The day draws nigh my friends. In a little more than a fortnight, the Chicago Bears will stroll onto the football fields at Olivet Nazarene University for the first practice of 2013 training camp. On July 26, exactly 15 days from now, the new season will begin in earnest with a two-hour session beginning at 9 a.m.
Two weeks later the Bears will face the Carolina Panthers in their first preseason game and from there, it's on. Before you know it, the regular season will be upon us and we'll be in the throes of another four months dominated by the Monsters of the Midway – and if Bears fans are lucky, it will be five or six months of football.
The anticipation for training camp this year, the first under new head coach Marc Trestman, has reached a fevered pitch during the recent down period. Chicago fans are chomping at the bit for their first opportunity to see the first-time NFL head coach and his new West Coast offense in action. They also want to see how the defense looks without Brian Urlacher, the new-look offensive line, the rookie linebackers and countless other aspects of the team soon to be on display in Bourbonnais.
With visions of Bears football dancing in our heads, let's begin our 15-part countdown to training camp, where we'll dissect the top story lines of this year's team.
David Banks/USA TODAY Sports
First up, we'll break down what everyone will be watching for during the three weeks in Bourbonnais: the relationship between Trestman and quarterback Jay Cutler, or as Trestman calls it, the "marriage."
"The No. 1 marriage in all of sports is the marriage between a quarterback and his coach. That's it. It starts there and then everything proceeds from that," Trestman said in January. "There's go to be a connection and there's got to be an element of trust, professional trust, that you have to have."
Let's not kid ourselves, Trestman was hired to again make Cutler, who has underachieved for most of his four seasons in Chicago, a Pro Bowl quarterback. If that marriage falls apart and the two sides become estranged or divorced, then Trestman, as well as GM Phil Emery, will have failed. It would be a failure that could cost many people their jobs, because as Trestman knows, the play of Cutler will be the biggest key to this team's success.
"The quarterback in this league has got to play at an efficient level. It's our job as coaches to get him to do that," said Trestman. "[Cutler] has shown moments of efficiency, thereby we ought to be able to find the mechanisms to make him more efficient on a play-by-play basis. That's a challenge with any quarterback that you have."
In any relationship, there is a courting period, a time in which the two individuals get to know each other, developing a bond in the process. The strength of that bond will shape that relationship going forward. That courting period between Cutler and Trestman happened this offseason during OTAs and minicamps. The honeymoon is over and, once the hot sun shines on the Navy and orange helmets in Bourbonnais, it will be time to get down to business.
A few things to watch for:
Admittedly, Cutler's body language is arguably the worst in football, so it can be tough to gauge his mental state from the way he moves. Yet astute observers will be able to read into the relationship of Trestman and Cutler through their interactions.
Trestman is all over the field during practices, yet he spends considerable time with the quarterbacks and calls the plays during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. With former offensive coordinators Mike Tice and Mike Martz, Cutler did not hold back when he was unhappy with a play call. Nor did he hold back when he was unhappy with his teammates.
Yet Cutler had much more freedom under Tice and Martz, as he knew as well as everyone else that if the offense failed, the offensive coordinators would lose their jobs, not him. The same can't be said this year, with a new coaching staff and Cutler in the last year of his contract. He must develop under Trestman if he's going to earn that big deal he's expecting next offseason. We'll see how Cutler handles a coaching staff that won't be as lenient as its predecessors.
Under Jeremy Bates, the club's quarterback coach last season, Cutler took a step backward in terms of his fundamentals. From his drop back to his throwing base and motion, Cutler slowly regressed, resulting in some of the worst numbers of his career and a passing offense that ranked 29th in the league.
Other factors contributed to his down season but his breakdown in mechanics played a major part. Far too many passes sailed high because Cutler threw off his back foot. Under new QB coach Matt Cavanaugh, there has been a supposed emphasis on cleaning up Cutler's fundamentals. Yet already this offseason, we've seen him toss numerous bad passes off his back foot.
So at what point will the improvement come, if at all? Seeing day-by-day consistency in Cutler's throwing motion, which includes stepping into every pass, will be a strong indicator as to whether or not Trestman and Cavanaugh are getting through.
Jay Cutler & Marc Trestman
David Banks/USA TODAY Sports
Brandon Marshall was the targeted 194 times last year, which was the second most in the NFL behind only Calvin Johnson. Cutler's tendency to lock onto Marshall last year resulted in some record-breaking numbers for the receiver but it ended up hurting the offense.
Under Trestman, the ball is supposed to not only come out quick but also to every receiver on the field. With Alshon Jeffery continuing to develop and new tight end Martellus Bennett stretching the seams, there shouldn't be any reason for Marshall to be targeted more than every other receiver combined, as he was last year.
If Cutler's obsession with Marshall continues in camp, that will likely carry over into the regular season. Seeing him spread the ball around in Bourbonnais will be a good sign that he understands the value of his secondary receivers.
After his sideline antics last year – pushing J'Marcus Webb; ignoring and walking away from Tice – no one is going to mistake Cutler for a team leader. But at the same time, he must start to accept some of that responsibility. He's a 30-year-old quarterback in his seventh NFL season. Now is the time to embrace his role as a leader, a player who can form bonds and help the club grow, both on and off the field.
We have yet to see that from Cutler since the team traded for him in 2009. He doesn't need to be a vocal leader – that really isn't his style – but he must be a true professional, in every sense of the word, with his actions and demeanor. When Cutler steps up and puts winning above everything else, the rest of the team will follow.
A friend of mine told me recently that Trestman looks more like a French Literature teacher than an NFL head coach. Let me assure you, having been witness to 12 Trestman-run practices this offseason, he's a football lifer. He's intense in a way his predecessor, Lovie Smith, never was. In just 12 practices, I've seen him chew out more players than Smith ever did in my two seasons covering the team.
With Cutler, the relationship so far has been civil and respectful, but you have to wonder when and if that will change, and how Cutler will react to getting his butt chewed for the first time in four years. If he responds positively, then the odds are good that Trestman will eventually accomplish his goal of turning Cutler back into a Pro Bowler. But if Cutler doesn't buy in and treats Trestman the way he did Tice, it's going to be a long season. By the end of training camp, we'll know which way this marriage is headed.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.