He had to show that he had his strength and rocket arm back now that his diabetes is under control, the offense needed to succeed without big-play receiver Brandon Marshall and the defense had to stand its ground against physical running teams.
A dominating opening-night performance provided a good early answer.
Cutler threw for 299 yards with long touchdown passes to rookie Eddie Royal and Darrell Jackson that helped the Broncos beat up on their AFC West rivals in a 41-14 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Monday night.
"There were a lot of questions about us, but we felt good about what we have," Cutler said. "You have that little bit of doubt about what's going to happen with the young guys when the lights come on, but they came through time and time again."
Cutler showed why the Broncos made him a first-round draft pick in 2006, completing 16 of 24 passes and confidently picking apart Oakland's rebuilt defense despite missing its best offensive playmaker to a one-game suspension.
It was a pleasant sight for the Broncos after an up-and-down performance last season when Cutler lost 35 pounds and the zip on his throws while struggling with diabetes that was not diagnosed until March. Now he's back to his healthy self and the Broncos couldn't be happier.
"Jay made some great throws and did what you need to do for a quarterback to win," coach Mike Shanahan said. "We talked about stepping up and handling more of the offense, and he's doing it."
For the Raiders, the season couldn't have gotten off to much worse of a start. They lost their sixth straight season opener and only avoided their third straight shutout on Monday Night Football when JaMarcus Russell threw two meaningless fourth-quarter touchdown passes.
Oakland committed five personal fouls, botched a reverse for a 15-yard loss and was dominated on both sides of the ball in a performance that drew plenty of boos from a frustrated crowd that has grown all too used to this type of game. The Raiders have an NFL worst 19-62 record since 2004, and even the first game with Russell and Darren McFadden together couldn't change that.
"It's extremely disappointing," coach Lane Kiffin said. "Since I've been here we've played well at home. Even when we lose, we're in almost every game in the fourth quarter. I was shocked with the results today."
Royal helped make sure of that in an NFL debut that made sure the Broncos did not miss Marshall, catching nine passes for 146 yards.
Royal, a second-round draft pick out of Virginia Tech, was featured in the offense from the start, running the ball twice and catching a pass in the first four plays from scrimmage. He capped the opening drive by getting behind cornerback DeAngelo Hall and safety Gibril Wilson and catching a 26-yard pass from Cutler on a third-down rollout.
"You dream about it and you hope you can come out and play this well, but the main thing is we won," Royal said. "It was a great feeling, especially in the stadium against our rivals. Our game plan was to attack. We knew we had a lot of weapons and Coach drew up a great game plan. We just wanted to keep the pressure on them."
Royal caught three passes on the Broncos' third scoring drive, drawing two personal fouls from Hall along the way to set up the first of two touchdown runs by Michael Pittman to make it 17-0.
Cutler put the game away with a 48-yard TD pass to Jackson in the third quarter and Selvin Young added a 5-yard touchdown run in the fourth.
"Nobody has been giving us a chance since before the season started," cornerback Dre' Bly said. "They keep picking the Chargers and the Colts and the Pats, and that's what we want. We want to shock the world."
The Raiders went on an offseason spending spree to try to reverse five straight seasons of double-digit losses. The early payoff was not good.
Receiver Javon Walker, who got $16 million in guaranteed money, missed the game with an injured hamstring. Hall, who got $24 million guaranteed, was frequently beat by Royal in coverage and committed the two personal fouls. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who got $18 million in guarantees, was part of a line that failed to get pressure on Cutler all night.
"They just outschemed us and outplayed us. We didn't show up at all," Hall said. "They came out and dominated us from start to finish."
Russell was frequently under pressure in his second career start, going 17-of-26 for 180 yards and two TDs and a fumble to end Oakland's best drive of the first half.
McFadden had 57 yards from scrimmage, lining up in the backfield at receiver and even at quarterback during the game before leaving with a stinger in his shoulder.
The Broncos had lost seven straight road games on Monday nights, last winning in Kansas City in 1998. ... The Raiders have lost six straight Monday nighters, being outscored 173-41.