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Cutler's fate with Bears in Trestman's hands

The SportsXchange

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Jay Cutler enters the final season of his Chicago Bears contract with no guarantees.

As he is about to define his legacy in Chicago, the 30-year-old quarterback begins a union with cerebral head coach Marc Trestman in a crossroads season with no ready-made road map, or even enough absolute data for a GPS.

"The No. 1 marriage in all of sports is the marriage between his quarterback and his coach," Trestman said. "It starts there. There has to be a connection and an element of professional trust.

"We don't have that yet, certainly, but there are indications we got started in the right place. We are going to have two passionate guys in the room trying to win games for the Chicago Bears, and that's a pretty good start."

Opinions vary on whether the unbridled Cutler and the maniacally regimented Trestman are capable of quickly forming a winning partnership in what will be graded on a pass-fail curve by the first-year head coach and Bears' management.

Cutler isn't new to the West Coast offense -- that scheme which incorporates multiple-receiver sets, an abundance of motion and pre-snap shifting by tight ends and backs and even some of Trestman's CFL playbook. If the Bears are in contention in the NFC North, as expected, Cutler stands to benefit richly from the success. If the Trestman-Cutler marriage is a flop, Cutler could get his chance -- and contract -- elsewhere.

General manager Phil Emery told Cutler and many other notable veterans, including Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman, that all contract business would be shelved until the end of the season. This pushes the chips to Cutler, who undoubtedly is willing to bet on himself and the hand Trestman deals him this year. The going rate for winning quarterbacks with spring-loaded throwing arms is nine figures, as Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, Joe Flacco and Aaron Rodgers can attest.

"Mom used to always say it takes two to tango, or it's a two-way street," former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon told The Sports Xchange before the Bears' camp began. Gannon, was a Trestman pupil with the Oakland Raiders, (NFL MVP, Super Bowl 2002) and Minnesota Vikings.

"Being down there, talking to Marc and talking to Jay, I get the sense that he realizes this is a really unique opportunity for him," Gannon said of Cutler. "If he goes out and does all of the things he's capable of, it's going to be a great fit."

Cutler enters August in a position comparable to where Flacco was going into the 2012 season. Flacco didn't hear a contract offer he liked for the Ravens and, as a lame duck with an expiring rookie deal, gave the rest of the league the Super Bowl ring finger, netted a $119 million contract and made clear he stands with the NFL's elite.

The decision to pay Cutler would signal a seismic shift in organizational philosophy for a franchise built with defense as its backbone. It's also reasonable to assess that the continued investments in Cutler's supporting cast show that the Bears have already decided he's the long-term answer.

Cutler, entering his eighth season, was rapt with attention and fully invested during Gannon's time with the team. The diverse offense might not hum in September; this is Cutler's fourth offensive system since coming to Chicago from Denver before the 2009 season.

There is a considerable weight on the perennially remodeled offensive line to carry the quarterback through a full season without the need of a gurney or concussion test. But he won't have the three years he said he needs to fully ingest Trestman's offense.

"The quarterback is going to have the keys to the car," Trestman said. "He's in the best situation before the snap of the ball to get us in the best play.

"Jay is not a first-year player coming in. He's an experienced NFL quarterback, and a very intelligent one. There are times we will allow him to (audible) because it's in the best interest of the offense and the team to do it. There are other plays we don't want him to. But we're going to put him in position where he's protecting the football when he's running the play."

A fortuitous twist of fate for Cutler is that he's no stranger to the type of system Trestman has installed and will continue to implement during three-hour long morning practices in training camp to maximize his most important player's summer school session.

"Here's the thing I think has been compromised with hits he's taken, all of the sacks: if you don't have protection you trust, you see it in a quarterback's feet first," Gannon said. "That's one of the things I mentioned to him. His lower half is sloppy. The other thing I worry about is he has spent so much time in the (shot)gun.

"Quarterbacks who spend so much time in the gun -- everything gets quicker, sped up. You get lazy with your feet, and now the launch point changes significantly. The set point behind the tackles is different. Repetition is the mother of learning, I learned that a long time ago in Latin, and that's what this training camp is about."

