|Tim Sharp / Associated Press|
|The union of Jay Cutler, pictured, with Mike Martz has worked beautifully so far for the Bears.|
Lovie Smith spent most of the offseason urging his team to return to its Monster of the Midway roots, but the presence of Jay Cutler and the addition of Mike Martz as the offensive coordinator made it difficult to envision the Bears going with a "three yards and a cloud of dust" approach.
The acquisition of Cutler a season ago lifted hopes, but the initial results were disastrous. He struggled to make the transition to Ron Turner's offense and his perpetual indecisiveness led to a league-worst 26 interceptions. Chicago finished 23rd in total offense, while producing only 20.4 points a game.
With his offense stuck in neutral, Smith turned to his mentor, Martz, for help.
Martz, who hired Smith as his defensive coordinator while he was coach of the Rams, has an outstanding reputation for developing quarterbacks. Martz helped transform what were lightly regarded players such as Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger into Pro Bowlers, and he was instrumental in Jon Kitna posting back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons in Detroit.
Although those players had the mental acumen and instincts to thrive in Martz's system, Cutler possesses better physical tools. With his arm strength and touch, Cutler can make the vertical throws, while also having the anticipation to connect on short and intermediate routes.
In Martz's system, the quarterback is directed to throw the ball on time to designated spots on the field, and the receiver is expected to be there when it arrives. The intricate timing between thrower and catcher makes it nearly impossible to stop when executed properly, but some quarterbacks are never able to grasp the anticipation aspect of the system and frequently get picked off as a result.
In addition to anticipation and awareness, quarterbacks must have the courage to stand tall in the pocket against a host of rushers. Martz prefers to release all eligible receivers into the route regardless of the pressure, and rely on the QB to find the "hot" receiver to defeat the rush. While this approach exposes the passer to a lot of punishment, it results in big plays when the timing and anticipation is on point.
In looking at the Bears' first two games, the beauty of Martz's system has been on full display. Although Cutler has taken a bit of a beating in the pocket, he has routinely picked apart the coverage, and has connected on 68.8 percent of his passes with five touchdowns against only one interception. Those numbers are even more remarkable when factoring in his league-leading 10.1 yards per attempt average and 121.2 passer rating.
Throw in the fact that he is posting this kind of production without an established No. 1 receiver on the roster, and it's obvious that the marriage between Cutler and Martz is off to a good start.
The Bears are sitting atop the NFC North with their newfound approach. With Cutler playing a large role, he could nab the league's Offensive Player of the Year award to accompany a division crown at season's end.
Offensive Player of the Year
2. Peyton Manning, Colts, QB (2): The four-time MVP put together a workmanlike performance against the Giants (20 of 26 passes for 255 yards with three touchdowns) that showcased his trademark accuracy and efficiency. Manning currently ranks as the league-leader in passing yards and touchdowns.
3. Chris Johnson, Titans, RB (1): He saw his 12-game streak of 100-yard rushing efforts end at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but provided a sensational "what if" moment with a 85-yard jaunt that was nullified by a penalty. While he is well off the pace for a 2,000-yard season, he continues to stake his claim as the league's most explosive offensive player.
4. Matt Schaub, Texans, QB (NR): After a quiet opening week, Schaub used a 497-yard passing performance to throw his hat into the ring. With the league's best receiver (Andre Johnson) at his disposal, Schaub has a good shot to retain his crown as the league's top passer.
5. Michael Vick, Eagles, QB (5): He continues to dazzle as a fill-in for the Eagles. In defeating the Lions, Vick accounted for 321 yards of total offense with two scores, and set the stage for a quarterback controversy in Philly.
Most Valuable Player
1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers QB (Week 1 ranking, 3): The offensive juggernaut continues to roll behind Rodgers. With Ryan Grant sidelined for the season, Rodgers will have to shoulder a heavy burden to keep the Packers on a title track.
Defensive Player of the Year
2. James Harrison, Steelers, LB (5): The former Defensive Player of the Year has been sensational in the Steelers' two wins. Harrison continues to pummel quarterbacks from the blind side (three sacks), and produce turnovers (two forced fumbles) that have keyed the team's surprising start without Ben Roethlisberger.
3. Mario Williams, Texans, DE (NR): Williams has started to cement his status as one of the league's premier pass rushers. His three-sack outing against the Redskins showed how hard he is to block off the edge.
4. Karlos Dansby, Dolphins, LB (NR): The Dolphins' marquee free agent has added another dimension to the unit. His big hit on fourth-and-goal against the Vikings is the latest example of the game-changing presence Dansby has added to the middle of the defense.
5. Ray Lewis, Ravens, LB (NR): The 15-year veteran is still playing at a high level. Though he has lost a step or two, he remains the centerpiece of the Ravens' defense and continues to show it on a weekly basis.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
2. Sam Bradford, Rams, QB (1): Bradford didn't post outstanding numbers against the Raiders (14-of-25 passing for 165 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception), but continues to demonstrate poise and maturity beyond his years.
3. Dez Bryant, Cowboys, WR (4): It is only a matter of time before Bryant becomes a major factor in the offense. But for now, his 62-yard punt return for a touchdown illustrated his skills in the return game.
5. Aaron Hernandez, Patriots, TE (NR): Hernandez is quietly becoming a difference-maker for New England. He has four receptions of 20 yards or more, and his 20.9 yards per catch average leads all rookies with at least five receptions.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
3. Eric Berry, Chiefs, S (NR): It is not a coincidence that the defense has been stellar since Berry's arrival. His ability to blitz, run and cover has allowed the Chiefs to turn up the heat on opponents.
4. Sean Weatherspoon, Falcons, LB (NR): Weatherspoon has been an instant impact player for the Falcons. He not only leads the team in tackles, but his ability to provide pressure off the edge has helped diversify the pass rush.
5. Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers, DT (2): The defensive revival in Tampa has been sparked by McCoy's play on the inside. Though his stat-line doesn't reveal his impact, his disruptive presence has allowed the team to get after quarterbacks without relying extensively on the blitz.
Coach of the Year
1. Gary Kubiak, Texans (3): The Texans sit atop the AFC South due to a series of gutsy calls made by Kubiak in critical moments. His decision to freeze Redskins K Graham Gano paid off when the rookie badly missed a 52-yard attempt on his second try.
2. Mike Tomlin, Steelers (5): The Steelers jump out to a 2-0 record despite being down to their fourth-string quarterback. Tomlin sparked the solid start against the Titans by calling for a reverse on the opening kickoff, which resulted in an 89-yard touchdown by Antonio Brown.
3. Todd Haley, Chiefs (NR): The kudos thrown in Haley's direction should also fall on the ears of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel for their outstanding work rebuilding their respective units.
4. Raheem Morris, Buccaneers (NR): The unbeaten start might be overlooked due to their soft schedule (Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers), but a closer look reveals a young team that is growing up quickly under Morris' direction.
5. Tony Sparano, Dolphins (NR): Sparano's work with the Dolphins has always been overlooked due to the looming presence of his mentor Bill Parcells, but it is time to recognize him as one of the game's top coaches.