CHICAGO – There were the check-downs to running backs, and the quick-hitters in the flats. There were mid-range routes to the tight ends and conservative slants and drags to Devin Hester(notes). To the naked eye, the first day of the Jay Cutler(notes) era looked a lot like, well, the last day of the Kyle Orton(notes) era.
But the details, that's what has the Chicago Bears excited in this embryonic stage.
There is still a long climb ahead with Cutler's installation process.
There is still plenty of terminology to sort through, and a myriad of timing issues. But when the Bears opened day one of their organized team activities last week, there was more than enough to fall in love with: the way the ball snapped off Cutler's palm at the end of his progressions; his ability to move when the pocket was breached; his quick delivery allowing receivers the time to turn upfield. Even the way he carried himself – radiating command and confidence.
"It seems like he's been playing quarterback since he was like 3 years old," said Hester. "You can tell a guy that has been playing quarterback since he's been in Pop Warner. No position changes for him – from the moment he stepped on the football field, that's all he did was play quarterback. It shows."
Whether it will carry over to the rest of the Bears offense – that's the massive undertaking of this offseason. Engineering a trade that shook up the NFC North and netting this franchise's best quarterback since Sid Luckman was one thing. Getting that quarterback to realize his value with uncertain parts is quite another.
And the certain parts are aplenty. Beyond Greg Olsen(notes) and Desmond Clark(notes) at tight end, Chicago is gambling on considerable growth at almost every other position on offense. The wide receivers return two players – two – that caught a pass in the NFL last season. The offensive line continues to be a work in progress, in spite of the acquisition of aging left tackle Orlando Pace(notes) and the healthy return of last year's first-round pick, right tackle Chris Williams(notes). Even running back Matt Forte(notes), who was Chicago's offensive centerpiece last season, is working on improving a 3.9 yards per carry average.
Now all of those concerns are transferred to the shoulders of Cutler, who is already staring into blinding expectations. Whether he can meet those expectations has as much to do with his ability to raise the level of play of those around him as it does his own performance. Because while the organization has been diplomatic about last season's quarterbacks, one of the primary criticisms was that 2008 starter Kyle Orton didn't have the tools to make the rest of the offense exponentially better. Cutler, on the other hand, is embraced by fans as a sort of savior – as if John Wayne just ambled into town clutching his Winchester.
"Yes, the quarterback can definitely upgrade the talent around him," said Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner. "That's part of the quarterback's job. And that's not a knock on the guys we had. Kyle last year did a great job for us. He played some really good football. Now Jay will come in and do some different things. He'll definitely be able to elevate the play around him. But the guys have to step up. We're not going to all of the sudden be good because Jay Cutler walks into the room."
Yet, in spite of Cutler's talents and self assurance, the wideouts and offensive line might be the pivot points to next season. The line has a solid mix of veteran and young talent, particularly between the trio of Pace, Williams and center Olin Kreutz(notes). But if Pace can't be a dependable cornerstone at left tackle, the rest of the group is going to struggle to be remarkably better than it was last year.
The 33-year-old future Hall of Famer showed in the first workout that he still has lateral quickness and handwork in the passing game. But until the Bears put pads on in training camp, it will be impossible to know if past knee issues have robbed him of the ability to maul in the running game.
"I believe he can still be that [run blocker]," Turner said. "He's still a good football player. He's got some time left in him. I don't know how much, but at least a couple of years in my opinion. He's moving really well. You can see his health."
Added Pace, "I feel really good – great, actually. This is the best I've felt in four years. They have a really good strength program. It's helping me clean a lot of stuff out, a lot of pains in my body out. I do a lot more stretching than I ever have in the past. I probably get stretched every day now. I'm just really taking care of my body more than ever and training a lot differently."
The upside is Pace's quantifiable amount of talent and experience. Cutler won't have that luxury with his wideouts, which showcase a No. 1 wideout who has yet to fully grow into that role (Hester), a battle for No. 2 between players who haven't caught a single NFL pass (Earl Bennett(notes) and Juaquin Iglesias(notes)) and a solid slot receiver (Rashied Davis(notes)) who stands 5-foot-9. It's a far cry from the dynamic pairing of Brandon Marshall(notes) and Eddie Royal(notes) that Cutler worked with in Denver.
For that reason alone, it stands to reason that three of Chicago's top four pass catchers next season won't be receivers. Instead, seasoned tight ends in Olsen and Clark, as well as Forte in an expanded role in the passing game, figure to be the primary receiving options. So for all the talk about Cutler's arm strength and opening up the offense, the Bears are just as likely to depend on the running game and two tight end sets to flourish.
"We're going to run the ball," Cutler said. "I think I've learned the hard way [that] you've got to run the ball and you have to stop the run to get anywhere in this league and make the playoffs and make a push for the Super Bowl. That's not going to change, especially here in December with the wind and the weather. You're going to have to be able to grind out those four- and five-yard runs."
Certainly, that's not what Chicago fans had in mind when the Bears dealt two first-round picks, a third-rounder and Orton in exchange for Cutler and a fifth-round pick. Despite throwing for 4,526 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, it may be his accuracy and ability to get players the ball quickly that defines his play in his first year with the Bears. The gun-slinging and game-breaking plays will have to wait until the rest of the talent on offense catches up – or Cutler finds a way to speed the process along himself.
"I knew coming into it," he said, "anytime a team wants to make a trade like that, and give up what they gave up, it's going to be a lot of pressure and high expectations. I welcome it."