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 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 2½ 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.”