Cutler Creates a Buzz in Chicago
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. - Jay Cutler's fans choked the chute where Chicago Bears players trotted off the Olivet Nazarene University practice field that first day of training camp.
So many Bears fans clamored for their new franchise quarterback's autograph that the chain-link fence designed to restrain stood no chance.
The opening crush of 7,000 fans was a harbinger of the record-breaking crowds that have flocked to see arguably the most talented Bears quarterback since Sid Luckman led the franchise to four championships during the 1940s.
This summer, Cutler fever has attracted Tiger Woods-sized galleries to camp, located about 50 miles south of Chicago.
"The first day was a little nuts," says Cutler, 26, an Indiana native and life-long Bears fan. "They had to get some more security, and they have them lining the fence now.
"This whole Bears training camp experience has been eye-opening. The first thing you realize when you get here is how passionate the fans are and how much they want you to succeed."
Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said, "It was like Beatle-mania."
It was Angelo who orchestrated the April 2 trade that extricated Cutler from his bitter feud with Denver Broncos rookie head coach Josh McDaniels.
Gary Griffin, director of university relations at Olivet Nazarene and Bears training camp director, said the club averaged 8,000 fans its first nine practices, double the daily turnout the last six years.
"Virginia McCaskey was here Aug. 5th, and I asked her what she thought of the crowd," Griffin said, referencing the club's owner and daughter of legendary Bears coach George Halas. "She said, 'It's Cutler-mania.'"
"Cutler-mania" at Bears camp seems ironic considering the fourth-year NFL quarterback played three seasons in Denver haunted by fans' memories of Hall of Fame legend John Elway. Yet it took a trade from the Broncos for his team's fans to shower the cannon-armed quarterback with Elway-esque reverence.
Even Bears defensive end Alex Brown's 7-year-old son, Antonio, caught the fever.
After the team's morning walk-through, Antonio watched from the end zone wearing his new hero's blue and orange No. 6 jersey. Cutler strode over with Brown and linebacker Brian Urlacher to sign Antonio's jersey.
"Urlacher was mad," Cutler said. "Antonio used to be Brian's guy, wearing his jersey. Then he switched."
Says Alex Brown: "As soon as Antonio heard we had traded for Jay, we got the jersey for him. You watch practice, and every kid has their Jay Cutler jersey. Some still have their No. 54 Urlacher jerseys. But Jay is coming up fast."
Since April 1, Cutler's Bears jersey is the top seller among all NFL players, according to the league.
Conversely, Cutler isn't held in such regard by Broncos nation.
"I'm happy he's out of Denver," says Broncos fan Andrew Wood, 28. "He acted like he was God, like he was bigger than the team with how he forced the trade. When he was throwing well, he was great. But he was always riding a roller coaster."
Feeling unwelcome in Denver
Cutler forced his way out of Denver after learning of McDaniels' failed bid to trade for then-New England Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel in February. McDaniels, while offensive coordinator for New England during the 2008 season, had watched Cassel blossom as he filled in for injured Tom Brady.
When Cutler refused to return owner Pat Bowlen's calls, the Broncos put that rarest of NFL commodities on the auction block.
"A true franchise quarterback is very, very hard to find," Angelo said. "You can go through a whole career and not get one."
So Angelo, a veteran of 29 years as a personnel evaluator, sent quarterback Kyle Orton, along with a first- and third-round pick in 2009 and a first-round pick in 2010, to Denver. In exchange, the Broncos also surrendered a fifth-round pick.
Orton was 21-12 as Bears starter from 2005 to 2008. Cutler went 17-20 in Denver, throwing for 4,526 yards, 25 touchdowns and 18 interceptions last season.
"It was a broken trust," the former Vanderbilt standout said. "I just felt it was better we just part ways.
"I got to go back home. My family lives 45 minutes away. . . . We've got five Vandy guys here, and I feel we have the makings of a really good offense. We already have a great defense.
"It's worked out better than I possibly imagined."
Bowlen was traveling and unavailable for comment Thursday. However, Bowlen said in a letter e-mailed to Broncos season ticketholders April 4:
"Understand this: It remains about team. Our franchise has gone to the Super Bowl six times, with three different coaches and with many different players. It has never been about one player, and it never will be."
When the Bears travel to Denver for an Aug. 30 preseason game, Cutler says he plans to seek Bowlen out and make his peace.
"I wouldn't mind saying hello to him and ask him how things are going," Cutler said. "I still keep in touch with a lot of those guys over there. I'll talk to Mr. Bowlen at some point."
Playing in Elway's shadow
So how will the 2009 Bears fare with the 2008 Pro Bowler who set several records with Denver?
"Jay's embraced this challenge of coming in here and leading this franchise," Angelo said. "Elway will always be a legend in Denver. Jay got a taste of playing in his shadow. He's passed those tests. That played a part in why we did what we did. He went through the things a guy needs to go through here to be successful."
Cutler is doing his best to make that happen. He texted his offensive weapons before July 4, inviting them to a voluntary two-week, players-only passing camp.
"We started working at Halas Hall as a group so we could hit the ground running when training camp started," Cutler said. "Four days a week, we threw for an hour and a half, then lifted. We just wanted to talk about some things, work on some routes and concentrate every day on something different."
Camp Cutler is paying dividends. Cutler, 6-3, 233, has impressed, firing strikes to tight ends Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark, wideouts Devin Hester, Earl Bennett, Rashied Davis, Brandon Rideau and Juaquin Iglesias, a rookie, and running backs Matt Forte and Kevin Jones.
Cutler fired one fastball so hard that it knocked Iglesias' mouthpiece off his helmet.
"Jay's been a great leader on the field and a great teammate off the field," Olsen said. "You can't say enough about what he's brought to our team both personality-wise and obviously his ability. "
The thing is, Bears coach Lovie Smith preaches tenacious, takeaway defense and "running the ball getting off the bus."
That's why Cutler lobbies Smith and offensive coordinator Ron Turner to take more downfield shots than he did with predecessors Orton and Rex Grossman.
"That's why I'm on the receivers so hard," Cutler said. "It's like we have to open this up a little, show 'em what we can do out there. We're going to run the ball. That's a given. I threw the ball 600-plus times last year in Denver. That's too much. You have to be balanced."
Smith will do so, to a degree.
"We're a running football team, but there's room for a great passer," he said. "And there will be times when we'll need to lean on our pass. Jay will be comfortable with the amount of passes he'll throw.
"We play six games in November-December, in the elements, so you have to have that running game and it opens the passing game."
But taking deep shots is the unique dimension Cutler adds.
"Cutler finally gives the Bears that vertical-strike ability that is so much needed in the NFL," ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said. "What I'm going to look for is does the Bears offense change? Do they now build their offense around Cutler? You have to take the wraps off a special quarterback."
Meanwhile, they'll be hoping he shows strong off-field judgment.
"We were all 26 once," NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said. "Anybody that thinks he's going to go back to his home and watch Deal or No Deal every night, it's not happening."
Cutler, who is single, already has received his initiation.
"The first time I came here, we went out to dinner and then went out afterward," Cutler said. "There's always camera phones, always eyes watching you. There's always people blogging. They got on me about not signing autographs at a Cubs game.
"I knew that, coming into this . . . people are going to be watching you. . . . You just have to be aware and temper it."
Said Smith: "There's a lot of pressure here. But it goes with the territory. When you grow up a Bears fan the way Jay did, you know about that. And you embrace it. That's what he's done.
"Chicago can be good for Jay. And I know what Jay will be able to do for us. It's a marriage made in heaven."