And as a former law school student, Trestman is probably familiar with the Latin phrase -- repetitio est mater studiorum -- but he is a published author in English. But as the team's play-caller, he will probably lean on the latter language, along with various football colloquialisms.

His review of Cutler's past performance is overwhelming in its detail and staggering in its breadth. Since meeting Cutler before the 2006 draft to work on the then-Vanderbilt quarterback's mechanics -- they spent two days holed up in a motel because of torrential rain -- Trestman has evaluated most of Cutler's 2,955 career pass attempts.

The first order of business this summer has been programming Cutler to take better care of the ball. His 100 career interceptions and 32 fumbles, are woeful totals Gannon sees as a sign Cutler doesn't trust his blocking. It's not a difficult equation to understand: Four seasons, 148 sacks.

"Early in his career in Denver," said Gannon, pointing to the time period Trestman liked about Cutler's NFL performance, which is when Mike Shanahan was his coach. Conversely, Gannon added: "I don't think the fit with him was good with (Mike) Martz," referring to the Bears' offensive coordinator in 2010 and 2011 who was oft criticized for aggressive play-calling that put an unreasonable burden -- and pass rushers -- on Cutler.

"You get hit like that so much, a great quarterback becomes a good one; A good one becomes a decent one," Gannon said. "That's been the case with Jay.

As much as I like Mike Tice, I don't think that worked," he added, naming the Bears' offensive play-caller last year. "Again, he's getting hit, adjusting protection every down. This is his chance to start over, and pick up where he was with this system with (Mike) Shanahan."

Gannon's pointed opinion should count from an educated, though moderately invested perspective. He also has experience playing for offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, the former New Orleans Saints assistant brought in whip the offensive line into shape.

Molding the front five is expected to be simplified with the signing of left tackle Jermon Bushrod to a five-year, $35.9 million contract. A Kromer project out of Towson in New Orleans, Bushrod became a starter and linchpin in the Saints' protection of Drew Brees.

That offense thrived with three- and four-wide receiver sets but also with downhill running. In the past two offseasons, the Cutler-centric remodel includes wide receiver Brandon Marshall, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, tight end Martellus Bennett, left guard Matt Slauson, right guard Kyle Long and running back Michael Bush.

"Kromer and everyone else involved, and Marc, they have a great understanding of how to get guys open, how to protect the football, how to open up gaps in the run game," Cutler said.

Cutler appears to be all in, working overtime with Trestman on the field and behind closed doors. He's quizzed Gannon and others about the system's intricacies -- drilling to the point of knowing what Trestman wants on specific plays run against a certain type of defense on a particular down -- and working with a winning attitude.

"It's his chance, he knows, to be a part of this and to buy in, be a very productive quarterback, a leader and earn the trust of his teammates," Gannon said.

Statistically, Cutler is worth the investment. Emery has thrice repeated his stance that Cutler is a franchise quarterback. He has two 10-win seasons, and will earn $8.47 million in base salary in 2013. But Emery mustn't rush to the negotiating table.

The numbers that dog Cutler aren't camouflaged by his physical gifts. Trestman might be capable of rewiring some of Cutler's pre-snap process, even calm him when game plans implode. He's drawn greatness out of lesser quarterbacks and has strong endorsements from quarterbacks for his innovative approach and QB-first ways, from Bernie Kosar to Steve Young, Gannon to Jake Plummer and even the out-of-nowhere 32-TD season by Scott Mitchell in Detroit (1995).

Cutler understands the high-stakes nature of this contract year, but he won't call it a crossroads.

"It's another season, it's the same goal in mind," Cutler said. "There are some different circumstances this season but it's not going to change my mindset."

His future in Chicago depends on him changing the result.

"I think If I'm the general manager, I want this staff to evaluate and determine if he is (a $100 million quarterback)," Gannon said. "There's two kinds of players in this league -- those that feel pressure and those that apply it. I don't think he's the type of player that plays for money. In the end, it's going to be up to Jay."
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