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Bears' big three find common ground

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Roy Williams is new here, but he's a quick learner.

The veteran wide receiver is the de facto No. 1 receiver for the franchise where "receivers go to die," and he's a fading star to boot.

The questions bombard him daily. Will he bounce back from a disastrous Cowboys stint? Is he living off his name? And why don't people get his sense of humor?

Williams, a breath of fresh air in an often stagnant locker room, is never lost for confidence, but he gets why he's seen as a question mark going into the season opener this Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons at Soldier Field.

"I totally understand," he said. "I know I played on quote-unquote America's team and everybody watched it and watched what happened down there. And I know it's not a clean slate here until Week 1 is over. Then we'll see what happens."

The idea of rebirth, both personal and communal, is common around this time, especially in a league where annual momentum stalls like the press box Internet at Soldier Field.

A fresh(er) start is still possible, but the past is always at the forefront at Halas Hall, where history is a sore subject and the future is always cloudy with a chance of a Jay Cutler interception.

The Bears are seemingly improved from last year, when they shocked the world with an NFC title-game appearance, but the feeling among, well, everyone, is that the Bears benefited from special-teams dominance and a rejuvenated defense, and mostly, got some lucky breaks.

Now the Bears are a popular pick to finish 8-8.

"I understand it," Williams said. "We like it. We like the Detroit Lions being [picked ahead of the Bears], everybody talking about the Lions. I mean, they deserve it. They're an up-and-coming team, but the Bears aren't going anywhere."

Williams is the unlikely third amigo in the offensive triumvirate that may decide how the Bears follow up last season's remarkable season. The former Detroit Lion turned Dallas bust is playing for his career as a one-year contract guy. In a lot of ways so are his teammates Cutler and Matt Forte.

Cutler's already shaky national reputation was decimated last January in the NFC title game. I'm sick of talking about it and you're sick of talking about it, and Jay is really sick of hearing it and talking about it. But the lingering, existential question of Cutler as franchise quarterback will stick with him all season, if not the rest of his career.

If he comes out like gangbusters, the headline will be: Cutler's Renaissance. If he stumbles, it's: Same Old Story, or Jinxed by January. Either way he moves on, but not away from his past.

For his part he acts like he doesn't care what the media, the fans or anyone else says about him or his team. It's a commendable attitude, if the dominos happen to fall in his favor.

"I don't think the guys in this building really worry about what's happening outside," he said. "There are a lot of distractions, and we've got to take care of business, take care of our jobs first and everything else will fall into place."

With a small army dispatched to cover the Bears on a daily basis, distractions are plentiful, as every nuance of strategy, contract negotiations and team chemistry is publicly dissected on three mediums around the clock.

Cutler, Forte and Williams will be hounded all season long, and all three will have to deal with the pressure to improve the uneven, often unproductive offense from 2010.

Cutler has weapons (Earl Bennett, Devin Hester, Johnny Knox and Williams) at his disposal and a more complete understanding of what Mike Martz wants on offense. The arrow should be pointing up for him, after two pretty bad seasons here.

"We're still figuring things out," Cutler said. "We're still learning by experience. We're gonna mess up some plays. We're gonna have some mental [errors] out there."

At least he's honest, unlike Martz, who often sounds like Paula Abdul judging "American Idol."

While Cutler has to work on being the so-called field general, a role he sometimes seems unsuited for, and Williams simply has to play hard, Forte has to work on preparing each week sans distraction.

Forte is upset, with good reason, with the Bears' front office. The two sides haven't worked out a new deal, and it doesn't look close to getting done. Going into his fourth season playing on his rookie deal, Forte is playing for a relative pittance as the team's featured back.

"I'm a little surprised," he said Wednesday of the deal's absence. "I'm disappointed that it wasn't [done]. Coming into the league you feel like this is supposed to be production based. When you produce in the offense, you expect the team or the organization to actually notice that compared to other guys. We just couldn't meet in the middle, I guess."

Forte said he's not worried about injuries, but the lack of security is a taxing concern, especially at his position, which is marquee and disposable at the same time.

Forte, who picked up 1,039 on only 237 carries and a career-high 547 receiving yards last season, should have bigger numbers this season with a more coherent offensive game plan. The Bears will need him more than ever this weekend, as Marion Barber missed practice with a calf strain. The one-two punch we've been awaiting might just be a solo show.

"At the end of the day if he goes out and has a great year, he's going to get probably more money than he was going to get before," Cutler said. "He's a football player. He knows each Sunday we are expecting a lot from him and he's going to give his best."

Cutler could be speaking about himself, or Williams. All three have something to prove.

Cutler has the money, but little respect outside Halas Hall. Forte gets little money and financial respect from his bosses. Williams once had big paychecks and a bold-faced name, and now he's in limbo.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once opined there are no second acts in American lives. Three Bears will try to disprove that at least 16 times this season.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.