Armed with poise
Bears' Cutler shows maturity on and off the field in handling Broncos
DENVER -- There were no effigies at the airport. No flaming Jay Cutlers erected in the stadium parking lots. The local villagers didn't march to the Chicago Bears' team hotel, pitchforks in hand, demanding their 233 pounds of fleshy quarterback.
What a letdown, huh?
I didn't get a chance to scour the bars, the suburbs or the offseason mountain resorts, but I'm pretty sure, aside from one tavern's ill-fated, much-advertised jersey-destroying bash, the overall reaction to Cutler's return to Denver was pretty tame. Public Enemy No. 6 got out of town with a win.
The natives were indeed restless in the first half, foaming with indignation whenever Cutler stood at the line. The defense took its shots at him and talked a lot of trash. By the third quarter, it felt like just another August football game: Yawn City. Ennui became the fans' biggest enemy.
"It's preseason," an unimpressed Brian Urlacher said. "I'm just glad it's over and no one got hurt, too bad."
But this was a story, and not just because of the dramatic overtones. Now the toast of Chicago, Cutler looked pretty good in his final preseason tune-up. Playing just the first half, he went 15-for-21 for 144 yards and one touchdown, as the Bears cruised to a 27-17 win.
"I think the guys knew what kind of pressure I was going to be on," Cutler said. "They came out and did a great job for me."
Given the storyline, this game offered rare value for a preseason contest. It's not often that a franchise quarterback switches franchises in the prime of his youth.
"This isn't an everyday thing," Cutler admitted.
The rocket-armed savior is expected to lead the Bears' passing game out of the desert, like the Moses of the Midway. He seems ready for the regular season, starting in Green Bay. Playing in front of a hostile crowd was good preparation, nearly every Bear noted.
"It was exactly what we prepared for, what we thought it would be," Cutler said. "Denver's got good fans and we knew coming in this would be a hostile environment, which was good. It's good preparation for us going into Green Bay the first game."
It was just four months ago when Cutler forced his way out of Denver and left these fans to the devices of boy wonder coach Josh McDaniels and ho-hum quarterback Kyle Orton, who traded places with Cutler. Star receiver Brandon Marshall is suspended and petulant. All the Broncos fans have left are their John Elway jerseys and a sliver of pride.
After an 0-3 start to the preseason, they surely can't be too excited about the McDaniels-Orton era unfolding. Then again, when it came to actual results, what did Mike Shanahan and Cutler ever really do together?
The Broncos were 17-20 in Cutler's two-plus seasons as starter, done in mostly by bad defenses and the sunset of Shanahan's tenure in Denver.
Cutler, who threw 54 touchdown passes and 37 interceptions in 37 games with Denver, has all the talent in the world, but he wasn't Elway (and he didn't have Terrell Davis). Now he doesn't have to be, and you have to think that will help him grow in Chicago, where the linebackers are tough and the quarterbacks transitory.
Cutler showed his worth in his national TV debut with his new team. Despite starting several drives deep in his own territory, with a feisty pass rush ready to knock him down, Cutler didn't get sacked or throw an interception, though he came close on both. His QB rating was 106.1, and he spread the ball around.
Matt Forte caught four passes, including a 6-yard touchdown late in the first half, and Greg Olsen and Devin Hester caught three apiece. Cutler moved well out of the pocket, and even though he didn't hit any deep passes, looked sharp on slants and curls.
The connection between Cutler and Olsen has been dissected throughout training camp, and the two hooked up on two nice plays in the Bears' 12-play, 98-yard drive that culminated in Forte's touchdown catch with 19 seconds left in the half. Cutler also found Earl Bennett on a 16-yard, third-down completion during the drive.
Despite numerous chances to mouth off, Cutler was pretty blasé about this game all week. He radiated calmness on the field as well.
"It was loud and it was hostile, but under Jay's leadership, he treated it like another game," center Olin Kreutz said. "He told us just to relax and play our game and that's what we did."
When Cutler was drafted out of Vanderbilt before the 2006 season, he was nabbed to be Jake Plummer's successor, the second coming of Elway, at least in physical attributes, if not in All-American popularity. He found the job lacking, and when Shanahan was sacked in the offseason and replaced by someone who didn't want Cutler, he found a way out.
Cutler didn't have big shoes to fill with the Bears. Orton (who left the game with a gash on his right index finger in the second quarter) was competent but ultimately unfulfilling, a blend he has taken to Denver. Rex Grossman took the Bears to the Super Bowl, but exasperated fans with his interceptions and fumbled snaps.
So when Cutler is billed as the next Sid Luckman, it's only half in jest. As dutiful Bears fans know, Luckman retired in 1950, but still holds numerous Bears passing records, which is about all you need to know about the Bears' storied history of quarterbacks.
"They're high," Cutler said of the team's and its fans' expectations during his in-game interview. "I knew coming in the situation they're going to be high. Anytime an organization gives up what they give up to get me, they're going to be high."
Chicago sports fans are so unaccustomed to strong quarterback play, the Chicago Tribune ran a front-page story this summer on what constitutes a "great arm." It was written by the paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic, which says something either about what Chicagoans think is culture or how far the cuts have come in journalism. Let's just say they didn't write this story about Chad Hutchinson.
Chicago isn't a quarterback town, but it was a celebrity town, and Cutler has quickly acclimated himself as a superstar, if only in the burgeoning number of nightclub sightings around trendy Hubbard Street, since the trade in April.
Cutler received his first dose of the all-encompassing Chicago media blitz when he placidly stated that Hester wasn't a "go up and get it" type of receiver after throwing a pick to Hester's man in the first preseason game. Was this Cutler's true personality shining through? Reporters searching for a familiar angle were properly titillated.
He learned his lesson, at least for the present. Leading up to the game, Cutler complimented the Broncos and McDaniels, and expressed faith in Orton.
It's almost mind-boggling to think how lucky the Bears were to be in position to land Cutler. Someone in the Bears' organization should send flowers to Matt Cassel, who was knocked out of his game with Kansas City on Sunday. McDaniels, you might remember, was busted for trying to trade for Cassel, whom he coached as a starter last season in New England.
Cutler was so peeved, and possibly trying to push for a new contract extension, the Denver Post surmised leading up to this game, that he began making noise about the unforgivable sin of disrespect. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen finally exiled him to Chicago, a lovely city where it was recently said that receivers go to die, presumably buried by their own crappy quarterbacks.
The next time Cutler starts for the Bears, it will be in Green Bay, followed by a home date with the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, and a road game in Seattle.
Jay Cutler is finally done with Denver. Now the rest of his career can begin.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
ESPNCHICAGO.COM'S BEARS COVERAGE
Mike Martz could be the Bears' next offensive coordinator, but he comes with a lot of baggage. Melissa Isaacson