When Jay Cutler came to the Bears in that 2009 trade with the Denver Broncos, he was “the new guy.” The locker room belonged to Olin Kreutz and Brian Urlacher on their respective sides of the football, and while the quarterback position by definition places its occupant in a necessarily leadership position, that wasn’t the Bears. They weren’t going to be “Cutler’s team,” not for a while.
But Matt Forte exited this past offseason and with him went the last position player – on either side of the ball – who had been here longer than Cutler now has. The reality wasn’t lost on Cutler.
“I was looking at the roster a couple of weeks ago and I feel like there’s been a major shift in experience — especially on the offensive side,” he said. “I’m at 11 [years] and then you look down, there’s a couple of nines, a couple of eights and mostly five and under, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think a new talent and new guys in the building, there’s new energy and new attitude. I’ve embraced it. I’ve enjoyed it. I think the coaching staff’s done a great job of getting all these young guys up to speed. It’s a good group right now.”
It is also a group that looks to Cutler perhaps in ways teammates haven’t. Where Forte was at least the template for an NFL professional for his position group, Cutler now becomes the go-to veteran for everything ranging from details on a play-call to how to behave as a rookie.
It is a role that at times Cutler did not always appear to fit into comfortably, particularly with established veterans and personas that were the Bears’ identity for, in cases like Kreutz and Urlacher, a decade or more. Now, a player once sometimes perceived by outsiders as poutish or petulant has become something of a standard-setter for teammates.
“Obviously Jay does a great job with the younger guys,” said guard Kyle Long. “He brought me along, and continues to bring me along. He can be a little honest and blunt with me from time to time, but beyond a shadow of a doubt it’s the right thing to do in his position, as the leader and vested player.
“The quarterback is the leader of our team. I think he’s done a great job. I see him with the defense a lot, which is something I didn’t see a lot the first few years. I don’t necessarily know if that’s on Jay, or if it’s a perception-of-Jay basis. He’s a great guy. People in that locker room love him. He’s tough as hell. He’s got a cannon. He can run. And he’s a competitor. We love him. He’s been great this offseason and we’re looking forward to seeing how he’ll be this season with this new O-line and with the defense getting us the ball back a lot.”
Tough love approach
Cutler has earned the respect of his teammates. But gaining the confidence of his head coach and general manager through last year were possibly career turning points.
Cutler had been given a contract extension six games into his first (2009) year with the Bears. He responded by leading the NFL in interceptions.
When Phil Emery arrived as general manager, he spoke from the outset of Cutler as a “franchise quarterback” and “elite.” Emery gave Cutler a seven-year contract after the 2013 season, whereupon Cutler again led the league in interceptions in a 5-11 season marked by friction with coordinator Aaron Kromer and coach Marc Trestman, whose staff was fired after that year.
Instead of fawning treatment, Fox, coordinator Adam Gase and GM Ryan Pace were decidedly noncommittal on Cutler through last offseason and into the year. Cutler produced the best statistical year of his career, still not as good as Aaron Rodgers’ poorest single season, but with an overall performance that settled the Bears’ quarterback situation for the foreseeable future.
"I had questions on everybody," Fox said. "You come in, you take a job, you evaluate and you have to make decisions oftentimes before you even meet somebody in Year 1 as a head coach or general manager. They could be robots for all you know. But the game is still about people and relationships.
“I will say this: At the conclusion of the whole season working with Jay, I was very impressed. So I feel way more confident about him."