Roster breakdown: The quarterbacks

Jay Cutler had a rough season in 2009 and a difficult preseason, but he remains optimistic about 2010. Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire

Editor's note: As the Bears prepare for their season-opener against the Lions at Soldier Field on Sunday, ESPNChicago.com breaks down the roster by position. Here's a look at the quarterbacks in this sixth installment.

It's somewhere in him, perhaps.

Still, despite possessing immense physical gifts, Jay Cutler hasn't yet demonstrated the most critical factor that sets apart the elite quarterbacks: the ability to improve those around him, which in turn, takes franchises to new heights.

Maybe the time has finally come, even though Cutler readily admits to stunted development in 2009, his first season as the Bears' quarterback.

"Last year I took a hit, obviously," Cutler said, laughing. "I had a little step down there, but I'm growing. I'm gaining experience and learning more and more. I'm excited about this year."

Like it or not, how Cutler performs this season determines the fate of not only the franchise this season, but the futures of the coaching staff and maybe even the front office. Based on what he's done in the preseason, there doesn't appear to be much reason to hope.

But a deeper look, paired with the addition of new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, might change that perception.

For Cutler, the problems stem from a penchant for throwing interceptions. In Chicago's seven wins last season, Cutler threw 16 touchdown passes and three interceptions. On the flip side, he produced a TD-to-INT ratio of 11-23 in the club's nine losses.

Interestingly, the Bears have gone 4-8 in their last 12 outings, after opening the 2009 season 3-1. Cutler's numbers tell the story of the season. After throwing eight TDs and five INTs in the first four games, Cutler tossed 19 TDs and 21 INTs over his last 12 outings.

"You're constantly talking about those things," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Not just Jay [struggled]. We took a hit last year. We haven't been to the playoffs in three years. We realize all that. But that's what's exciting about a new year … clean slate. You forget a lot about those things once you finish it up with a good year. That's what we plan on doing."

To do so, a couple things need to happen. Obviously, the interceptions need to come down. But Cutler also needs to develop a better rhythm and show more trust in Martz's system, which calls for a high degree of anticipation from the quarterbacks.

Cutler appeared to be out of synch for the majority of the preseason. Instead of making throws at the end of his drop before the receivers came out of their breaks, the quarterback waited on several occasions for his targets to come open before letting go of the ball. Those minor delays led to incompletions and INTs.

"Everybody is a little bit down on us," Cutler said. "They were disappointed last year, and preseason wise offensively we haven't been as high-flying as we were predicted to be. That's fine, though. Under the radar isn't a bad thing."

Cutler admits his growth as a quarterback is still a work in progress. Tight end Desmond Clark said the quarterback's growth was stunted last season from "being in a new situation, and just trying to find himself." But Clark said he's seen marked progress from Cutler from the start of the offseason up to now.

"This year, I think he's more comfortable with his surroundings. So he's able to expand his leadership role a little more than he did last year," Clark said. "He's definitely taking steps that direction, but just how much, that's hard to quantify or put a level on. But he's definitely expanding to be that guy who makes everybody around him better."

Veteran Todd Collins and third-year man Caleb Hanie serve as Cutler's backups. Hanie opened the offseason as Cutler's primary backup, but a shoulder injury sidelined him and made for Collins to come in as the No. 2 quarterback.

In limited preseason action, Collins -- despite little experience working with Martz -- displayed a solid grasp of the offensive system. In completing 10 of 15 for 139 yards and a touchdown in the preseason finale, Collins operated the offense even more efficiently than Cutler.

"It's just the type of offenses I've played in," Collins explained. "I just feel more comfortable with that boom, boom, boom, and throw it type of offense."

Best case scenario: Cutler trusts the system, and takes advantage of its down-the-field opportunities with his big arm. In addition, Cutler cuts down on the interceptions and doesn't make questionable throws because of overconfidence in his arm. Ideally, the offensive line would provide enough protection to keep Cutler relatively comfortable in the pocket, because he's demonstrated the ability to light up opponents when he's in a groove. The only way Cutler gets in that state is through a combination of good protection, a strong running game, and steady play at receiver.

Worst case scenario: Protection breaks down too often, making Cutler overly skittish in the pocket. The history of Martz's offense indicates Cutler will take more sacks than he's used to, but the quarterback can't lose faith in his protection. If Cutler does, he won't step fully into throws, which causes inaccuracy and INTs. The defense needs to do its part, too, in terms of not allowing the Bears to get down early in games. If that happens, Cutler will feel the need to take unnecessary chances. All won't be lost if Cutler goes down, because Collins appears to be a capable fill-in option. Hanie lacks experience, but has grown tremendously in Martz's system.