A quarter-century and seemingly a quarter-million quarterbacks later, Jay Cutler will be behind center when the Bears visit Lambeau Field in a marquee season-opening clash on Sunday night.
"I think it's safe to say that he's created quite a buzz around here, of course with the fans and everyone on the outside, but on the inside, too," Bears coach Lovie Smith said during a conference call with Packers beat writers on Wednesday. "Players know the history with most players in the league, so they knew a lot about Jay with him coming in. Then you get on the football field with him — I'm talking about as players — and as receivers, you get a chance to catch the ball from him. It's safe to say he's definitely created a buzz with the team."
Cutler can't possibly escape that buzz. The day after Super Bowl XLIII in February, the Bears were 30-to-1 favorites to win Super Bowl XLIV. With Cutler acquired at the stiff price of two first-round draft picks, a third-rounder and incumbent quarterback Kyle Orton, the Bears have surged to a 15-to-1 choice entering the weekend.
For a quarterback-starved franchise that still points to Sid Luckman — who retired nearly six decades ago — as its crowning player at the game's most important position, Cutler Mania took the city by storm.
"Expectations are definitely high," Cutler said. "I realized that Day One when I first got here, and they haven't let up since. And I think I'm embracing it, I think the team's embracing it, everyone in the city of Chicago's excited."
Not that he was surprised. Cutler grew up a Bears fan.
"I knew the quarterback situation over the years," he said. "So, I knew that there was going to be some excitement."
But is Cutler worth all the hype? Last year in Denver, his second season as the full-time starter, Cutler threw for a franchise-record and AFC-leading 4,526 yards. There might not be a quarterback in the league with his combination of arm strength, accuracy (career 62.5 percent) and athleticism.
The million-dollar question is whether Cutler's performance was boosted by receivers Brandon Marshall (104 catches) and Eddie Royal (91 catches) or vice-versa. Because with the Bears, Cutler has a big-time tight end in Greg Olsen but his No. 1 receiver, Devin Hester, should be returning kicks.
Cutler's never been accused of being short on confidence — "I have a stronger arm than John Elway's, hands down," he famously said while in Denver. He's confident that he can turn any receiver into a productive one.
Aaron Kampman rushes Jay Cutler in the 2007 game at Denver. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
"Everyone's got to realize, the group we had in Denver, Eddie Royal came in as a second-round pick, he was a return guy. Brandon Marshall came in as a fourth-round pick, no one knew anything about him," Cutler said during his conference call on Wednesday. "So, it's not like they came in as All-Americans."
And for all the hype, Cutler's career record as a starter is 17-20. Last season, the Broncos went from 8-5 and in total control of the AFC West to 8-8 and out of the playoffs.
Packers cornerback Charles Woodson wasn't buying into the hype, though it was more of a belief of his defense's potential than a jab at Cutler. Woodson called Cutler a "good quarterback" but added: "He doesn't really concern me. My concern is just how well we'll play. If we play well, it won't matter."
Along with the intrigue on whether the quarterback makes the receivers or the receivers make the quarterback, there's the question of whether Cutler will be allowed to be Cutler. Coaches with defensive backgrounds, like Smith, are apt to play it conservative on offense. That means running the ball and safe passes. At the same time, logic would indicate the Bears didn't get Cutler so he could give the ball to running back Matt Forte 30 times a game.
Is there a balance?
"We don't balance that," Smith said. "You have a philosophy that you stay with. Jay knew what our philosophy was and is and will be before he came in, and he's embraced that. They can both go hand in hand. We play in the elements most of the time. It's hard to throw the ball 60 times a game. But we'll pass the ball enough for Jay to be happy about being a quarterback. At the same time, I'm not saying we want to run the ball 50 times a game. We're going to use our weapons to their strength."
That means defenses are going to have to be on their toes. In previous years, defenses could creep to the line of scrimmage to take away the running game and short passes. Cutler's rocket arm makes that a dangerous game plan.
"We're going to take our shots, there's no doubt about it," Cutler said. "We're going to run the ball, we're going to pound the ball, but when we're presented opportunities, we're going to let it fly and we've got some good guys outside to go get it for us."
In trying to figure out how — or if — the Bears' offense will be different, Packers coach Mike McCarthy had the luxury of having the entire offseason to prepare for this game. That meant watching the Bears' preseason games, as well as studying Cutler from his three years in Denver. Cutler completed 21-of-34 passes for 261 yards and one touchdown in the Packers' 19-13 overtime win at Denver in 2007.
Asked if the four preseason games showed a different Bears offense, Packers Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins said: "Not really. Cutler, he's got a strong arm and he's going to try to get the ball into tight places, get the ball downfield. They didn't have that last year with Kyle Orton. His arm wasn't that strong. That's the only thing that I can really say that I see is different. Put it this way, he makes them play a little better. We can't go out there playing around. We're going to have to bring it."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.