- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- We know all about Jay Cutler playing for a new contract this season. If he plays exceptionally well or, even better, leads the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl, he can expect the really big bucks. If he merely plays well and gets the Bears into the playoffs, then it's probably just reasonably big money for a guy already making $8.47 million in base salary.
But for Cutler, the stakes might be bigger than the bucks.
Whether he wants to call it a career crossroads or not -- and he does not -- Cutler is playing for something almost as valuable to a professional athlete, particularly one with his pedigree, and that's control over his career.
Going into his eighth NFL season, Cutler quite possibly is looking at going from a starting quarterback some (albeit) misguidedly label as top tier, to a player teetering on the edge of No. 2 status.
The only thing that could save him is the fact that teams like the Oakland Raiders, Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets are perpetually looking for a starter like Cutler, who, while not having championship results, still has the arm and appearance of a winner.
Not to digress, but couldn't you envision Cutler one day as someone's No. 2, moving into the starting lineup after an injury or demotion to the starter and suddenly becoming everyone's darling?
If the Bears are looking for someone to replace Cutler, that could be to his advantage as well, with a rather thin free agent quarterback market in 2014 that could consist of Cutler, Michael Vick and Josh Freeman. Also in his favor is that there are no potential successors in-house with the Bears.
Unthinkable as that might seem right now, and as much as Cutler does not want to put that kind of pressure on himself, the expectations are a load to bear. Not only must he do something he has done only once before -- lead a team to the playoffs -- he must do it while gaining sufficient enough approval from his first-year coach and second-year general manager that they choose to make a huge investment in him.
At 30 years old, that might be somewhat harsh, but it is a reality. Trestman and Phil Emery might like Cutler as a quarterback but not enough as a leader, or operator of their system, or simply a guy to whom they want to hitch their respective wagons and commit upwards of $12 million to $15 million over the next several years.
Is that completely fair for a guy looking at the fifth different offensive coordinator in his career and his fourth in the past five years with the Bears? Even Cutler sounded like he understands.
"It's tough whenever you're going through that," Cutler said Wednesday. "But I mean, it's a business. If you're winning ballgames, you're probably understanding the offense. That's part of the deal. You've just got to go with the flow and learn the offense the best you can and hopefully you'll be successful."
While he said during the June minicamp that it would take three years to master the new system, he smartly backed off that a bit on Wednesday.
"You still have to have high expectations," he said. "Just because we don't know completely 100 percent of it, no reason we can't go out and be successful."
Particularly when your coach is one who was specifically hired for his record of grooming quarterbacks.
"They're very smart offensive guys," Cutler said of Trestman, offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh. "They're quarterback-friendly, they want to make it as easy as possible on myself and the other QBs. So it's fun to work with those guys. They understand the offense, they understand what we're going through and they want to put us in position to be successful."
Less than a week into camp, Trestman said he has been impressed with Cutler's ability to digest the new system.
"I think he's doing an excellent job. I mentioned a couple times to Matt, we had some long calls today in the huddle, I gave it to him once, he spit it right back out," Trestman said.
But again, the pressure is there. Trestman said regardless of the new and complex verbiage (as Cutler calls it), he does not consider the possibility that his starting quarterback won't hit the ground running when the regular season begins.
"We would have that expectation certainly," Trestman said.
Of course, it's a team effort. The new staff has been working diligently on improving Cutler's much-maligned mechanics. And last year, Emery drafted 6-foot-3 receiver Alshon Jeffery and signed 6-foot-6 tight end Martellus Bennett to join 6-foot-4 Brandon Marshall.
"We've got some big dudes out there," Cutler said after a practice in which he was masterful in red zone drills. "You just kind of have to put it up high and they understand football, which is nice."
"I think he's practicing very efficiently," Trestman said of Cutler. "He's throwing the ball away and there's nothing wrong with that with the defense that we have. He's checking it down a lot during the practices, all of us have seen that, finishing his progressions. He's just moving forward."
All positive signs in July, but will everyone be saying the same things in December? Cutler's long-term career health hangs in the balance, whether he wants to go there right now or not.
Asked if he would call this a crossroads, Cutler said, "No, it's another season, it's the same goal in mind. There are some different circumstances this season but it's not going to change my mindset."
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