BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – The subject was the past. Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman was not talking about his current team, but as he spoke on the fields at Olivet Nazarene University this week, the same idea of success kept coming up.
"Your quarterback has to play at an efficient level," he said.
He must have said the words four or five times, each coming as a qualifier for what can make a head coach seem brilliant. If a football life has taught Trestman anything it's that the most important player is the starting quarterback and therefore a coach's most significant relationship is with that player.
And finally Jay Cutler might have a legitimate chance to succeed in Chicago.
For years the Bears have shoved new offenses and new offensive coordinators at Cutler under the guidance of Lovie Smith, a head coach who was devoted to defense. Nothing can destroy a quarterback more than dumping a new playbook every spring, its pages filled with new diagrams and paragraphs, every play called something different than the year before.
Most quarterbacks will tell you it takes about three years to really learn an offense, finally understanding its subtleties and complications until the whole thing becomes automatic. Part of the reason Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have dominated the NFL for so many years is that they have almost never changed offenses. Their springs are spent showing new players the right pass routes and not trying to figure out if a tight end cuts left or right on a particular play.
And while, yes, the Bears are pushing another new system at Cutler, it is one that should be comfortable for him. It is fast-paced, filled with quick passes that benefit a quarterback who can make split-second decisions. It allows the quarterback to look at defenses and call something else. It puts control in the quarterback's hands. It should make Cutler look very good.
On Tuesday the quarterback acknowledged as much. He said he is growing accustomed with a new system that he sees benefiting himself.
"I'm trying to get the ball out of my hands as fast as possible," he said.
Chicago loves to complain about Cutler but he also hasn't had a great opportunity to thrive here, not the way he did in Denver when he threw for 4,526 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2008 and appeared destined to be on that list everyone likes to keep about quarterbacks. The one that described with a single, nebulous word: "elite."
Cutler had time to grow with his first coach, Mike Shanahan in Denver. He learned the offense John Elway used to win two Super Bowls and looked ready to take the next step toward greatness. At the time Shanahan was sure he had his offense at a championship level. It was his defense that needed fixing. A few alterations and he was sure Denver would be playing on the first Sunday in February. He was in the process of assessing the defensive changes he wanted to make when he was fired. And in a way, Cutler has never recovered.
For those who wonder if a rotation of new coordinators truly bothers a quarterback, it does. Each change is an earthquake rattling the foundation of everything they knew and believed. By changing the system year after year in Chicago, Cutler drifted farther and farther away from the player he was under Shanahan and into a decent but flawed passer who would not be described as "elite."
In a way, the Bears have no choice but for Cutler to succeed. Trestman has always had a great reputation for working with quarterbacks. He is a cerebral coach, one who believes in establishing trust and a relationship before filling his passers with pages of squiggly lines in a playbook. No quarterback has looked more in need of a coach like this than Cutler.
If Trestman can continue to nurture Cutler, working his quarterback in a system that draws out the best of his skills and makes him feel the offense is his, the Bears can be dangerous.
"You don't find many good coaches who aren't surrounded by good quarterbacks and efficient quarterback play," Trestman said.
While many in Chicago cringed when Cutler was intercepted at the start of his first preseason game last weekend, Trestman was encouraged by Cutler's response to his initial failure and moved the offense for the rest of his time on the field. As the trust builds bit by bit, the coach-quarterback bond seals in a way it hasn't for Cutler and a coach in years. At age 30 and in the last year of his contract, Cutler is now much closer to being where he was with Shanahan so many years ago.
He has an advocate. More importantly, that advocate is giving him an offense in which he can thrive.
Which is what Jay Cutler has needed all along.
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