Cutler emerging as unquestioned Bears leader

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Cutler emerging as unquestioned Bears leader

Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011Posted: 12:10 a.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com Bears Insider Follow @CSNMoonMullin
Roy Williams had not seen many passes like that one in Tennessee.

It was only preseason, or maybe because it was preseason, and Williams cut right, through the Titans defense but drawing a crowd. Williams could see Jay Cutler through the moving figures, back upfield in the pocket.

Suddenly there was the ball. It went through the startled Williams hands, but not before leaving an impression in its wake. Williams had played with Tony Romo in Dallas, so he was no stranger to footballs traveling at high speeds.

This was something different.

Thinking about that throw, I asked him the other day, Whats your most impressive throw, ever? Williams said, slowly shaking his head. He said, Ive had a bunch of those.

Thats a guy you want to play for, a guy you know is going to have your back and Ive got his.

That was not a sentiment every teammate might have expressed over Cutlers career. But as he has said on so many occasions over the past two years, it is the only one that matters to Cutler.

Therein lies the emergence of a leader.

Dealing with changes

Cutlers public demeanor has appeared more affable and relaxed since the early days of training camp. He has seemed more comfortable with questions and dispensing humor without the air of distance he projected in the past.

That in itself is a perceivable change for someone who has been through many in a short time.

Since arriving via trade from Denver in 2009, Cutler has been through two coordinators, two centers, a nine-sack first half and concussion (at New York last season) and broken-off engagement (his call) with reality star Kristin Cavallari. He has dealt with the onset of diabetes in 2007 that requires daily insulin injections and also saw the trade of a friend and key receiver (tight end Greg Olsen, to Carolina and new contract).

I love Greg, Cutler said. And what we brought to us. But thats where it is. Hes got a great deal of money, to go play for a real good team. Hes a great guy, and a terrific football player.

He has gone through a physical makeover, from 233 pounds a year ago to a noticeably thinner 220 now. Part of the reason is a touch of maturity and an indication that he can read a calendar as well as a defense.

My diet was different, just standard stuff, Cutler said. Im getting a little older, so I got to get in a little better shape.

I have not been this lean. I can tell the difference in my footwork and just my ability to get up in the pocket. You know, I don't really get as tired as much throughout camp because I'm not carrying around all that weight. Whether it's good or bad, we'll wait to see.

The attack

Next to all of that, a little verbal abuse from players around the league was petty cash.

Cutler was the target of derision from fellow players after he left the NFC Championship in January after one series in the third quarter. The reason: a knee injury that critics doubted. Never mind that it was later diagnosed as a Grade II torn left medial collateral ligament, or that Cutler took an injection at halftime, came out in the second half and tried to play before being shut down after three unsuccessful plays.

Center Olin Kreutz, the Bears enforcer and acknowledged team tough guy, said after the game, His knee was shaking just standing there in the huddle. Dont try telling me he wasnt hurt.

Indeed, a handful of teammates privately grumbled about the Cutler injury, possibly a reflection of the fact that Cutler was in the throes of a dismal performance when he was injured. But the avalanche of criticism from outsiders appeared to bring the team together around their embattled quarterback.

When a questioner at the NFL scouting combine last February raised a question about Cutlers toughness, coach Lovie Smiths terse, testy response abruptly ended that line of inquiry.
Expectations not his friend

The expectations of Cutler have been huge since the start of his NFL career. They became substantially higher in a Bears town than even in Denver, where he had been drafted with the hope that he would return the Broncos to the glories of the John Elway days. That didnt happen.

The Bears took matters to a different level in 2009 when they invested two No. 1 draft choices in a trade for what they saw as their franchise quarterback. Cutler had reached a Pro Bowl, was in the prime of his career and was intended to sweep away years of frustrating quarterback searches.

Other Bears quarterbacks in the past have been fighting for jobs, said former Bears wide receiver Rashied Davis, now with the Detroit Lions. They've been competing and haven't had as much control as maybe Jay does as a franchise quarterback.

He came in as the Pro Bowl quarterback, the franchise. He was 'Jay Cutler, Pro Bowl quarterback' before he came here and had already proved his place in the league. It's different.

The Broncos had spent a No. 1 pick for Cutler. The Bears had parted with two, plus Kyle Orton and a third-round pick. Then, less than two months into his first Chicago season, they gave him a contract extension worth 30 million. For a Bears town, that makes him more than just another football player.

Jay is the guy, Davis said, that the city of Chicago is leaning on."

Lean on me?

More important, he is also becoming the guy more than just the huddle is leaning on.

Cutler was again voted a co-captain on offense. And he has comported himself like one.

When Johnny Knox had his starting job given to Williams during training camp, Cutler sought Knox out to talk and gauge the feelings of the young receiver.

During the preseason and training camp, backup quarterback Caleb Hanie struggled with interceptions to the point of suffering a brief demotion behind little-used rookie Nathan Enderle. It was Cutler, no stranger to interception problems himself, again talking to Hanie, wanting to keep a slump in play from becoming something more.

When a mistake is made in a receivers route in practice, Cutler will look first to receivers coach Darryl Drake. From the eye contact, its decided whether Drake or Cutler will say what needs to be said to the offending wideout.

Cutler can fix a player with The Look but rarely will there be hectoring or a rant. It is a style that is consistent with the demeanors of fellow captains Roberto Garza, Patrick Mannelly, Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher, the other leaders of the team.

