It is nearingseven o'clock on a hot and humid Tuesday night in Bourbonnais, Ill., a sleepyhamlet an hour south of Chicago. The sun is still beating down relentlessly atthis hour, frying the fans who pack the stands and are lined up seven, eight,nine deep behind the fence around the modest football field at Olivet NazareneUniversity. A twin-engine plane, buzzing across the cloudless sky, drops askydiver who floats down and lands almost perfectly on the 50-yard line asorange smoke shoots out of a canister in each of his hands. The crowd cheers,impressed, but moments later a much bigger roar erupts for the evening'sgrandest entrance: Jay Cutler, the new quarterback of the Bears, jogging out ofa tunnel underneath the stands, onto midfield and center stage. ¬∂ Nearly 10,000people have shown up on this night; a week earlier, 12,000 attended amid-afternoon practice. The record crowds—and the chain-link fence thatcollapsed from the crush on Day One of camp—confirm it: Not since McMahon,Payton and the Fridge came to camp 23 years ago still glowing from their SuperBowl XX victory has there been this much anticipation for a Bears season."It's been a circus," says tight end Greg Olsen. "And really,there's one reason for that."
This is an article from the Aug. 24, 2009 issue
That reason isCutler, the 26-year-old gunslinger who has yet to take a regular-season snap ina Bears uniform but is already the face of the franchise. (Brian Urlacher, stepaside.) Since the blockbuster deal that sent quarterback Kyle Orton and threedraft picks to the Broncos for Cutler—"the biggest trade in Bearshistory," one columnist proclaimed—giddy fans have made Cutler's number 6Bears jersey the top-selling piece of NFL merchandise. The media in Chicago,where the major newspapers each carry daily Cutler updates, are just aszealous. During a recent practice Lance Briggs, the Bears' four-time Pro Bowllinebacker, stopped by a group of reporters. "You guys know I'm still onthis team, right?" he said. "Do I have to do a dance for you orsomething?"
An hour into thepractice, all eyes are on Cutler as the team begins seven-on-seven drills. Hethrows a gorgeous 50-yard pass down the right sideline and into theoutstretched hands of wideout Earl Bennett. Later, when the offense lines up inthe Wildcat formation, with Cutler out wide as a receiver and wideout DevinHester behind center, Cutler dashes downfield with his shoulder lowered, as ifhe's ready to flatten a defensive back, while Hester runs through the line."Nice blocking, Jay!" a fan screams. The night ends with a two-minutedrill: Cutler moves the unit to the 10-yard line from his own 35, and on thefinal play lofts a fade to the corner of the end zone, where Olsen reels in theball one-handed. Cutler pumps his fist. The crowd cheers wildly.
On a night likethis you could see almost all the way to January, with Cutler leading the Bearsto their first playoff berth since 2006 and, just maybe, their first Super Bowlwin since the 1985 season. You could see Cutler establish himself as Chicago'sfirst bona fide franchise quarterback since Sid Luckman 60 years ago. You couldsee Cutler become, as Hester puts it, "Chicago's biggest sports star sinceMichael Jordan."
You could also seeall of it—all the hope and love of a city—go up in smoke.
In Chicago, theBears recycle QBs like the Cubs go through closers: Over the 23 seasons sincetheir Super Bowl win, the Bears have trotted out 30 of them. They are acollection of first-rounders (Cade McNown), acquired Pro Bowlers (KordellStewart), collegiate golden boys (Rick Mirer), ex--baseball players (ChadHutchinson), old-timers (Dave Krieg) and one-start no-names (Will Furrer, MosesMoreno, Henry Burris).
"Those guyswould tell you that this is a difficult city to be a quarterback," says JimMiller, who made 26 starts for the Bears between 1999 and 2002. "When youconsider that New York is split between two teams, Chicago is the largestmarket in the league, and as a quarterback you feel it. They don't treat theirquarterbacks with kid gloves."
Now comes Cutlerto win over the fickle heart of the Windy City. The mop-topped son of a retiredstate trooper, he grew up 360 miles south of Chicago, in the town of SantaClaus, Ind., in a gated community called Christmas Lake Village. But in Denverhe came to be seen as the Grinch because of his aloofness, his bravado despitea 17--20 record as a starter—last fall he proclaimed he had a stronger arm thanJohn Elway—and finally his falling out with Josh McDaniels over the new coach'sinterest in acquiring then Patriots QB Matt Cassel.
