It's widely accepted in the NFL that the third of the four preseason games is the one that truly matters, the one when the starters are on the field the longest and the one most closely resembling what you're going to see in the regular season.
The Monsters of the Midway travel to Denver for a prime-time matchup Sunday with the Broncos, which means quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Kyle Orton – traded for each other back in April, with a pair of first-round draft picks also going from the Windy City to Mile High – get to face their former teams for the first time.
Here in Chicago, Cutler has been greeted with a hero's welcome since he has a chance to be the franchise's first difference maker at the game's most important position since Sid Luckman was under center for George Halas. After a shaky start in Buffalo, he was terrific in his Soldier Field debut this past Saturday: 8 of 13 passing for 121 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. After new Broncos coach Josh McDaniels made it known he'd rather have former Patriots disciple Matt Cassel at QB than the incumbent Pro Bowler, Cutler has all the motivation he needs to put on a show – even if the game means nothing in the standings.
Orton, on the other hand, has been dealing with a skeptical fan base from the moment he arrived in the Centennial State. Not only does he have to replace one of the best young passers in the game in Cutler, but Hall of Famer John Elway – he of the back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 1997-98 – still casts a long shadow even though he hung up his spikes a decade ago. While the Orton haters were out in full force when he fired three interceptions in the first exhibition contest at San Francisco, he put together an 18-of-26 performance last Saturday at Seattle for 182 yards with one TD and one INT.
Although Cutler doesn't have any inside information with regard to wide receiver Brandon Marshall and his current disagreement with Broncos brass, he does hear from his former teammates from time to time.
"I keep in touch with all those guys," Cutler said Wednesday before practice at Halas Hall. "This week is a little bit different than most, so I'll see them on the field before the game and after the game and wish them the best of luck."
Nevertheless, Cutler will not go out of his way to say hello to anyone wearing an enemy uniform at Invesco Field.
"I've got to take care of my business," he said, "and then if I run into people, we'll deal with it then."
Orton was playing very good football for the Bears in 2008, but a midseason ankle injury derailed his progress and contributed to his struggles the rest of the way – Chicago missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year. While general manager Jerry Angelo said in January that he was fixated on getting the quarterback position straightened out for good, coach Lovie Smith again gave Orton his full endorsement at the Scouting Combine in February. But less than a month before the NFL Draft, the Bears and Broncos completed one of the biggest QB flip-flops the league has ever seen.
Continuing the business-as-usual approach he displayed last season, Orton told the Chicago media he's looking forward to seeing some familiar faces but knows what's truly important Sunday.
"It'll be a lot of fun to see the guys and all that great stuff," Orton said via conference call, "but it's basically one more chance for us to get ready for Cincinnati [in Week 1] when it really matters."
Orton didn't see the trade coming and admitted that he was caught off guard initially, but he knows he still has a chance at a great career in Denver.
"I certainly didn't expect it," he said. "I wasn't paying attention to the whole matter. I certainly didn't expect it, but I didn't feel sorry for myself or anything really. It looked like an opportunity that I could certainly take advantage of."
When asked whether or not he'll talk to the Broncos' decision makers at all, Cutler didn't mince words with regard to how he's likely perceived by owner Pat Bowlen and Co. these days.
"I don't think they want to talk to me," he said.
And what does he miss most of all about Denver?
"Nothing. I'm good right now."
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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
A Tale of Two QBs: Cutler vs Orton
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