BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Training camp is for the true believers.
Why else would anyone trek to Kankakee County, seemingly located in the suburbs on the sun, to watch a glorified practice, if they didn't believe?
The diehards came out en masse for the Chicago Bears' first full practice of the summer session Thursday night, cheering lustily -- "Throw it to Andy Fantuz!!!" -- with at least half the crowd was wearing a jersey of some sort. That's impressive. Even in the cooler evening weather, this was not jersey weather. But they believe, so they dress like football pilgrims.
Jay Cutler's No. 6 was easily the most ubiquitous jersey. All the tumult from the way last season ended seemingly forgotten. Everyone wants to believe this Cutler is the Cutler the Bears traded for two years ago. There has been no shortage of Schadenfreude aimed at Cutler lately, from the NFC Championship Game to his recent public breakup with Kristin Cavallari. A lot of it is fair, a lot of it is not. This is a make-or-break season for Cutler's image, and maybe his career, and there are reasons (line play, general intransigence) to think this year could be every bit as challenging as the last two. But when Cutler drops back, footloose and fancy-free, and fires that $50 million arm, you want to believe in him. The talent is just too enticing.
Going into the real start of camp, we consumed the usual storylines from the first week: Cutler is in the best shape of his life. Cutler is ready to make the leap. Cutler only cares about football now.
This is training camp. Reporters may be tweeting play-by-play nowadays, but the themes remains the same from Sid Luckman's days.
But at the same time, Cutler did look pretty good. He threw lasers, threaded the needle, checked his progressions. There were hiccups too, underthrows, overthrows, what-was-that throws. He had a normal practice, and that was what was so encouraging.
I guess after Cutler's Last Stand against Green Bay, followed by the lockout, any game action was encouraging.
After facing the worst scrutiny of his career -- worse even than his exit from Denver -- maybe the burden of being Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears quarterback, can be lifted. Maybe he can just be.
"It's Year 2 [in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's system], it's completely different," he said. "It's night and day. I feel a lot more comfortable with the reads and where I'm going with the ball. So it's just a matter of getting the offensive line worked out and getting me and the receivers' timing. We're kind of playing catch up. We don't really have a lot of time with no OTAs and just getting these guys after six practices. We've got to make it happen pretty quickly."
Because I'm sane, I didn't keep stats during a practice, but I can say Cutler's best throw was probably late in the practice session, a perfectly timed strike to Devin Hester, who ran a deep route in the slot. Cutler hit him just over his inside shoulder in perfect stride.
"He's so much more comfortable in the system," Cutler said of Hester. "He's not thinking. In this system, if you think, you're not going to be very effective."
Cutler could be talking about himself too. Like most NFL quarterbacks, Cutler is seemingly at his worst when he's deliberating in the pocket. The game moves too fast at this level.
Earlier in practice, Cutler was showing Hester how to fix a poorly run route after an incompletion. It wasn't a pat on the butt, but rather expressive, instructional body language. That's what Lovie Smith likes to see.
"He's in the position now where we need a guy like to him to help the receivers come along," Smith said.
Aside from his passing, Cutler looks like he's in great shape, physically. His face is noticeably thinner, and can now apparently break out in a smile. I guess he's not loading up on the post-breakup gelato. What's his secret? Just sushi and eluding paparazzi?
"Just ran a little more, my diet was a lot different," he said. "Just standard stuff. I'm getting a little bit older so I gotta get in a little better shape."
Martz, who has done little but rave about his pupil in the last year, publicly at least, marveled at Cutler's improved footwork this week. In one of his few public critiques of Cutler last season, Martz discussed Cutler's footwork flaws before the NFC Championship Game.
"You can't go through a lifetime with those kinds of habits and fix them in one season," Martz said then.
So how did Cutler improve that aspect of his game without any contact with his coaches during the lockout?
"It's hard, but this system kind of requires it," he said. "If you can't do what he wants, it's going to be hard to be effective in this system. So you just have to think about it, really go back and look at yourself and break it down, step by step. We threw a lot this offseason with the guys, and they did a great job. And I came back in pretty good shape and it's paying off for me."
As for his exact method of improvement, Cutler's keeping it a secret.
"I like kind of keeping him on edge," Cutler said of Martz, with a genuine smile. "I'm not even going to tell him exactly what I did, so I can have that up on him, because he knows pretty much everything else."
Practice was a little rough as the newly-signed players were working for their first time after the CBA was officially approved by the union earlier in the day. Cutler's new target, Roy Williams could be a fan favorite with his blend of rare athleticism, or he could go in the tank, drop every third ball thrown his way, and be Carlos Boozer's successor as town goat.
Cutler is thinking positive.
"He's going to be dynamic for us," he said. "He's going to be good. He's very steady, very dynamic in his routes. You know where he's going to be. He knows the offense, I'm excited about him."
Cutler got some work behind his new offensive line as well, and if Julius Peppers and Co. were allowed to hit the quarterback, it might have gotten ugly. Roberto Garza was Cutler's center, as Olin Kreutz looks for work elsewhere.
For all the talk about footwork and big targets, the play of the line will ultimately decide the direction Cutler's career takes this year.
"We've got four guys who have played a significant amount of football for us," Cutler said. "You add one new guy at right tackle and he's [the] first-round pick, so we're expecting big things out of him. Those guys, I think they might surprise some people."
Like I said, training camp is for the believers.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.