Cutler has hope soaring in Chicago

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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Dispatches from the almost giddy proceedings surrounding Bears camp at Olivet Nazarene University -- a.k.a. Cutler-ville -- during a humid and yet spirited Tuesday afternoon practice ...

• This is going to take some getting used to, this notion of the Bears having a top-shelf passing game. You want to talk running game, defense and special teams, the Bears are usually in the conversation. But a top-third passing game? Chicago? That's when all those "we haven't seen this since Sid Luckman" references start to surface.

But believe it or not, the Bears are going to throw the ball this year. We're not talking the Chargers' Air Coryell era, but with Jay Cutler having been unexpectedly delivered from Denver like some sort of gift from the football gods, Chicago is prepared to pass the ball first, and then try to play defense and run the ball once they've hung some crooked numbers on the scoreboard. And after all, this is 2009. That's how you win in the NFL these days.

But honestly, when's the last time you thought of the Bears, and their passing game was the first thing that popped to mind?

"I'll say this, we want to run the football," ninth-year Bears general manager Jerry Angelo told me in the midst of Tuesday's practice, while keeping one eye on his team's doings at all times. "But we want to put points on the board, and the only way you put points on the board in this league is you have to throw the ball. That's plain and simple. You've got to. We want to run the ball. Everybody wants to run the ball. But we want to run it in the second half, to protect the lead."

See what I mean? After Angelo laid that last line on me, I had to make sure I had really driven to Bears camp, and hadn't some how made a wrong turn and wound up at Colts camp in Terre Haute, Ind. Pass first, run the ball in the second half to kill the clock? The Bears? What in the name of Papa Halas is going on here?

But that's what the Cutler deal has wrought in Chicago, and why not? It's time we found out what a star-quality quarterback can do for a Bears team that has gotten by for a very long time on something considerably less at the game's most pivotal position. No wonder Cutler-mania is raging in most of Illinois, with a staggering 12,000 fans or so showing up for a Bears practice last Sunday afternoon in Bourbonnais.

"We built a team that's really been without a marquee quarterback," Angelo said. "We've gotten good quarterback play at times, and won a lot of games. So I'm not going to minimize the guys who played before. But we didn't have the type of quarterback who could take a game over.

"So when we had that opportunity to get Jay, we did it, because the quickest way to create stability for your football team and organization is to have that position solidified. We've got a nice swagger, and the pieces are in place. Do we have enough pieces to compete and be a good football team? I feel good about it."

Cutler has everyone excited in Chicago, and I can understand that. If the Bears can go 9-7 and finish just a game behind NFC North champion Minnesota last season with Kyle Orton under center, logically the thinking is that Cutler might be able to lift them to 11 or 12 wins. I witnessed the enthusiasm for Cutler first hand at Bears camp, because the second we wrapped up a post-practice, on-field interview, it sounded as if 5,000 fans simultaneously screamed for his autograph.

"Coming into camp, it's been a little bit overwhelming how excited the fans are," Cutler said. "To see 12,000 people here Sunday was wild. But it makes it fun. Some success in this town goes a very long way. You can kind of write your own ticket. But we've got to get through Game One first. We've got a long season ahead of us. A lot of speed bumps, and some ups and downs to go through."

Late in Tuesday's practice, a bit of a skirmish broke out between a Bears defender and a Bears offensive player (I couldn't tell who started what in the scrum that ensued). But I did see Cutler running over and joining in what was mostly good-natured pushing and shoving, even giving middle linebacker Brian Urlacher -- his supposed nemesis -- a playful shoulder as he headed back to the huddle.

Yep, these are heady days for the Bears and their fans, but I can already hear the question you're eager to ask: Cutler may be on hand to throw it, but who exactly is going to catch it? All offseason, we've heard that Chicago is dangerously thin at receiver and foolishly left itself needy at that position. What good is an improved passing game on just one end of the equation?

The Bears, I'm here to report, don't agree with the assessment. Nary one bit.

"When people talk about our receivers, it's 'Well, you don't have this and you don't have that,'" Bears head coach Lovie Smith said. "Well they forget that we put [third-year tight end] Greg Olsen in that mix. Greg can run any route any receiver can run outside. But he's bigger, he's as fast as anyone, has great hands, intelligent, he's a coach's son, we can talk the rest of the day about him. I'm his biggest fan. He can do so many things for you."

After watching the almost ridiculous on-field rapport and connection that Cutler and Olsen have already established, I'd be shocked if the ex-Miami Hurricane isn't the Bears leading receiver this season. But it's not just Olsen who stands to prosper from Cutler's arrival. Devin Hester told me he will take the next step in his development as a receiver this season, and the Bears believe 2008 third-round pick Earl Bennett, who played with Cutler one season at Vanderbilt, is poised to emerge after a complete no-show of a rookie year.

