Cutler ready to lead Bears

Clearly, Jay Cutler is trying to lead the Chicago Bears.

He acted as the de facto coach, organizing offseason workouts

for the offense while the lockout lingered on, and he was the first

to show up for training camp, too.

How far he can take the Bears, though, is the main question, and

the answer largely hinges not on the quarterback but on the rest of

the cast.

There’s that revamped offensive line with six-time Pro Bowl

center Olin Kreutz gone. There’s Roy Williams, hoping he can revive

his career and boost the receiving corps. There’s a new look at

tight end, with Greg Olsen gone and blocker Matt Spaeth in. The mix

at running back now includes Marion Barber, and Adam Podlesh has

replaced Brad Maynard at punter.

There are even a few uncertainties on defense, where Julius

Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are ready to wreak havoc

again. For all that, though, the Bears have most of their core

intact after winning the NFC North at 11-5 and coming within a

victory of the Super Bowl last season.

After that unexpected and difficult run to the conference

championship game, they’re looking for more, and it starts with the

quarterback.

”We are expecting a lot from him, but just not Jay,” coach

Lovie Smith said. ”That’s the thing I’m excited about. We have a

lot of weapons to go to. Our offense has gone through a facelift

and I like the way we look right now.”

The last time the Bears played a meaningful game, Cutler spent

most of the second half on the sideline with a sprained ligament in

his left knee and watched as the Bears lost to Green Bay in the

conference championship game. As if that weren’t painful enough, he

got called out on Twitter by several current and former players who

questioned his toughness.

It’s a new day now, a new season.

Cutler’s knee is fine. There are more pressing concerns at the

moment, and at the top of the list is this: Will he stay on his

feet?

The beating he took last season was well documented. Who can

forget that concussion-inducing nine-sack first half against the

New York Giants at the Meadowlands in early October in which he at

one point started wandering toward the wrong sideline?

Cutler ranked around the middle of the pack in yards passing

(3,274) and completion percentage (60.4), but the number that

stands out is 52. That’s how many times he got sacked because of

poor protection and unbalanced play-calling, particularly in the

early going.

Injuries and poor play forced the Bears to go with four

different lineups the first seven weeks, and they stumbled into

their bye at 4-3. Then, they turned things around. They settled on

a rotation in the trenches and committed more to the run, with

Cutler getting sacked 25 times the rest of the way and Matt Forte

winding up with 1,069 yards rushing.

Now, Kreutz is gone after a messy contract negotiation, creating

a leadership void even if he was no longer at his physical peak.

The Bears are going with Roberto Garza at center after moving him

from right guard rather than starting newcomer Chris Spencer.

Chicago also drafted Gabe Carimi in the first round, but a unit

that ranked dead last in the league last season remains a huge

question mark even if the players and coaches insist they’re in a

much better spot this year.

”I’m more encouraged than I was at this point last year when we

were playing musical lines, you know,” line coach Mike Tice

said.

There are other unknowns, too.

A big one is whether Williams can rediscover the form that made

him a Pro Bowl receiver under offensive coordinator Mike Martz in

Detroit. He’s seeking some redemption after 2 1/2 disappointing

seasons in Dallas.

”He is going to be dynamic for us,” Cutler said. ”He is going

to be good. He is very steady, very consistent in his routes. You

know where he’s going to be. He knows the offense.”

With Williams going deep and Spaeth at tight end, the offense

could have more of a Martz feel to it. That doesn’t necessarily

mean ”The Greatest Show On Sod” will be playing at Soldier Field,

but the Bears might try to open up their offense more – if the

blocking holds up.

On defense, there aren’t too many major concerns. Depth at

linebacker is one, but a group that ranked ninth overall and second

against the run in 2010 is deep up front. The Bears re-signed

tackle Anthony Adams and brought in Amobi Okoye and Vernon

Gholston, hoping they deliver on the promise that made them top 10

draft picks.

”I think we could be great,” Peppers said. ”I think if

everybody continues to work and continues to grind like we have

been doing, I think the sky’s the limit for this group because we

have so much depth and so many guys who can play.”