Bears optimistic about Cutler's growth

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Jay Cutler senses he has changed since joining the Chicago Bears in 2009. And the new coaching staff, having worked with him for just a year, sees it too.

Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer likened it from moving from a freshman-level college course to a more advanced curriculum, which means the realistic expectation for Cutler in Year 2 in the team's system is for the quarterback to take a major step in his progression.

"As we move on, [Cutler] might take it to 201 and be able to ready the play a little bit more in-depth," Kromer said. "That's where we're getting to with a lot of our football right now."

Having recently signed a seven-year extension with the Bears, Cutler attributed his change to "a lot of factors," admitting that in "my younger days in Denver, and even when I first got here, you do some things that are foolish and you regret." He said the organization's hiring of general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman "kind of forces you to grow up."

"If you don't want to grow up, you're probably not going to last," Cutler said. "They're going to find somebody else."

Before letting that happen, Cutler buckled down in 2013, working in "just a conducive environment to be a football player as a quarterback" put together by Emery, and it led to one of his best seasons as a pro in the first year of a new system under a new coaching staff led by Trestman. Cutler completed 63.1 percent of his passes in 2013 for a career-best passer rating of 89.2. But he missed five games due to groin and ankle injuries.

Cutler called the injuries "freak" occurrences, and doesn't anticipate durability being an issue moving forward. Still, it's noteworthy that Cutler hasn't played an entire 16-game season since his first year in Chicago. A major contributor to that were offensive lines featuring forgettable players such as Frank Omiyale and J'Marcus Webb.

When the Bears finally committed to dramatically strengthening protection in 2013, Cutler produced. He'll play behind that same offensive line this season with the same group of weapons at the skill positions, which is a reason for optimism from the quarterback and the staff.

"I was straight [in terms of durability] until I really got here," Cutler said. "For a while, it was a hit parade back there. It takes its toll from time to time. I think with the offensive line we've got here, the guys are doing everything possible." The staff also incorporated a system that calls for Cutler to get rid of the ball quickly, which in turn, diminishes the punishment he absorbs.

"Once you start getting hit a lot, you start taking your eyes off the secondary," Cutler explained. "You lose a lot of trust up front and it gets difficult to play quarterback that way. You can look across the league and you see guys that are getting hit a lot. They're probably not going to be doing very well. The guys who stay pretty clean are in offenses year in and year out and get a feel for the guys, those guys are going to be the ones who are in the top of the league every year. So we'll see how it goes. I think Trest does a great job of emphasizing getting rid of the ball. Protection first, and that's how everything is designed here."

Chicago quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh says he has "seen incredible progress" in the year he's worked with Cutler.

"When we got in here last year and evaluated him, we had a real good conversation with him about certain things we think every quarterback should do," Cavanaugh said. "'And Jay, it might not be natural to you, but we want you to try it.' And he did. To his credit, he's taken every bit of suggestion we've given, and he's embraced it. Everything from how he holds the ball, to how he lines up in the gun pre-snap, to how he drops back, to his throwing base, to his follow-through. Every fundamental we have considered talking to him about, he's embraced. He's worked real hard at it, so I think it is night and day."

Trestman believes Cutler possesses the "it" factor needed for a quarterback to play at a high level on a consistent basis. Add that to Cutler's growth within the system, not to mention the fact he has finally got stability in terms of the staff, the system and teammates, and it's easy to see why the quarterback and the organization carry such high hopes for the season.

The stability, according to Trestman "can allow him to enjoy more flexibility at the line of scrimmage, and understand what we're trying to get to. Each of these plays we have, there's a lot of different answers against a lot of different types of looks and coverages. I think he's at a place now, because he's had so much experience on these plays, he can utilize the entire play to find the right answers. Obviously, 'it' factor combined with understanding the offense, people around you, good protection … I don't think there's any quarterback in the National Football League that without their intangibles they would have a chance to play at a high level. I think Jay's one of those guys who can do that and has that 'it' factor."