Cutler's 2014: Rubber meets road

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Call me a cynic, but I'm not sold on Chris Conte at safety for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

Call me a pessimist, but I'm not buying Shea McClellin at linebacker for a team that just wants to make the playoffs.

Call me a columnist, but if this Chicago Bears defense ranks in the top half of the NFL this season, I'll order ribs for the entire Bears media corps from the Double Nickel Smokehouse.

Now, you can call me a true believer, because I think it's finally, mercifully Jay Cutler's year to be the new, improved Jay Cutler.

Stop me if you've heard that the past four years. But this time it's true!

I'm not talking about the 31-year-old quarterback having his best half-season, or the "best stretch of his Bears career," but his best season, from Sunday at home against Buffalo until who knows when.

What's my meaningless season prediction, you ask? I've got the Bears going 9-7 this year. I know, super-bold take.

Maybe they make the playoffs, maybe they just miss out. That depends on other teams. Could this team win a playoff game? Sure. Will the Bears make a Super Bowl? Doubtful. Again, it's all about the breaks.

And stop me if you're heard this 10,000 times the past few months, but with this defense and special teams, the Bears will need more breaks than Kurtis Blow.

They will also need steady, consistent performance from an offense that is overflowing with promise.

A lot of that promise will depend on the offensive line, and the health of second-year right tackle Jordan Mills.

But all things remaining constant, I'm sure -- well, pretty sure -- that Cutler will finally marry potential with production in his second year with Marc Trestman, Aaron Kromer and the gang.

MVP talk is just for passing time in a 24/7 NFL conversation. Let's see Cutler get the Bears into playoff position again.

We met with Cutler on Thursday at Halas Hall, and there was nothing to grill him about, no reason for pessimism. It was a superficial chat about the Buffalo Bills' defense and the promise of a new season.

He's trying to stay away from the noise -- "I'm not on Twitter or Instagram, so that helps," he said -- and he's trying to be that Zen athlete coaches crave, focusing on the now rather than the future.

But for all the talk about Cutler's maturation, his attitude and nebulous concepts like "leadership" and "locker-room presence," the real key to him realizing his potential is his ability to do the little things the right way, over and over again.

It's boring, but true. Cutler shouldn't just be judged on standard season benchmarks, such as throwing for 4,000 yards, but rather on how he handles every drop back and every read. So far, so good, say his bosses.

"What we're seeing is consistency from Jay in his technique and his ability to communicate the offense," said Kromer, the offensive coordinator. "He's really grown in that way. He's put a lot of hard work into what you've seen in the games, as far as his drops and his precision with his technique and his throws."

Head coach Trestman expounded on this topic.

"Jay's worked very hard on fundamentals and techniques, and drops," Trestman said. "Part of this offense is really bringing clarity and definition to drops and the rhythm of these throws and how they play out, not only under center, but in the [shotgun], because there's differences in drops and the rhythm and the types of drops we take because we're taking the snap at 4½ yards instead of under center. So these are all things that with a year under our belts, we feel like we've been able to have a little more expertise in those areas. That should help us in our productivity."

Shorter: Jay's not as sloppy as he used to be, and that's a good thing.

Of course, it takes more than a Cutler to raise an offense. This is Trestman's show, and general manager Phil Emery traded for Brandon Marshall, drafted Alshon Jeffery and cobbled together a competent offensive line. Matt Forte is one of the best backs in the league.

But there's a reason Cutler got paid a week after last season ended.

"Any time you've got good players around you, the better you're going to play, but it all starts with you," Kromer said of Cutler. "He said, 'I've got to work on my drops, I need to understand where the offensive line is protecting me. I've got to be able to climb the pocket and stay safe within the pocket. I need to trust the protection and trust these combination of plays and just go out there and play.' "

The Bears plan on playing faster, and that's often where you've seen Cutler get frustrated in the past, when his coaches and teammates can't catch up. Remember his looks when Mike Martz was sending down "Infinite Jest"-length play calls?

But now the Bears' offense is seemingly in harmony. Time has slowed down even as the unit speeds it up.

"There's definitely a confidence being in our huddle knowing we've been through a lot of situations," Cutler said. "Everyone has a good feel and we like working together."

Aside from the occasional boast from Marshall, everyone associated with the offense projects an aura of quiet confidence. This feels like a special group capable of breaking through past disappointments.

But what will the defense do? That's a column for another time. Say, Sunday against Buffalo.