When I was growing up in football-crazy Steubenville, Ohio, the first sign of the season was the cookies.
Late in the summer, the mothers of the area high school football players decamped to the local mall, where my family had a small jewelry store, to raise money for the teams -- one delicious 25-cent cookie at a time. It was called the "Pigskin Preview" and I looked forward to it every year, until my own friends started playing high school football. When they started having curfews, I knew summer was about done.
In Chicago, a slightly more cosmopolitan city, the signs of football come first in images of absurdly large men carrying laundry baskets and undersized televisions into dorms, and later, when the jets rip past the lakeshore in the Air and Water Show, marking the official countdown to summer's end and, normally, the first preseason football game.
It's mid-August, do you know where your Al Afalava is? How about Devin Aromashodu? Preseason football is the time of unfamiliar names, so get your roster ready, and your anti-injury prayer beads, if you're watching Saturday's game in Buffalo.
In years past, the Bears' first preseason game was only slightly more important than a high school bake sale. But with Jay Cutler, the Bears' under-the-radar pickup this offseason making his debut, attention has been ratcheted up a notch or two. Or 12.
I'm a caring guy, so I would never tell a fan to bore themselves to death by watching preseason football, but I can make an exception here. While the TV ratings will plummet after the first team runs a few series, there are plenty of reasons to watch the Bears take on the Bills at 6 p.m.
Since we're talking about Cutler, who has very small shoes to fill at quarterback, let's look at the wide receivers he might be throwing to. There's probably no position more important to the Bears' success this season.
The Bears were unable, or unwilling, to find room for a big-name wide receiver, preferring to make do for now with a cast of no-names, tight end Greg Olsen and Devin Hester, who for all his speed and internal gyroscope, has only recently been cast as a wideout. Then again, he's never been paired with a quarterback like Cutler, whose arm will make up for any of Hester's experiential deficiencies. But really, you're not going to gauge much about Hester's ability to be an efficient deep threat until he goes up against Green Bay and Pittsburgh.
Earl Bennett, who already has a degree in Cutlerology, is in the same boat, and he has more familiarity with Cutler's style, as he knows Cutler, of course, from Vanderbilt -- the Detroit Lions of the SEC -- of which Jerry Angelo is enamored of their talent. (It's a show of organizational bravado reminiscent of White Sox general manager Kenny Williams' reliance on ex-Kansas City relievers, but that's neither here nor there.)
The play of the secondary receivers, from the crispness of their routes to how they adjust to poorly thrown balls and changing defenses, is undoubtedly the top subplot on offense, especially if you're uninterested in the minutiae of offensive line play, especially the battle for left guard between Josh Beekman and another dude you don't know. (If you actually want to learn about the details of O-line play, I recommend the 1971 classic, "A Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football" by Sports Illustrated legend Paul Zimmerman.) These guys will be mostly paired with backup quarterbacks Caleb Hanie and Brett Basanez.
Brandon Rideau is guaranteed a roster spot after being the odd man out the past few years. Rideau, a 6-foot-3, 26-year-old out of Kansas, appeared in two games last season, accumulating a special-teams tackle. He's made the most of a golden opportunity in training camp, and that gives Bears fans a chance to get way too excited about him.
Aromashodu is playing for a job, though nothing will be decided this week. The former Indianapolis Colt should be a focal point for offensive coordinator Ron Turner, and Cutler has "gone to bat for him," according to ESPN 1000 Bears expert Jeff Dickerson. Aromashodu, an Auburn product, could be a real wild card for a team that needs some help at the position. He caught seven balls with the Colts in 2007, five for first downs.
Speedy Johnny Knox, no relation to "Jackass" star Johnny Knoxville, and the lost Iglesias brother, Juaquin Iglesias, could stack up some relatively meaningless stats, too. Don't think Cutler won't be paying attention. He's taken a hands-on approach with his receivers, even saying he expects to have some say in the final personnel, and if anyone thinks there's something wrong with that, they're morons.
"Oh yeah," Cutler told the Daily Herald. "I think they're definitely going to ask me. If they don't ask me, I'm going to tell them what I think because I've got to be the one throwing to them on game day, and I've got to trust them."
Of course, he should have some say as the franchise QB, especially since the pickings are all borderline roster guys. If Cutler feels more comfortable with Aromashodu over Iglesias, the Bears will listen to him.
Unfortunately, the Bears official brain trust and its unofficial one (the tens of thousands of hardcore fans who watch preseason games), will have to evaluate the receiving talent against the relative abilities of Caleb Hanie and Brett Basanez, the second- and third-string quarterbacks.
It's always enjoyable to watch the backup guys go up against scout team defensive backs, for a few minutes anyway. On Thursday night, I did some informal scouting on the Steelers' third-stringer Dennis Dixon and noted that I don't want to see him in a regular season game this year, except on the sideline holding a clipboard.
Northwestern fans will surely enjoy waiting for Basanez to hook up with fellow Wildcats alum, roster fodder Eric Peterman. It'll be like the Alamo Bowl all over again.
Aside from the wideout battles, the one guy I'm looking forward to watching is safety Afalava, the rookie sixth-round pick out of Oregon State. With Danieal Manning dealing with a lingering hamstring injury, Afalava should see a lot of time against the Bills, especially with the Bears' defensive backfield a veritable M*A*S*H unit.
Afalava is the perfect player to watch if you can't tear yourself away from the first preseason game, supposedly talented and completely unknown if you haven't been to training camp.
One question to ponder before the game: Does Brian Urlacher get any say in who plays behind him?
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.