Putting a face on Bears' optimism
Cutler is now the focus of the franchise, but will he prove he's up to it this season?
CHICAGO -- The actual face of a football player is almost immaterial.
Watching the action unfold on TV, you get only fleeting shots of the eyes, the movement of the lips of the quarterback barking signals.
The actual, physical face, well, that's for sideline harangues, smile sessions or nose-hair-tight shots of bloody cuts and dazed expressions, all part of the contextual narrative of a three-hour gladiatorial drama. It's part of the show. It's why a guy like Jay Cutler, who glowers with the best of them, gets a bad rap as a pouter when in fact he throws his body around like a regular Brett Favre.
Cutler's game face, the one you see on the sideline, is not the face of football. Or, at least, not one the Bears would champion.
But what about his symbolic face, the image that's supposed to represent a team, a city and their shared ideals, the face that's supposed to inspire confidence and sell jerseys?
Does Cutler have that face? And is it important that one man, or even two, takes that mantle?
All signs point to Cutler as the face of the franchise, for obvious reasons. He's the quarterback, for one. This is also a team that has been waiting for a Face of the Franchise QB since Jimmy Mac left. Cutler is the latest and perhaps best quarterback of that run, the guy actually capable of breaking Sid Luckman's lingering records.
But does he want that forced responsibility? Does he even care?
Brian Urlacher has been the face of the team for a decade. It's a good mug, too: his bald dome, his intense glare, his light-up-the-stadium smile. Urlacher is straight out of central casting as Middle Linebacker Who Inspires His Team. Last year, Urlacher said Cutler was the face of the franchise.
If Urlacher is passing the torch to Cutler, will Bears fans take to the quarterback, who has yet to ingratiate himself to the fan base?
Most importantly, can he do the job? Forget about his mien for a second. How's Cutler's head, and can it coexist with his arm?
Three years ago, a newcomer to the city's chattering sports culture was known to advise fans to take it easy, not get all "giggly."
"In Chicago, people get real excited when the team is playing well, and they get down when the team isn't," Cubs manager Lou Piniella told reporters, and by proxy the fans, in 2007. "We've got to find a little equilibrium somewhere."
Piniella, of course, was dead-on, and not just about Cubs fans. Chicago sports fans have the equilibrium of a drunk on a pogo stick. We're giggly and gagging, comfortable with the idea of failure and excited with the possibility of success.
Chicago fans are seemingly no different from any other city's sports fans, but perhaps given the scarcity of championships for the city's two most popular teams, the Bears and the Cubs, nervousness and often rage outrank hope.
There isn't a Cubs fan alive who isn't utterly dissatisfied with the direction of the team, and lowering the price of a fantasy camp from $7,500 to $3,000 isn't helping.
If they haven't tuned out yet (ratings on WGN radio and Comcast SportsNet are down, according to SportsBusiness Journal), Cubs fans will soon enough, as Bears training camp starts Friday in Bourbonnais, Ill.
Although I have a lingering feeling that Chicago fans won't give the Bears much relief, I'm promising here a cycle of optimism about the Bears and a cessation of my usual shot-taking sarcasm.
For the Bears fans who don't really care about the Blackhawks, don't they need some positive thoughts?
The 2007 Super Bowl seems as though it happened in another lifetime. Are we sure we're not celebrating the 25th anniversary of Rex Grossman & Co. this year?
And for sure, the Bears made some constructive steps in the offseason, from adding Julius Peppers, who amazingly has gone kind of under the radar leading up to camp, to Chester Taylor and, of course, offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the man who might tame the former Bronco.
I ripped the Bears a lot last season, mostly deservedly, and Cutler in particular. After his five-interception game against San Francisco, I wrote he "forces more passes than a 55-year-old divorcee at Tavern on Rush." It was a hacky kind of line, but it was true. I took shots at Ron Turner, Lovie Smith, Jerry Angelo, the offensive line, Matt Forte, etc. It was that kind of season, almost devoid of joy.
Cutler's arrival was the obvious storyline last spring. So much so that Lance Briggs jokingly volunteered to do a little dance for reporters to get his name in the paper. When a Chicago linebacker is being ignored for a quarterback, you know we're in a brave, new world.
After an optimistic beginning, Cutler's public failure -- highlighted by those 26 interceptions -- was caused by myriad factors. From a bevy of inexperienced receivers to his own off-kilter mechanics to being hurried on 22 percent of pass plays -- which, according to Football Outsiders, was the fourth-highest percentage in the league -- Cutler had a lot working against him.
Cutler certainly has the basic attributes to succeed in Martz's offense, which calls for quick reads, a lot of midrange routes and an intuitive quarterback with a strong arm. But the gradual maturation of a young receiving corps is a major factor. Martz's offense isn't child's play, but I can't imagine a receiver who wouldn't want to play in it.
Turner's much-criticized offense was handcuffed by a feckless running game, which couldn't perform in short-yardage situations. Football Outsiders ranked the Bears' red zone rushing attack as the worst in the league "by a country mile." Case in point: Forte had 19 rushes inside an opponent's 5-yard line and scored just twice. He should have scored eight times, FO concluded.
Mike Tice was hired to coach the offensive line, but it's hard to say how much it will improve under his tutelage. He's certainly a good line coach, but as FO points out in its annual almanac, his teams aren't known for a power running game. Certainly, the line play can't get much worse, but it will have to be able to pass-protect when Cutler takes those deep drops.
Cutler and Martz, two men who know how to emote, will be the couple to watch in training camp, and there's no doubt it will be covered to death. But it's an important story, one with real meaning. If anyone can bring Cutler's talents to the surface, it's Martz, who certainly will challenge the quarterback who is looking for his first winning season since leaving Santa Claus, Ind.
Both Cutler and Martz have a lot to prove, believe it or not. Cutler hasn't had a winning season since high school, and Martz hasn't been a part of a winning team since 2003, when his Rams went 12-4. He was fired after a 2-3 start in 2005. His short stays as offensive coordinator in San Francisco and Detroit resulted in offensive improvements, but teams don't get Moral Victory Mondays.
Martz's legacy isn't the story here, though. It's Cutler's show. Not Urlacher's, not Peppers', not Briggs'.
Cutler needs to show why the Bears invested so much in him, why Denver once made him the cornerstone of its team as a rookie, why he can be the quarterback for whom Chicago has waited all these years.
Cutler is 27, and although he's learning yet another offense, he's more than capable of mastering it. Simply put, his time is now. I'm going to be watching, and for now, I'm optimistic about the Bears' season.
Check again in two months and see how I feel.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. Follow him at twitter.com/espnchijon.