NFL

Cutler gives Bears hope in NFC North, beyond

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Bourbonnais, Ill.

Come here to the training camp of the Chicago Bears and immediately you witness the fans' love affair with No. 6, quarterback Jay Cutler. They were 12,000 strong on Sunday, reminding me of the attention Mike Ditka's Super Bowl heroes generally attracted in the amphitheater-like hills surrounding the team's two fields in its former Platteville, Wis. playground more than 20 years ago. The enthusiasm is back for the Bears, thanks to Cutler's rocket arm and Pro Bowl stature. Yes, the Bears pulled off the coup of the offseason and they were pretty sneaky about it. The Washington Redskins — and specifically executive of football operations Vinny Cerrato — were caught napping, believing they were the sole, major bidder for Cutler's services. "I knew they had no idea we were involved in the Cutler deal when one of their guys called offering to trade us Jason Campbell," said a Bears executive. "They knew we liked Campbell, but didn't know we liked Cutler a lot more." Even Cutler thought he was going to Washington while begging out of Denver. "I heard you and Shanny (Mike Shanahan) were a package deal," I said to Cutler. "Well," he said, "that was one of the rumors." It was more than a rumor. "You're right," Cutler said. "I thought it was going to happen, too." The bottom line, though, is that Cutler is very happy to be a Bear even if Shanahan isn't his coach. He's closer to his Indiana home now and the fans love him and his offensive teammates love him. There was a story that Mr. Bear, linebacker Brian Urlacher, questioned Cutler's manhood, calling him something worse than a wimp. But both players immediately denied there was any friction, even though Cutler's jerseys have a chance to out-sell Urlacher's for the first time. "I would never go face to face with Brian Urlacher," Cutler said when the story broke last week. "I've hung out with Brian away from the facility numerous times, and we've always got along. There's nothing between us, so let's put that to rest. When I talked to him (last Wednesday), we both laughed about it." The popular consensus around the NFL is that Cutler gives Chicago a great chance to win the NFC North and go deep into the playoffs if the young receivers improve along with the much-maligned defense, one that surrendered 20 or more points 11 times last season. With the Broncos, Cutler was 12-1 when Denver's defense allowed 21 or fewer points. There is so much riding on Cutler that his former Vanderbilt receiver, Earl Bennett, who failed to catch a pass as a rookie last season, has been moved into the starting lineup opposite Devin Hester. In Cutler's senior year, Bennett caught a freshmen record 79 passes. Cutler thought so much of Bennett that the two regularly worked out in the offseason and Cutler made a point of returning to Nashville to serve as his quarterback on Bennett's pro-day workout for NFL scouts. "(Bennett) saved me a couple of times when I made a bad throw," Cutler said of that workout. "He plays a lot like a bigger receiver (Bennett is 6-foot, 204 pounds) while being deceptively fast. He's stronger than most, too." Already Cutler has been practicing on getting the ball out quickly to Hester, allowing the all-world kick returner to use his natural open-field moves and speed to make big plays. The excitement over Cutler's arrival has spread around the skilled players, especially tight end Greg Olsen. Asked if he's thinking of receiving stats in line with Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten, Olsen said yes. Last season, do-everything rookie running back Matt Forte led the Bears in receptions with 63; Olsen was second with 54. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner, who is excited about Cutler's arm and deep ball accuracy, believes Olsen could have a really big season. "He's playing a lot faster and with a lot more confidence," Turner said of Olsen. "We plan on utilizing him a lot because he can run and catch like a wide receiver. He's an intelligent player with that great 6-5 size." The Bears might be using a four-wide formation when Cutler is in shotgun, but two of those receivers could be Olsen and fellow tight end Desmond Clark. Chicago is still counting on Rashied Davis to be the nickel receiver although he could be pushed by the two rookie draft choices, Oklahoma's Juaquin Iglesias and speedster Johnny Knox from Abilene Christian.
The excitement over Cutler and these receivers makes some sense if Turner is right about the state of Chicago's offensive line. Turner believes that ex-Ram Orlando Pace appears to be his formidable self at left tackle despite entering his 13th season, with last year's No. 1 pick Chris Williams starting at right tackle. There is finally some depth with guard Dan Buenning (Tampa Bay) and tackle Kevin Shaffer (Cleveland). Olin Kreutz is a blood-and-guts leader type at center to go with unappreciated Roberta Garza and ex-Carolina Panther Frank Omiyale at guard. "I really think we're going to be able to protect him and make some big plays," Turner said. When talking to Turner, Cutler, Olsen and Bennett, there seems to be no defusing the hype about Chicago's new passing game. "Well, I don't really think I will be throwing it 600 times (616 to be exact with the Broncos in '08) this season," Cutler said. "I know what you're saying is that this is Lovie Smith's team. But one good thing is coach Turner will be calling the plays. We'll have a chance to open it up." Told of Cutler's statement, Turner laughed, saying that might be stretching it a bit. "I still have to answer to the head coach," he said. "If not on game days, pretty soon after that." Yes, the Bears, with Kyle Orton, attempted 528 passes vs. 434 running plays last season. But knowing coach Smith, his style has always been run the ball first and play defense while mindful of field position. So, are the Bears really going to turn into a passing team like New Orleans and Indianapolis and Arizona? "Well, we play in Chicago and my answer is that we won't be a passing team," Lovie Smith said. "Of course, I want to be able to pass effectively. But the Chicago Bears are about running the ball and playing great defense."
Tagged: Falcons, Bears, Cowboys, Broncos, Redskins, Olin Kreutz, Brian Urlacher, Desmond Clark, Tony Gonzalez, Orlando Pace, Kevin Shaffer, Jason Witten, Jason Campbell, Kyle Orton, Dan Buenning, Frank Omiyale, Rashied Davis, Jay Cutler, Devin Hester, Greg Olsen, Chris Williams, Matt Forte, Earl Bennett, Juaquin Iglesias, Johnny Knox

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