a big-play receiver, an influx of new bodies to give them options along their offensive line and a running back to complement or share duties with Forte.

Hindsight is 20-20, of course. (But we wouldn’t have an NFC North blog without it.) If you look at the players available at what would have been the Bears’ first two picks of the 2009 draft, you see they could have filled at least one of those needs. (Remember that the Bears traded out of the second round in part to recoup a third-round pick they gave up in the Cutler deal.)

Now, they’ll have to address those same deficiencies during a draft that won’t start for them until the third round, completing the trades for Cutler and defensive end Gaines Adams. Free agency is always a possibility, but acquiring impact players through that avenue is usually the exception rather than the rule.

I’ll maintain that the Bears upgraded at quarterback when they installed Cutler in place of Kyle Orton. But that wasn’t the central question of our original debate. The real issue is whether the Bears would be able to surround Cutler with enough support to make the trade worthwhile. To this point, they simply have not.