Optimism rules for Bears

CHICAGO -- The dress rehearsals are over. Time to raise the curtain and start the music.

The longest-running dramatic play east of Steppenwolf Theatre -- "Bears!" -- is set for another 16-week run, and maybe a few encores.

As usual, questions abound. This year, more than ever.

Will this big-budget production bomb on Broadway, er, Lake Shore Drive?

Will resident "diva" Brandon Marshall show up?

Can Jay Cutler prove he's a real leading man?

Is Marc Trestman the director to whip this ragtag group into shape?

Will the defense play to form?

So many questions, so much time to answer during a preseason game.

The first question I posited is the most elemental: How good are the Bears? Are they an 8-8 team, a fraudulent 10-6 team like last year, or a legitimate playoff-caliber team that finally produces a watchable offense?

"I think we see signs of the team we can become," Trestman said after the Bears' 18-16 loss to Cleveland to finish the preseason slate. "We've seen it at training camp. We saw it last week a little bit. The preseason is tough; it's tough to really be conclusive about what you're going to be. But we do have an idea about what we can be. It'll start next Sunday. We're going to find a lot about ourselves the next 16 weeks."

After the last two seasons, we should outlaw any premature jubilation until late November.

Last year, a 7-1 start devolved into a 10-6 finish that cost Lovie Smith his job, and it ended up being the last season of Brian Urlacher's career.

The year before, the Bears looked even better at 7-3 before Cutler's broken thumb spelled doom for general manager Jerry Angelo and offensive genius du jour Mike Martz.

Given the change atop the franchise, it's unfair to judge the offense by the past. This isn't Smith putting a Band-Aid on a persistent wound. In hiring Trestman, general manager Phil Emery changed the paradigm of the organization.

As for Marshall, as former Bears coach Dave Wannstedt would say, "He's got a hip." Also, a lip. Marshall's inner wide receiver came out this week when he complained about progress from his surgically repaired hip. That he did it after a poor preseason game raised metaphorical flags.

That he was given a surprise (to everyone else) vacation in conjunction with his previously scheduled doctor's appointment for said hips raised semaphore flags.

It's not fair, perhaps, but Marshall will always be judged by his past and looked at with caution because of his borderline personality disorder. All the courage he shows by admitting and talking about his problem is dismissed because he's a football player, not a role model.

But I'm not worried about Marshall. Once the lights go on for real, he'll be ready. Marshall might have a few diva qualities, but he's a star worth any drama.

As for his buddy Cutler, I'm equally optimistic. Yes, optimistic.

First off, can the prepackaged storyline here. It's a big stretch to say this is Cutler's last chance, even in a contract year.

Take a look around the NFL and tell me how many good quarterbacks will be available next year. Not "who is better than Cutler," when he ranks between 17-21 in those "Best Quarterback" lists. But who is better who will be available. That fabled rookie class of last year was an outlier.

Every year, a third of the league starts QBs who should be selling insurance somewhere.

So let's end that debate before it begins. But can Cutler realize the potential and at least be ... close to great? I say yes. That, of course, is up to him, but it's also up to Trestman. I'm more confident in the latter to bring it out of the former.

Cutler needed structure and he got it. He needed an offense and he got it.

"The offense is in, and as I said last week standing up in Oakland, those things universally change around the league as the season moves on," Trestman said. "You find different things you do well and then you work around in those areas to find new ways to do the same things because you know you do them well. That's how we'll approach it."

Get that? It means the Bears will be organized and aggressive, a fine combination by me.

While the Bears are starting two rookies on the right side of the line, Kyle Long and Jordan Mills seem up to the task. A lot will depend on their success.

"It all starts up front," Trestman said.

Yes, it does. As for the head coach/offensive coordinator, there is nothing not to like so far. Trestman's system, which is to say a West Coast offense combined with his personal devotion to precision, just works. Players crave order, even if they hate training camp curfews.

"He's very detailed about what he wants done," cornerback Tim Jennings said. "Practice, schedule, meetings. That should carry over onto Sundays. We should be very detailed, very disciplined. Right now, I can see that's what he brings to this team."

The playbook is tough to decipher, but the results aren't. Trestman knows quarterbacking, he knows offense. He isn't shackled to bad coaches or ill-fitting philosophies.

One thing I respect about Trestman is that he's self-confident enough to do things his way but not to turn into a despot.

Plenty of coaches flip out when they get the big job. That's how Cutler got here in the first place.

Trestman kept Smith's defense intact, play calls and all, knowing full well Lovie will get credit if the Bears' defense continues to excel. If Trestman is making power plays behind the scenes, I haven't heard about them. As committed as he is about certain details, he's not Martz, whose rigidity was his fatal flaw.

While there are still questions about how Trestman will handle the head-coaching job -- the Marshall affair was a bit confusing -- the results will decide his future.

As for the defense, even if you haven't watched the preseason games, just watch a tape of last year and imagine a faster, albeit far less intuitive middle linebacker in 54's place.

"We just have to go out and continue where we left off last year," Jennings said.

The only question left is one that doesn't need to be asked: Are the Bears ready for the season to begin?

"I am, man. I'm ready, I'm excited," Jennings said. "Are you guys excited?"

It's the end of August and the season is a week away. What do you think?