CHICAGO — In the old days, before a new $126 million contract eased the pressure and a second son added perspective, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler responded to questions about his maturation as well as he did receivers who ran the wrong routes.
Cutler typically exuded smugness with a trademark smirk. He might have looked away. He definitely dismissed any notion he needed to change.
But after the Bears’ first minicamp practice this week, a day full of vague football conversation, Cutler did something remarkable. He sounded like a guy who finally understood watching hours of videotape isn’t as valuable for a starting quarterback as taking a long, hard look at himself. Asked how he was different entering his sixth season in Chicago — as reporters braced for the usual brush-off — Cutler instead expanded his answer to indicate introspection seldom associated with No. 6.
“There are a lot of factors involved in that,” Cutler said thoughtfully Tuesday. “Looking back at my younger days in Denver and even when I first got here, you do some things that are foolish and you regret, and I think anyone does that.”
True, but in his checkered past Cutler was more likely to admit a poor throw than bad body language, just one sign of the immaturity he referenced. In his first news conference since January, Cutler openly attached recent personal growth to his marriage to Kristin Cavallari and fatherhood. He invoked the growing influence of family men Phil Emery and Marc Trestman. He credited the quality of the work environment for making him a better man.
“Just kind of the way everyone operates forces you to grow up,” Cutler said.
At 31, with the football world at his feet, Chicago’s most polarizing athlete appears all grown up now. Long may the likable version of Cutler last. Maybe it won’t once the defenses start blitzing and the offense stops moving the ball as well as many expect, but this apparent shift in Cutler’s public persona bodes well for everybody in a town he could own if the Bears win. Content quarterbacks often make stronger leaders.
“The ‘it’ factor is a prerequisite to play quarterback in the NFL,” Trestman said.
Better late than never, Cutler finally seems to grasp what it is. Can anybody recall a time Cutler was as relatable as he was describing the happy chaos created by the addition of Jaxon, born May 7, to a home that includes 22-month-old Camden?
“Going from one to two (children) is a little different (and) for anyone who has kids, I’m sure that you know,” Cutler said. “You go from zone defense to man-to-man. It has been hectic, but it has been fun.”
Speaking of fun, that was Cutler in the middle of a group “selfie” in south Florida when Bears teammates gathered for male-bonding disguised as conditioning. That was Cutler explaining why he and Trestman flew to New York to meet with ethicist Dov Seidman about improving the locker-room culture. That was Cutler thanking reporters for promoting his charity volleyball tournament July 18 and deflecting praise for restructuring his contract to free up salary-cap space to sign defensive end Jared Allen.
“I got some credit for that, but I didn’t really do much,” Cutler said. “They said, ‘Do you want the money now?’ I said, ‘Yeah. Absolutely.’ It was good for the team.”
The best thing for the Bears remains a healthy Cutler or else it won’t matter how well Emery rebuilt the defense. Durability has been an even bigger problem recently than volatility for Cutler. Laughing beat crying so Cutler kidded that he never worried about injuries until encountering the “hit parade” after joining the Bears. That trend made No. 2 quarterback perhaps the offense’s biggest offseason need.
Josh McCown, portrayed as the patron saint of backup quarterbacks since his departure, left a void the Bears — for reasons that escape me — believe Jordan Palmer can fill. They also drafted sixth-round project David Fales. And in the smartest move involving Cutler’s potential backup, Emery signed former Panther quarterback Jimmy Clausen.
There was a time Cutler would have passed on a chance to offer encouragement for a younger player rebuilding his career like Clausen. Apparently, times have changed with Cutler.
“I watched Jimmy at Notre Dame, liked him,” Cutler said. “He was in a tough situation out there in Carolina. Offensive line was pretty rough. He was in the quarterback room over the weekend three straight days grinding, trying to figure out this offense. He’s a little bit humbled going through the experience of being on the streets and getting picked up again. He has a good attitude.”
The way Cutler described Clausen, the role of mentor surprisingly fit as comfortably as the gray sweatshirt he was wearing.
It will take some getting used to for everyone outside Halas Hall, but it’s a good look.