Weve never had a rah-rah guy since Ive been here, Urlacher said. I hate those guys, always yapping, running their mouths.

He has a new center in Garza, a good friend of Kreutzs but who projects a far different, calmer persona. Garza is the other captain on offense and projects a different style of leadership himself.

Cutler is not the type to demand attention if he cannot command it.

Leadership is kind of a funny thing, said offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Everyone has a different version of what it is. I think confidence, and how you approach your craft, says everything about it, and your ability to exude that in the huddle and how youre playing. Thats where he is right now.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Bears training camp preview: Three burning questions for the offensive line

Bears training camp preview: Three burning questions for the offensive line

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ position groups heading into Bourbonnais. Friday's unit: the offensive line. 

1. Will Kyle Long and Josh Sitton flip spots, and will it be effective?

One of the more intriguing storylines to come out of the Bears’ offseason program was the possibility of a Kyle Long-Josh Sitton guard swap, with Long moving from right to left and Sitton to left to right. The prevailing wisdom is that Long’s athleticism would be better suited for the pulls needed at left guard, while Sitton has made Pro Bowls at both positions. But is it prudent for the Bears to make this switch with Long still recovering from November ankle surgery and some nasty complications that came after it? He’s shown he’s skilled enough to already make one position switch on the offensive line (from right tackle to right guard), so there’s no reason to doubt he couldn’t handle another so long as he’s healthy. We’ll see where he is next week. 

“You want flexibility,” coach John Fox said. “You don’t want as much flexibility as we had to use a year ago because we had to play so many guys due to injury. But we’re messing around with (Sitton) and Kyle both playing opposite sides, whether one’s on the left, one’s on the right. We’ll get those looks in camp, we got plenty of time.”

2. Can Charles Leno Jr. capitalize on a contract year?

Leno has been a pleasant surprise given the low expectations usually set for seventh-round picks. He started every game in 2016, checking off an important box for John Fox — reliability. Whether Leno can be more than a reliable player at left tackle, though, remains to be seen (if the Bears thought he were, wouldn’t they have signed him to an extension by now?). He has one more training camp and 16 games to prove he’s worthy of a deal to be the Bears (or someone else’s) left tackle of the future. Otherwise, the Bears may look to a 2018 draft class rich in tackles led by Texas’ Connor Williams and Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey. 

“I know if I take care of my business out here, everything else will take care of itself,” Leno said. 

3. Will Hroniss Grasu survive the roster crunch?

A year ago, Grasu was coming off a promising rookie season and was in line to be the Bears’ starting center. But the Oregon product tore his ACL in August, and Cody Whitehair thrived after a last-minute move from guard to center. If the Bears keep eight offensive lineman this year, Grasu could be squeezed out: Leno, Long, Whitehair, Sitton and Bobby Massie are the likely starters, with Eric Kush and Tom Compton filling reserve roles. That leaves one spot, either for fifth-round guard Jordan Morgan or Grasu. The Bears could try to stash Morgan, who played his college ball at Division-II Kutztown, on the practice squad and keep Grasu. But Grasu doesn’t have flexibility to play another position besides center, which could hurt his case. 

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ position groups heading into Bourbonnais. Thursday's unit: the tight ends.

1. Will Zach Miller make the 53-man roster?

Miller didn’t play a single down from 2012-14, and has missed seven games in two seasons with the Bears, but he’s been productive when on the field: 110 targets, 81 receptions, 925 yards and nine touchdowns. But the Bears signed Dion Sims to an $18 million contract and then drafted Adam Shaheen in the second round of the draft, moves that seemingly put Miller in a precarious position heading into Bourbonnais. Not helping Miller’s case is the Lisfranc fracture he suffered last November, which kept him sidelined through OTAs and veteran minicamp in May and June. He’d be a valuable player for the Bears to keep around, but at the same time, training camp could be a perfect storm for Miller to be among the cuts.

“They’re going to cutting it close for training camp,” coach John Fox said of Miller (and Danny Trevathan) in June. “But right now they’re right on target and that’s kind of what we expected all offseason.”

2. What can we expect from Adam Shaheen?

Shaheen was among the bright spots during May and June, hardly looking like someone who played his college ball at Division II Ashland while going against NFL defenders. But those were just shorts-and-helmets practices without any contact, so it’d be premature to project anything about Shaheen off of them. The real test for Shaheen will be when he puts the pads on in Bourbonnais and gets his first experience with the physicality of the NFL after a few years of being head and shoulders — literally — above his competition in college. It’s unlikely Shaheen will live up to his “Baby Gronk” hype in Year 1, but if he handles training camp well, he could be a valuable red zone asset for Mike Glennon as a rookie. 

“You don’t know until you put the pads on,” Shaheen said. “That’s what I’m excited for.”

3. How productive can this unit be?

Between Sims — who had a career high four touchdowns last year with the Miami Dolphins — and Shaheen, the Bears have two new, big targets for an offense that tied for 24th in the NFL with 19 passing touchdowns a year ago. If Miller sticks around, this group would have enviable depth. But even if he doesn’t, the Bears liked what they saw from Brown last year (16 receptions, 124 yards, 1 TD in six games). There are fewer questions about the tight ends heading into training camp than the receivers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Glennon leans on this unit, especially early in the season.