The long-held hope that Jay Cutler could become an elite quarterback in the NFL — the Brady-Rodgers-Brees type of leader who produces prolific numbers and puts a team on his back in tough times and carries it to the playoffs — seemed to follow Phil Emery swiftly out the door at Halas Hall in January of 2015.
It was Emery who grasped at that “elite” notion so awkwardly to the end of his tenure as general manager — telling Bears fans in the middle of the 2014 season that Cutler was an elite quarterback because he had a winning record.
Ryan Pace and John Fox, who replaced Emery and Marc Trestman in 2015, had a better grasp of what they were dealing with. And thus began the re-invention of Cutler as a more efficient quarterback capable of making big throws when he had to, but more careful to avoid the chronic mishaps that had short-circuited the Bears offense for too many years.
Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains wasn’t quite buying that notion Thursday.
“He still has those expectations [of being elite] for us,” Loggains said. “He’s the leader of our offense. He’s the leader of our team. He was voted the captain by his teammates for a reason. And we fully expect him to be the leader of the offense.”
It didn’t seem possible in Cutler’s petulant days as a would-be gunslinger, but Cutler’s value as a 33-year-old leader has out-stripped his value as a cannon-for-an-arm quarterback. An offense that includes seven starters who were in high school or grade school when Cutler entered the NFL in 2006, is desperate for leadership and Cutler is providing it. Tight end Zach Miller even referred to Cutler as “a natural leader” and “the General” — the guy teammates don’t want to screw up for. Will wonders never cease?
“He’s our guy,” Miller said. “That’s the General for us. We’ve got to be good for him. We need to be better for him and we plan on doing that.”
To most of Cutler’s current teammates, the Jay Cutler that forged a reputation as an irritable, irascible, socially awkward guy who snaps at coaches, tunes out receivers who run the wrong route and shoves teammates after a failed drive is a rumor.
“I know that in the past he’s maybe had some unwanted scrutiny. But I’ve never seen it personally,” said Miller, 31, who joined the team in 2014. “Ever since I’ve been here he’s been a great leader. And it’s only improved. I’ve seen him make strides off the field as far as being around us, being more vocal — just being a positive influence throughout our football team.”
Veteran Eddie Royal is one of the few who knows the old Cutler. He caught 91 balls from Cutler for 980 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie with the Denver Broncos in 2008. “He’s a little bit more patient with the guys [now],” Royal said with a chuckle. “It’s fun to see. It’s good to see.”
Cutler’s leadership abilities — and his patience — figure to be tested this season with an offense that includes so many young players and a revamped offensive line still in flux. He already had a moment with wide receiver Kevin White in the preseason. But Cutler’s much better equipped to handle it now than he was when he came to the Bears in 2009. And a little bit of addition by subtraction — Brandon Marshall, Martellus Bennett, cough, cough — appears to have helped.
“I think the longer you’re in the league and the more you are around the same team and the same guys, you’re going to feel that urge to help guys along and step in those leadership roles,” Cutler said. “This team, this offense — they make it easy. Everyone is eager to learn. There aren’t any egos. Everyone works hard. So being able to push guys and demand more of guys comes easy.”