Five years ago, I took part in a conference call. I had recently been hired, on a freelance basis, to write columns for a new website, ESPN Chicago. It was a novel idea, combining a popular radio station, the mammoth ESPN.com Web presence and local writers covering the city.
During that call, we touched on Kyle Orton's tenuous future with the Chicago Bears, among other subjects. About five minutes after the call ended, I heard a yelp from the office next door. The Bears did it; they traded for Jay Cutler.
Things were going to change now. The Bears finally had a quarterback. He was young, gifted and local. Growing up in Indiana, Cutler was a Bears fan. He wasn't perfect, but he was coming off a Pro Bowl season. His arrow was pointing up.
Five years later, as a writer for ESPN Chicago, I've covered most of Cutler's Bears career, the well-publicized downs and the sporadic ups.
I was there for his disastrous, and somewhat prophetic, debut in Green Bay. I was there for both of his contract extension news conferences. I was there for his playoff win and his more famous playoff defeat, where he was unfairly castigated because of injury and his imperious reputation. I've seen him play the hero and the fool, and I've listened to him banter on his ESPN Chicago 1000 radio show.
Jerry Angelo, the general manager who traded Orton and a slew of draft picks to Denver, is gone. Lovie Smith, the Bears coach when Cutler arrived, is gone. Three offensive coordinators, Ron Turner, Mike Martz and Mike Tice, are gone. Brian Urlacher, the face of the franchise, gone.
Cutler has survived, rich as a Pritzker and prickly as a Ditka. He is "the man," even if he doesn't care about the common man.
He has been a reliable story for me over the years. When he left Denver, he was the epitome of the unhappy star. When he came to Chicago, he was the savior. Since then, it's been fascinating to watch as he's become a national story -- a punchline to some, a debate-stirrer to others.
"Who is the real Cutler?" is the question we've tried to answer, game by game, season by season. I don't know Cutler. We've never had a personal conversation. He's answered my questions in group settings, sometimes with great detail. He's miscast as a sour dummy. In fact, I think it's his intelligence that leads to his impatience with people.
But with an offensive head coach in Marc Trestman, a man truly smarter than Cutler, the quarterback finally seems comfortable as a Bear. It seems like, with the defensive leaders mostly gone, he has ownership of his job and position in life. Check out the pictures of Cutler palling around with teammates in Miami this offseason. He's matured.
But that's natural, right? He's a married man now, with one child and another on the way.
Cutler's future with the Bears was the dominating storyline of the season. Would they re-sign him or cast him free? The rise of Josh McCown seemed to signify Cutler was replaceable. But he's not. His talent is still tantalizing. He begs interest and faith.
The Broncos let him go; the Bears wouldn't do the same. Five years later, I think we know Cutler, but I'm not sure how his Chicago story will end. I'll be here though, waiting, watching and writing.