Jay Cutler has been a Bears fan since he was a small child growing up in Santa Claus, Indiana. But he was stumped when asked if he could remember the last time Bears fans had the kind of over-the-top expectations for a quarterback as they do for him.
"I don't think I was alive," Cutler said, drawing laughs all around the Halas Hall auditorium late last week at his first press conference as a Chicago Bear. "It's been a while. I think expectations are high everywhere in this league. Obviously, in this town it's going to be a little bit higher because of the fans and how much they do love and cherish the Bears."
Most Bears observers have to go back to the 1940s and Sid Luckman to find a comparison to Cutler, who has already thrown for more yards in a season than any quarterback in Bears history. Cutler was stumped again when asked if he could live up to Luckman, a five-time All-Pro quarterback who played on four Bears NFL championship teams but retired 33 years before Cutler was born.
"I'm going to have to do some research on Sid," Cutler said.
The 6-3, 233-pound, rocket-armed Cutler turns 26 at the end of the month but is already considered one of the NFL's top quarterbacks. He leaves the impression that he knows he's something special, but he's good enough that he doesn't have to convince anyone.
Fans seem to be unanimous in their adulation of and excitement over the prospect of Cutler leading the Bears to the Promised Land, even though there are more than five months until the season opener.
"It's a little humbling," he said. "To grow up a Bears fan and watch this organization for so long and then to come full circle and have an opportunity to play, it's a dream come true."
Cutler threw for 4,526 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. That's 688 more yards than Erik Kramer's Bears record, and Cutler's career passer rating of 87.1 is well ahead of Kramer's franchise-best career mark of 80.7.
But Cutler shuns the "savior" label.
"I don't see myself as that at all," he said. "In this, what I've learned over the past three years, is that it takes offense, defense, special teams and great coaching. If you don't have all four of those, you're not going to go very far."
Last season on a Broncos team that featured one of the NFL's worst defenses and was hit by an epidemic of season-ending injuries at running back, Cutler was forced to throw 616 times. Only the Saints' Drew Brees put it up more often.
That's in direct contrast to head coach Lovie Smith's mantra that the Bears "get off the bus running the football."
That's fine with Cutler, who would rather throw less and win more. But he said he might try to persuade Smith, who was sitting next to him at the press conference looking as happy as a kid with a new toy.
"I might maybe sway him a little bit," Cutler said with a grin, "but you have to run the football in this league. I found out the hard way last year. We threw and threw and threw and threw. Certain times, when we needed to run it, we weren't able to. Guys did a great job of trying to make up for it. But if you can't stop the run, or if you can't run the ball in this league, you're not going to win the big one."
The addition of Cutler makes the Bears believe from top to bottom that they now have what it takes to win a lot of big ones.
"Each and every year our goal is the same: It's to win the division, make the playoffs and win a championship," said general manager Jerry Angelo, who swung the deal for Cutler. "We put ourselves in a position to [be] one step closer to doing that. When that opportunity presented itself to us, we seized the moment. We feel very good about not only his play but what he's going to add to our football team and our locker room through his leadership as well."
Those positive attributes weren't on display in the weeks leading up to the trade, when Cutler was vilified in the media. He was described as a "petulant, spoiled cry baby" and worse for forcing a trade. But he hopes to change the minds of those who have a negative opinion of him.
"I think that all will come in time," he said. "My teammates will see what kind of guy I am. The fans will see what kind of player I am, on and off the field. I'm going to be active in the community. My foundation (the Jay Cutler Foundation, which benefits at-risk youth) is going to get involved in Chicago."
But Cutler said he knows he won't win over everyone overnight.
"I'm not going to change everyone's mind [right away]," he said. "It's just not going to happen. There's going to be good articles, there's going to be bad articles, but hopefully over time I can win everybody over."
There's no question Cutler left Denver on bad terms, and he takes some of the blame, but he's anxious to get past the whole situation.
"There are some things that I'd do differently, and I think there are some things the Broncos would do differently," he said. "In the end, it was just a situation that I think both parties felt that it was best if we part ways. I think the Broncos are happy with the decision, they're happy with how it turned out, and I think the Bears are, too."
He's definitely right about the Bears.
Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith show off their prized possession. (Nam Y. Huh/AP Images)
NEWS AND NOTES
"The NFL is a quarterback-driven league," said tight end Greg Olsen, whose ability to stretch the field vertically fits perfectly with the strong-armed Cutler's ability to go deep. "Look at the Cardinals. They made that [Super Bowl] run pretty much because of their ability to make plays [in the passing game]. At this level, with our defense, if we can just put some points on the board and have a guy to throw it, with guys who can help him out and make plays, that's a recipe for success and that's kind of the path we're taking."
Olsen has proven his ability to make plays since he was drafted in the first round in 2007. He was second on the Bears last season with 54 catches and 574 receiving yards, and he led the team with five TD catches. Olsen made significant strides from his rookie season, when he caught 39 passes for 391 yards with two touchdowns, and his production should continue to increase with Cutler at quarterback.
"Obviously he's regarded among the guys as one of the top quarterbacks in the entire league, [regardless] of age or experience," Olsen said. "He made the Pro Bowl last year and was top-three in passing yards. For a young guy at 25 to have those kind of statistics, I think he made a lot of guys around him better." …
"This was a piece that everyone was looking forward to, even though my prayers go out to Kyle," Hester said. "He was just starting to get into his prime. But it's a business and he moves on, and we're looking forward to Jay coming in and being the man."
Hester made major progress last season in his switch from defense to wide receiver, more than doubling his receptions from 20 to 51, and his yardage from 299 to 651. He's looking for similar improvement in '09.
"I want to be better than what I was last year," Hester said. "My goal in whatever I do is to be twice as good as I was last year. Last year was pretty alright, but this year I want to be double than what I was last year." …
Cutler is anxious to dispel any notions that teammates or fans have about his character.
"I think I'm going to be a great teammate first," he said. "That's going to be one of the first things I do is earn the trust and respect of my teammates. If you can't respect your teammates or you can't trust them, you don't have a chance on the field. That's one of the first things I want to get across to these guys is I'm going to do everything possible to help us win ballgames. To the fans, more of the same. I grew up watching this organization. I love being a Chicago Bear. It's always been something that I've dreamed of doing." …
CB Charles Tillman was honored as the Bears' recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award, which is given to the one player on each NFL team who best exhibits professionalism, strength and dedication.
During the Bears' 2008 training camp and preseason, Tillman was forced to confront a personal crisis when his infant daughter, Tiana, received a heart transplant for a life-threatening condition.
Tiana was suffering from dilated cardiomyopathy, which causes the heart to weaken and enlarge, disabling the heart's pumping system. As a result, Tillman changed the focus of his foundation from education to improving the lives of critically and chronically ill children.
Agree? Disagree? Discuss these topics on our message boards RIGHT HERE.
Bear Report: The only publication exclusively dedicated to your Chicago Bears