"A trust wasbroken," says Cutler of McDaniel's pursuit of another quarterback and hisown decision to demand a trade. "But I had no clue how things were going toplay out."
Cutler made hisfirst Pro Bowl last season after throwing for 4,526 yards and 25 touchdowns. No4,000-yard passer had ever been traded at age 25. Interest in him was high—andso was the price. The Bears gave up Orton, who was 21--12 as a starter inChicago, and three draft picks.
For Cutler, anavid Bears fan growing up ("Jim Harbaugh, Tom Waddle, Curtis Conway, Iloved those guys from [the early '90s]," he says), it was the best possibleresolution. He was working out at his alma mater, Vanderbilt, when he got thenews, and "he had a huge smile on his face," says John Sisk, Vandy'sstrength and conditioning coach. "It was like it was draft day forhim."
Cutler drove fromcampus straight to a Nashville shopping mall to buy a suit for the pressconference at Soldier Field the next day. "I had to make sure to lookgood," he says. From that moment, he has been trying to repair his image.He hired Chicago entertainment lawyer and Oprah Winfrey adviser Jeff Jacobs tomanage his off-field affairs and start a foundation. He also put off chasingendorsements. "After the trade there were a lot of opportunities to docommercials and marketing stuff, but that just wasn't on the top of mylist," he says. "First I want to prove myself a little bit on thefootball field and get rid of some of the questions and skepticism aboutme."
Cutler has alsoplayed it low-key in the locker room. "This is a veteran-dominated team,with guys like Olin and Lach," he says of center Olin Kreutz and linebackerUrlacher. "How guys look up to you, that's something you have to grow into.You can't force it. I know I have to earn the trust."
The first week oftraining camp, the bonehead Cutler reemerged when he compared Bears and Broncosfans in a radio interview, saying "Denver's like a six, and Chicago's likea nine." A now-popular YouTube clip of a young Broncos fan burning a Cutlerjersey captures the Denver reaction. "Jay, you have proven the mediacorrect," the 10-year-old says. "You're an immature, selfishcrybaby." Cutler is not looking forward to the Bears' Aug. 30 preseasongame in Denver. "All the hoopla, it won't be fun," he says.
For now, in Bearscountry, there is only love. How long that lasts will depend on how quicklyCutler can adjust to a crop of inexperienced receivers—the top five on thedepth chart have a combined 145 career catches. He also must contend with type1 diabetes, which he discovered he had last year. As often as four times a gamehe had to check his blood sugar with a finger prick. "I'm going to have tostay on top of things," he says. "I've been checking it three or fourtimes, and that's just during [a two-hour] practice."
At full strengthhe might be the best young quarterback in the game. "A lot of guys withgreat arm strength don't have the accuracy," says Bears offensivecoordinator Ron Turner. "Jay has both. But what's overlooked is that healso moves very well. When a play breaks down, he can create things with hisfeet."
Cutler's weaknesshas been his unwavering belief that he can make a big play with his will andhis arm. He has thrown 32 interceptions over the last two years, and in thepreseason opener last Saturday in Buffalo he was forcing throws into heavycoverage. (He had one pick in 10 attempts, but two other passes could easilyhave been intercepted.) But he's entering only his third full season as astarter and is ahead of where many of the greats, including Elway, were at thispoint in their careers. "I can't think of three quarterbacks in the NFLwith more talent," says former Bears QB Erik Kramer, who holds Chicago'ssingle-season records for passing yards (3,838) and touchdowns (29). "He'sgot more ability than Peyton Manning. The Bears have never had anyone evenclose to him."
Whether Cutler hasmatured enough to thrive as a quarterback in Chicago is another matter. Whathappens if he and the Bears stumble out of the gate? They open at Green Bay onSept. 13, host the Super Bowl champion Steelers a week later and then travelacross the country to face Seattle. And what happens when Cutler hears hisfirst boos at Soldier Field? Does he turn on the Chicago fans the way he did onthe Denver faithful?
"I can'tremember a Super Bowl quarterback talking about his arm strength or calling outfans from a team he just left—Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger would have noneof that," Kramer says. "The question is whether Jay sees the bigpicture, that this isn't about Jay. That it's about the Chicago Bears andwinning a Super Bowl. Does he see that? We're about to find out."