To the untrained eye, the most impressive thing about quarterback Jay Cutler's improvement in the second year of coach Marc Trestman's offense surfaced in exhibition games before the ball was even snapped.
It was hard to quantify but easy to notice. With each game the implied progress became more obvious, a subtle but significant detail that suggested how much more control Cutler possesses. The play clock seldom ticked into single digits. There was structure and certainty. Less haste by the quarterback meant more pace for the Bears offense.
"We have it all in terms of being able to manage the flow of the game through different tempos, which means get up to the line quickly and run a play or take our time out of the huddle and use the clock," Trestman said.
The Bears finally "have it all" thanks to Cutler's improved command. Football masochists who watched replays of the Bears-Seahawks exhibition blowout saw Cutler approach the line, diagnose the defense and call the signal more quickly and confidently than before in similarly hostile environments. Memories of road disasters against the Packers and Giants come to mind first, but the offense has endured other hurry-up-and-wait-for-something-bad-to-happen games.
As long as Cutler has been a Bear, the offense traditionally has been forced to make too many snaps a race against time and the 25-second clock — especially away from home. But, in a football paradox, slowing the game down as much as Cutler has will allow the Bears to speed up their offensive rhythm if they choose.
Cutler's preseason, pre-snap composure at the line could be a product of defenses not game-planning for exhibition games or a sign of the quarterback's growth. Lean toward the latter. Managing the play clock more efficiently is just the latest example of how Cutler, now 31 and heading into his ninth season, continues to evolve as an NFL quarterback above the shoulders.
Cynics scoffed at summertime observations of a more mature Cutler, but those characteristics have carried over onto the field, giving the Bears a more poised pocket passer who trusts everything around him. No question Cutler should; the Bears have tailored so many personnel decisions around their quarterback since Trestman arrived they could call him Assistant General Manager. From stabilizing the offensive line to keeping the backup quarterback Cutler appeared to favor, pleasing No. 6 has been the Bears' No. 1 priority.
Cutler's voice never has been stronger, his situation never more comfy. The Bears signed Cutler to a seven-year, $127 million contract with $54 million guaranteed — essentially a three-year commitment that looks better with every quarterback deal. No NFL quarterback this season will make more than Cutler's $22.5 million in salary and bonuses. Now comes the opportunity to earn it.
Cutler need not become the NFL's most valuable player in 2014, as buddy Brandon Marshall predicted, but he must be the Bears'. For Cutler to produce the career year and attain elite quarterback status that has eluded him, he doesn't have to top the 4,526 passing yards he threw for in 2008 with the Broncos or represent the Bears at the Pro Bowl. He simply has to grasp the difference between making the throws he can with his wildly gifted right arm and the ones he can't. Mostly, that means Cutler finally getting his athleticism and football intelligence in sync after years of missing by at least a half-beat.
That process begins by reducing interceptions like the all-too-familiar one Cutler threw against the Seahawks, his worst pass of the exhibition season. Cutler won't take that next step the Bears think he can until he recalibrates his thinking in the pocket during the play the way he has before the snap, the way the great ones do. By all means, measure Cutler against the great ones because his new contract dictates everybody will.
Peyton Manning defies all comparisons, but examine how well Aaron Rodgers avoids interceptions: His career high in the category — 13 — came in his first year as a starter. In four of the next five years, Rodgers kept his interceptions in single digits. Drew Brees and Cutler each threw 12 interceptions in 2013, except Brees threw 295 more passes in five more games for the Saints. In 13 years as the Patriots starter, Tom Brady never has thrown more than 14 interceptions in a season. In each of the five seasons in which Cutler has played more than 11 games, he has thrown at least 14.
The continuity of offensive schemes that complemented those quarterbacks' skills was something Cutler never really experienced — until this season. This season, no more excuses exist if Cutler stays healthy. For the first time since arriving in 2009, Cutler returns in a scheme he trusts (sorry, Mike Martz) surrounded by the NFC's deepest set of skill-position players. He also enjoys contract security — an issue that loomed over every start last year.
The clock's not running out on the Bears quarterback anymore. Ready or not, his time is now. And with each second that passes, Cutler looks readier than ever.