Add in veteran Rashied Davis, rookies Juaquin Iglesias (third round, Oklahoma) and Johnny Knox (fifth round, Abilene Christian), and intriguing third-year man Brandon Rideau, and the Bears believe they have enough targets for all those Cutler passes. Even if no one else seems to.

"We do have quality receivers, they're just unknown," Angelo said. "But we feel good about them."

So does Cutler, who pronounced himself satisfied with his pass-catchers following OTA's.

"I told [offensive coordinator] Ron [Turner] coming into camp that I feel great about it," he said. "No one's really seen Earl Bennett here yet. He didn't get on the field last year and they're kind of disappointed in him. But I think me coming here has helped his confidence and made him settle down and play his role. So let's keep him under the radar as long as possible. People may not know it, but I think we're set up offensively to do some explosive stuff. It's going to be a fun year."

But all the fun is designed to start when the ball is in Cutler's hands, and he drops back to find his next intended receiver. When have we ever thought that about a Chicago quarterback? Like I said, it's going to take some time to change that reflex-like perception.

"He's as good as advertised and he's been that way since Day One," Smith said of his new starting quarterback. "Not having a guy at quarterback like that in so long, [the fan reaction] has been a little overwhelming at times, but you expect that. We're not complaining at all. Jay knew what he was getting himself into. This is the type of town you want to play for. As a quarterback, you embrace that."

• Of all the Bears I watched Tuesday, nobody was more impressive than second-year cornerback Zackary Bowman, who is getting first-team reps opposite Nathan Vasher while incumbent starter Charles Tillman recovers from recent arthroscopic back surgery.

I had never really heard of Bowman, a fifth-round pick out of Nebraska, before Tuesday. But he's the kind of player who can fall off the radar screen easily, given that his draft status suffered in 2008 due to having incurred a pair of knee injuries in college, and then his rookie season was cut short by a biceps tear after just one game. But what a game it was. Against the Vikings in October, Bowman recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown on special teams, and later, after tearing his biceps, returned to the game and sealed the win with an interception. For the effort he was named NFC special teams player of the week.

Better watch out, Mr. Tillman, or Bowman might just Wally Pipp you. Bowman is a 6-1, 193-pounder with great ball skills and anticipation, and I saw him pick off Cutler in the right corner of the end zone Tuesday. Bears officials rave about his ability, and say only consistent health stands between him and much bigger things.

"You see him flash out there, and everyone who watches him sees him flash," Smith said. "We're trying to keep him a secret."

Not for long, Lovie, if Bowman keeps this up.

• I wrote a note about this on draft weekend, but the Vandy contingent in Chicago is out of control. There's Cutler, Bennett, offensive tackle Chris Williams, linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, and rookie cornerback D.J. Moore. That's five Commodores, enough to start a new pop band.

"We even had [Vandy] coach [Bobby] Johnson at practice the other day," Bennett said. "I'm not sure if he was here trying to get a job or what. [He was joking.] But yeah, it's exciting to have guys I played with here going through camp together. There's a lot of Vandy here."

• Just got a few quick glances of him, but Bears rookie defensive tackle Jarron Gilbert sounds as if he's found his way into Chicago's offensive backfield a time or two so far in camp. You remember Gilbert. The third-round pick out of San Jose State?

Maybe this will refresh your memory: He's the guy who became a You Tube sensation this spring by being featured in that video of him jumping out of the shallow end of a pool. C'mon, you've seen it.

I checked, but there are apparently no pools at Bears camp. Maybe he's reduced to jumping out of whirlpools.

• Had a nice lunchtime chat with ex-Lions head coach Rod Marinelli, who Smith quickly snapped up as the team's assistant head coach/defensive line coach once he was fired in the wake of Detroit's winless season.

Mark my words, Marinelli will have a significant impact on the Bears defensive line this season, because he remains one of the best teachers in the game. I asked him if he was happy to get back to the teaching part of coaching, which head coaches rarely have the time for.

"I love it all," said Marinelli, one of the NFL's nicest of coaches. "All of it. As long as it has a ball in it, I love it."

• As Smith mentioned, get ready to see Olsen moved all over the field this season. Teams are going to try to take him away in the Bears offense, and Chicago will have to be creative to ensure that doesn't happen.

"We're going to have to do a lot of things with Greg," Cutler told me. "Move him around the field, because teams are going to key on him. We can put him outside, put him in the backfield, and keep putting him in different spots, because he's a weapon. He creates some matchups that a lot of guys can't."

• Here's one thing that should really help Cutler's game in Chicago: While the Bears don't have the 2006 version of their defense anymore, what Cutler got used to in Denver was a team that played virtually no D. In other words, Cutler shouldn't have to put 38 points per game up in order to win.

"It's great, because I'm not going to throw the ball 38 times a game either," he said. "We can get a more balanced attack and control the clock a little bit more. Let the defense and special teams work for us."

Hester offered a fairly safe but still sizable prediction about his new quarterback: "If he has a long career here, he's going to be one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play in Chicago," he said.