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 May 17 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 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.
"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."
"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."
Asked about his roster after the draft, Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said: "It's still a work in progress. There's no finish line in May. We have a lot of work to do in terms of getting the right players and the best players for the opener."
And Mayhew continued to be active. The Lions' latest signing is Ephraim Salaam, an 11-year NFL veteran with 129 career starts at offensive tackle.
"It goes into everything we've talked about, creating competition on the team," coach Jim Schwartz said. "There's no spot set in stone. We want to create competition as much as we can, bring as many people into the equation as we can, make people earn their jobs. We don't want to give anything away for free."
Jeff Backus has started every game at left tackle since the Lions drafted him in the first round in 2001. Gosder Cherilus eventually won the star
ting job at right tackle after the Lions drafted him in the first round last year.
The Lions' other offensive tackles include George Foster, a veteran who has lost the starting right tackle job each of the last two years, and Lydon Murtha, a seventh-round pick this year.
After starting 30 games at left tackle for Houston from 2006-07, Salaam was a backup last year behind Duane Brown, an 2008 first-round pick. He played right tackle early in his career. He went through only individual drills after signing.
"Obviously he's not going to be ready to get out there right away on the first day, even though he's a veteran player," Schwartz said. "Usually for those guys, it's not teaching them, it's just learning a new language. So generally they can get up to speed pretty quickly."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The four weeks of organized team activities, which start May 26, will be worth monitoring.
Not only will the Packers get their first opportunity to work with their new 3-4 defensive system in a team environment, but seeing who might decide to stay away from the voluntary practices should hold a lot of attention from observers.
Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins' absence from the first few weeks of the offseason workout program has been well-publicized. Top receiver Greg Jennings also is believed to have been a non-participant on some days.
Both players are kindred spirits in that they are entering the final year of their rookie contracts and seeking to be rewarded with lucrative, long-term deals.
It's not known whether Collins or Jennings will skip any or all of the OTAs as an act of protest toward the organization's handling of their contract situations.
Jennings said in a recent FOX television interview that he isn't being consumed by the slow pace of negotiations between the Packers and his agent, which reportedly picked up at the NFL combine in February.
"I'm not putting too much into it," Jennings said. "I think a lot of guys get caught up into it. I honestly haven't talked about it more than a half an hour all together. It's something that I feel will get done. I'm not concerned about it. I'm not trying to make any big deal about it. I'm just trying to go in business as usual and let everything take care of itself."
Collins, likewise, downplayed the contract talk when he joined teammates Jordy Nelson and Brady Poppinga and team president Mark Murphy on a tailgate tour by bus through Wisconsin earlier in May.
Collins attributed his prolonged absence during the offseason workouts to family issues he was tending to at home in Gainesville, Fla.
"I've got other things to worry about than the contract," Collins said. "I've been talking to the coaches, (defensive coordinator Dom) Capers. We have an understanding. So, hopefully, everything will work out for the best."
So far, the only regimented work in a team setting has been the rookie orientation camp, which was held May 1-3.
This year's squad will be on display for the first time with the start of voluntary organized team activities May 26. Physicals will be administered that day. The Packers then have 12 practice dates until June 18.
The mandatory minicamp will be June 22-24.
"It's kind of overwhelming when you first walk in here because you think of all of the tradition," Meredith said. "This may not be necessarily the (same) locker room that the greats were in (at the renovated stadium), but just being around the atmosphere — you know that the Reggie Whites and all of those people like that played here, and I'm in the same category as a Packer. It's just a great feeling, man."
Meredith, a fifth-round draft pick out of South Carolina, is expected to back up veteran left tackle Chad Clifton.
Woodson, who had a co-NFC-high seven interceptions, was tabbed the team's Most Valuable Player in 2008.
Nelson, who had 33 catches for 366 yards and two touchdowns, was named Rookie of the Year.
Woodson and Nelson will receive the awards at the annual Packers Hall of Fame Induction Banquet on July 18 at Lambeau Field.
This year's hall of fame inductees are receiver Antonio Freeman and running back Dorsey Levens.
Tickets will go on sale June 6. The club raised the ticket price by $2 — the first increase in five years — to $10.