Maybe Marc Trestman was the problem in Chicago, not Jay Cutler
Remember when Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman was nicknamed the Quarterback Whisperer?
Hired by the Bears as their head coach in January 2013, Trestman won his first two games and finished the season 8-8. Things appeared to be headed in the right direction in Chicago, especially as much of that success came with Josh McCown at quarterback.
McCown had been out of football a couple of times before catching on with the Bears as a backup to Caleb Hanie once Jay Cutler went down hurt. Haine was a disaster starting, and so McCown eventually became the primary backup, bouncing on and off the roster before coming in for a hurt-again Cutler in 2013 and subsequently put together probably the greatest seven-game stretch of his life to end the season and convince people that Trestman was a quarterback genius. The wonders he produced with McCown became the center of attention.
That season Cutler, when he wasn’t injured, also had a lot of success within Trestman’s offense, which strengthened his case, but the interesting thing is that Cutler didn’t really adjust his play to fit the offense in the way the Bears asked him to the following season.
In 2013 Cutler had wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery stretching teams down the field, as well as tight end Martellus Bennett and running back Matt Forte to work the shorter areas of the field. That year Cutler’s average depth of target was 10.0 yards down field, which was fourth in the NFL but just marginally lower than the 10.4 yards Cutler averaged the year before Trestman got there. By contrast, McCown, in the same offense, was averaging just 8.6 yards, which was 26th in the NFL. The following year Trestman and the Bears tried to rein Cutler in to limit the poor plays he makes, and his average depth of target fell to just 7.7 — 35th in the NFL.
The problem is that he still made as many poor decisions as before, only now they weren’t being offset by the spectacular plays that Cutler is capable of making because he was being limited by the conservative offense.
Trestman’s Chicago career ultimately crashed and burned, with Cutler taking much of the blame for Trestman’s firing as well as the firing of the man who signed him to an expensive, long-term contract extension, GM Phil Emery. Trestman is now in Baltimore running his offense as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator, where a certain Joe Flacco suddenly finds himself suffering a period of very poor play.
Flacco’s average depth of target has seen a similar drop from pre- to post-Trestman, dropping from 9.0 a year ago to just 7.4 this year. The problem isn’t necessarily the very deep shots down the field, since Flacco takes a deep shot (20-plus air yards) at roughly the same rate this year as opposed to last, but rather how the Ravens are stretching the field by working the intermediate routes. Last season Baltimore attempted a pass 10 or more yards down field on 32.3 percent of their attempts. This season that figure is down to 27.3 percent.
While the route profile for Flacco actually looks pretty similar from 2014 to 2015, it does appear that the passing offense is simply looking more toothless this year. Flacco, who was our 16th-graded quarterback a year ago is now 36th, ranked below every quarterback in football other than Matthew Stafford, who was benched in Detroit’s loss to Arizona this week for Dan Orlovsky.
Cutler, by contrast, is sitting in the 16th spot in our grades that used to be occupied by Flacco, after having been 31st when running Trestman’s offense a year ago. He currently has a positive grade after posting his best game grade since Week 6 of 2014 in Sunday’s come-from-behind win over the Chiefs, during which he made some spectacular throws and didn’t throw any interceptions.
The two quarterbacks have seen their fortunes flip almost exactly, and it happens to coincide with each working with or without Trestman.
Maybe Cutler wasn’t ever the problem …