Before ever throwing a pass for the Bears, Jay Cutler has already achieved rock-star status among the thousands of faithful who attended the team's fan convention Sunday at Soldier Field.
Cutler's No. 6 jersey already rivals Brian Urlacher's No. 54 and Devin Hester's No. 23 in popularity. The ovation he received upon his introduction drowned out the receptions for any other Bear.
Just imagine the celebrity Cutler will enjoy if he lives up to the hype. That might be impossible, although his acquisition has energized the offseason like none in recent memory.
"The energy level has been unbelievable," Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips said, "and not just with the fans, but internally with the staff, the coaches and the players. It's just a new energy level. I hear it from the fans now. Even as the Bulls were going through their great playoff run, the Blackhawks still are, but fans still want to talk about the Bears and what this season holds for them."
The fanatics attending the Bears' annual love fest are nearly always pumped up over the prospects for the coming season. But ever since Bears general manager Jerry Angelo swung the trade for the Pro Bowl quarterback, optimism has kicked into overdrive.
"Without question," Angelo said. "Everybody has hope about the upcoming year – not that we didn't have hope regardless of if Jay were here or not. But just bringing in a player of his caliber at his position speaks for itself."
Cutler prefers to characterize his role as just a part of the Bears' process of getting back to the playoffs, but he also appears completely at ease amid the adulation.
"We've created a little bit of buzz throughout the city, and it's going to be fun. Expectations are pretty high right now. I'm looking forward to it, and I appreciate it," Cutler said to thunderous applause before a question-and-answer session with the fans that also included running back Matt Forte, tight end Greg Olsen and seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace, a free-agent acquisition who will be guarding Cutler's blind side.
The crowd for that feature dwarfed the turnout for the session with Angelo, Phillips and head coach Lovie Smith, which is usually the most popular attraction at the annual convention.
Even during that session, at least half of the fans' questions were prefaced by praise for the trade that brought Cutler from Denver.
"The expectations are very high, and rightfully so," Smith said. "Any quarterback in the NFL, especially a quarterback here in Chicago, there are big shoes to fill, and Jay came here knowing all of that. But you can't worry about all that. He just has to do what he's done all his life: play great football at the quarterback position. And we expect him to do that."
Thousands of Bears fans expect all that and more – much more. But Angelo cautions against overly optimistic expectations, at least in the beginning.
"Can he ever live up to these expectations?" Angelo said. "That's hard to do. Very few people are going to come in and meet the expectations that they have for him this year. He still has to transition into a new offense, and he's learning a new terminology, coupled with learning new players around him. I know he's going to do very, very well for us. To come in and see a great player right off the bat, that would be unrealistic."
Great expectations are nothing new for Cutler, who was a first-round draft choice in Denver, where the shadow of Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway still loomed large.
"When I was at Denver, there was a lot of pressure on us to score points, and we had to do it in a hurry," Cutler said. "But these guys, with a great defense and the running game, it's going to be fun. I just have to manage the ball game and let the defense do the work and let Matt [Forte] get his carries in, and we're going to win some ball games."
"Some" won't be nearly enough to satisfy this year's expectations.
Cutler should benefit from Turner's desire to throw the ball downfield in the passing game.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
NEWS AND NOTES
Phillips spent about 10 minutes talking with new NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith last week before he visited with Bears players, and Phillips came away feeling positive about the chance of extending the league's labor peace.
"He's a high-energy guy," Phillips said. "He seems like he's real detailed and is going to have a thoroughly thought-out plan. What I like is that he gets the fact that we've had 15 years of labor peace, and the goal is to have 15 more years. So I think that's a positive first step." …
It's a whole new ball game for the Bears offensively Cutler, who has impressed offensive coordinator Ron Turner on and off the field.
"His arm strength is rare," Turner said after Wednesday's first OTA practice." You don't see that very often, and also his ability to come in and learn. It's really everything: his demeanor around the guys, the way he's been accepted, the way he's handled himself. He's coming in and saying, 'I'm just one of the guys,' yet he's also showed great leadership. So he's making the transition very well." …
While the negotiations between the NFLPA and the league's owners have already been categorized as contentious, Phillips doesn't see it that way.
"I don't look at it as contentious," Phillips said. "The reality is there's two more years left of football. So that's a long time. And the goal of both sides is 'Let's find some middle ground.' Let's make the league as a whole – with international opportunities, digital-media opportunities, and technology. Hopefully we can grow the business even more. So there's plenty for everyone to go around and we can avoid any kind of work stoppage, which is not on anybody's mind right now at all." …
Through the first 50 minutes of the Bears' first OTA practice Wednesday, with Cutler throwing several dozen passes, the football hit the ground just one time, when Rashied Davis dropped an accurate pass on an intermediate route.
Most of the routes Cutler threw were with receivers working against air, but toward the end of the first session, wide receivers were working one-on-one against cornerbacks. And Cutler was flawless. His passes were different than backup quarterbacks Caleb Hanie and Brett Basanez, with all but the deep balls arriving on a line and in a hurry. The other noticeable aspect of Cutler's passes is that the ball is fired nose down on many of the intermediate routes, which is possible only because of the velocity with which they're thrown.
The majority of Cutler's reps were with Hester and Earl Bennett at wide receiver, and, for now, those two are expected to be the Bears' starters.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"I'm excited. The past three or four years, they've been known for their defense. Defense has kind of carried them through the wins. But offense is one of the pieces and we just have to keep doing what they did last year, and we're going to get better and I'm just going to be a piece of the puzzle." – QB Jay Cutler on playing for a team that traditionally has been built around defense.
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