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Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Time for Jay Cutler to get comfortable

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Start a new Far Side calendar. Schedule a physical. Rotate those tires. A new year is approaching.

A new year of the Jay Cutler Show.

Not the radio show, mind you, but the multimedia gravy train that keeps us all in business. Cutler won't do many, if any, one-on-one, bare-his-soul interviews, but once again he will be the most discussed athlete in town, including Derrick Rose.

Jay Cutler
With an offensive system and starting core that's intact from last season, Jay Cutler should feel more at ease.

So get ready for a new year of Jay Cutler mind-reading, body-language speculating, performance pontificating. He's got a new contract, at least $50 million or so guaranteed, and Cutler will be the topic of 72.4 percent of sports conversations from August through January.

His facial expressions account for 18 percent of that estimate.

Training camp will be here before you know it, and after that, so will Cutler's sixth season as the starting quarterback of the Chicago Bears.

That's right, his sixth season. It has been a long time. Cutler is 31 now, a husband and a father of two. His best days are still (still!) ahead of him, but those best days better come this season.

Cutler met with the media for the first time since getting that fat contract extension in January. He gently disputed coach Marc Trestman's assessment that he was bigger and stronger, but he wouldn't argue that he's more comfortable than ever as the Bears' quarterback. While he said last year it would take two or three years to truly master Trestman's system, I think everyone expects this season to be better than last season for him, and last season was pretty good.

"We're going into my ninth year. I think this is only the second or third time I've been in an offense multiple years," Cutler said.

Stop me if you've heard that before. Like 500 times. It's true, though.

That has been the running story out of Halas Hall for Cutler's entire tenure as the team shuffled through three offensive coordinators in his first four seasons. But there is no question after all the bad hits, all the sideline pouts and all the lost seasons, Cutler and the Bears have finally found the right mix. On offense, anyway.

From the streamlined group of offensive coaches to the front office's "Duh!" additions of big-play wide receivers and competent linemen, the Bears offense is, for once, the strength of the team. It is being hyped as one of the best in the NFL for next season.

Weird times.

Jay Cutler
"I think he's at a place now, because he's had so much experience on these plays, he can utilize the entire play to find the right answers," coach Marc Trestman said of Cutler.

It has never been only about Cutler -- his potential and his problems -- but also the mix around him. I'm not one for making excuses for Cutler, but anyone who has been around this team during that span knew he was a poker player with a small pot, bluffing his way through hands.

On Tuesday, Cutler reminisced about the "hit parade" he endured his first four years and how it affected his game, mentally and physically.

Blame goes his way too, for sure, for dealing with his frustrations in unprofessional ways, but credit Cutler for forcing himself to be more of a team leader. It's probably not coincidental this has happened as the team's fortunes have picked up.

Last year, he had time and targets, and good things happened for him and his injury replacement Josh McCown -- who incidentally won another award: a "Good Guy" honor announced Tuesday from the local chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America.

Leave it to McCown to show up Cutler's day.

While Cutler played well last year in his first season under Trestman, he was overshadowed by McCown's breakout performance as his backup. Now McCown is in Tampa Bay and Cutler is rich in Lake Forest.

Trestman said Cutler has that "it factor" that quarterbacks need in this league. If that's true, it better show itself for another season.

The Bears have a three- or four-year window to win under Cutler's new deal. If the defense is truly fixed, they could be formidable in 2014. If the offensive line can block like it did last year, Cutler will be expected to perform at an All-Pro level.

Credit general manager Phil Emery and his front office for quickly building this group. The entire starting offense is returning from last season, with second-year Marquess Wilson expected to replace Earl Bennett as the third receiver.

The offense got together in Florida to hang out this offseason, joining Brandon Marshall's unofficial skills academy of Alshon Jeffery and Wilson.

All the good vibes this offseason can disappear with a few bad losses, but the Bears think the offense's familiarity with the system and each other will pay dividends in 2014, starting with No. 6.

"The beauty of continuity in football is learning the system and understanding where the problem lies on each play and each down and distance, and having the answer for that," offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said. "The more you know about the play, the more you know about the offense, the more problem-solving you can do as opposed to just running the play.

"So when you're new, we talked about this a lot last year, when you're in a new program, things come up during the game that make a big difference in the game but seem like such a small thing. Whether it's not seeing a blitz or whether a coverage read, those kinds of things, and that's where Jay has grown through his study. Just understanding where we're trying to go with the offense and him being the field general, not us."

Trestman referred to Cutler's intelligence as an asset, which is something that doesn't always come through in soundbites and interceptions. I've always felt it was Cutler's intelligence that distanced himself from his peers, due to an annoyed impatience with others. Perhaps, it was also intelligence that maybe allowed him to skip steps at times with his own fundamentals.

But now that he's comfortable with his surroundings and his teammates, maybe now Cutler can work on fixing his mistakes, rather than dwelling on them.

"Each of these plays we have, there's a lot of different answers against a lot of different types of looks and coverages," Trestman said. "I think he's at a place now, because he's had so much experience on these plays, he can utilize the entire play to find the right answers."

The Socratic nature of the quarterbacks room allows for plenty of discovery.

"Yeah, it is problem-solving," Cutler said. "After you do it a few years, you know what the answers are already. You're not guessing, you know where guys are going to be, you know what the calls are, you know why the call came in, you know what you want to get to if it is a problem.

"We're going in that direction, but we're still trying to figure some stuff out and we had some areas last year we struggled in and we weren't perfect, so we have to keep working and keep trying to get better."

With minicamp ending, the Bears will go their separate ways until training camp starts in late July. When they reconvene, the Jay Cutler Show will really begin. Is he ready to star in his own story?

It doesn't matter what we believe, it only matters what Cutler does when the season starts. But once again, everything looks great in June.