By Dan Pompei
Before the second half of the Bears' game in Pittsburgh on Sunday night, NBC's Cris Collinsworth noted that Bears coach Marc Trestman has taught Jay Cutler to hold the ball higher. Then he used the telestrator to show how Cutler's throwing motion has been compacted for a quicker release.
But if Collinsworth really wanted to explain how the Bears quarterback is changing, he would have circled his head. It is the way Cutler is thinking that could be taking the player to a place he never has been.
At 30, it is time.
Some boys become men before they sprout their first patch of peach fuzz. Others make the transition when they cross a line, like going from school to work. For some, the process moves only slightly quicker than continental drift. Cutler has been a Peter Pan of a quarterback, usually hearing but not always listening to the wisdom elders tried to impart on him. But with the quarterback whisperer over his shoulder, Cutler is listening and, it appears, growing.
For Cutler, becoming a man at the position has nothing to do with lowering his throwing shoulder into a safety. That's what he did Sunday night, as the Bears ran their record to 3-0, pounding Robert Golden after gaining three more yards than he needed for a first down. Of all the intangibles Cutler may have been deficient in, toughness never has been one of them -- despite what you may have read on Twitter after Cutler made an early exit from the 2011 NFC championship game against with a knee injury.
Judgment, now that has been an issue -- and it still is, to an extent.
Trestman acknowledged he didn't like to see his quarterback try to blow up a defender. Maybe after a few quiet, reasoned visits with his head coach this week, Cutler will think twice about doing it again. Trestman doesn't talk with Cutler much on the sidelines, in front of the eyes of the world. Their conversations take place in secluded corners in the bowels of the stadium before the game, and all week long, whenever, wherever.
Trestman, along with tough, veteran quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh, is in every quarterback meeting. And then there are the text messages. "We're texting constantly during the day," Trestman said.
Trestman knows Cutler has a baby and a new wife, and he tries to be sensitive, but …
"Do you like the game plan?"
"Did you get the scripts?"
"Anything I can do to help you?"
And the texts keep coming.
They communicate easily, Trestman and Cutler. Those who have observed them say they clearly are dialed into one another.
"We are able to talk quickly in sound bytes, so to speak, so we don't have to spend a lot of time," Trestman said. "We can say a couple words and we both know what we mean so we can move onto the next issue."
"When I hear them talking about the game plan or protections, it's way over my head," wide receiver Brandon Marshall said.
Their conversations usually are about football, sometimes family. But they can stray into territory usually unheard of in locker rooms. Recently, the discussion in the quarterback room was about string theory and physics.
That they live about one mile from one another is symbolic. Trestman is a 57-year old coach getting his first chance to run an NFL team. And his livelihood may be dependent on him reaching a player who has been difficult, if not impossible, to reach. But Trestman has an interest in Cutler that is completely selfless. Trestman, who has helped bring out the best in quarterbacks such as Rich Gannon and Steve Young, is convinced he became the head coach of the Bears to help everyone around him self-actualize while expecting nothing in return.
"It's Marc's desire to have a real relationship with Jay, and the football is kind of ancillary," Bears backup quarterback Josh McCown said. "When you have that authentic relationship, the football is enhanced and improved."
Trestman, McCown and Marshall were among the guests who attended Cutler's June wedding to reality television star Kristin Cavallari in Nashville.
"I was very, very impressed with the humility of the entire affair," Trestman said of the ceremony, which took place at Woodmont Christian Church, and the reception at Houston Station. "It was a very unpretentious environment of people who really liked each other. It wasn't over the top. Very simple. It was a loving environment. I probably said too much already. I was appreciative of being there and getting to know some of the people in his life."
It seems clear marriage and fatherhood -- Jay and Kristin are parents of 1-year-old Camden Jack Cutler -- have been factors in Cutler's growth. The same face that cameras have captured sneering at teammates recently has been caught making baby faces. Yes, teammates have observed Cutler cooing at Camden via FaceTime at Halas Hall. He also has been observed reading parenting books, and books on marriage.
"Spending as much time as I do with him, sharing meals at his house, watching him be a dad, I think it's really cool," McCown said. "When a man embraces leading his home and that area of his life, I think other areas of his life should fall into place. You are starting to see that with him."
So even though Cutler is in the final year of his contract and playing for his future, he never has appeared more settled. He has not been rattled by defensive pressure, nor has he unraveled at points during games when he has in the past. In most cases, Cutler has made smart, and even conservative decisions even when the world has come crashing in on him.
"Jay has grown as far as understanding there are going to be so many opportunities in a game or in a season, so he knows he doesn't have to worry about one mistake or one bad play," Marshall said. "I do see him growing in that area."
Physically, Cutler is gifted almost beyond reason. A popular YouTube video of him as a high school phenomenon shows as much. But before this year, Cutler won only four of 25 games in which he threw two or more interceptions. That was a reflection, in part, of how he was coming unglued when things weren't going well.
Is that changing? Against the Vikings in Week 2, he made amends for his second interception of the game with an incredible throw for a 16-yard touchdown to tight end Martellus Bennett with 16 seconds left to win the game.
Bears rookie guard Kyle Long recently called Cutler "reptilian," and he meant it as a compliment.
There is a long list of people who have worked with Cutler who are joyful that they no longer work with him. He has worn out coaches, hurt teammates and frustrated front office staff. But being cold-blooded has its benefits. In three chances this season Cutler has led two game-winning, fourth-quarter drives, and then he led a drive that put away another game in the fourth. Marshall has taken to calling him "Mr. Fourth Quarter."
Prior to this season, Cutler had a fourth-quarter passer rating of 81.4. This year, it's 108.2. He has hit new highs in passer rating -- 94.2 after a previous career rating of 84) and completion percentage -- 67.3 after a previous career percentage of 60.8.
Smokin' Jay Cutler indeed.
Some of this, as Trestman suggests, may be the result of Cutler being surrounded with better players, including four new offensive linemen who have allowed only three sacks. Some of this may be the result of Cutler preparing with more diligence than he has in the past. McCown said Cutler has been putting in more hours than he did the previous two years. But much of Cutler's improvement traces to the coach who wears glasses, a ball cap, and no pretense.
"No doubt, it's Marc's influence," McCown said. "Marc has had an influence on his will to learn."
It might have been understandable if Cutler had been less than enthusiastic about learning the fifth NFL offense of his eight-year career. To his credit, he opened his mind, liked what he heard and committed.
"What people don't understand is Jay is really smart and when b.s. is thrown his way, it's really hard for him to deal with it," Marshall said. "Jay respects everything coach Trestman is doing."
Bears teammates probably are following Cutler's lead more than ever. This never was going to be Cutler's team as long as Brian Urlacher was around. The 6-4, 258-pound linebacker was as big a presence in the locker room as he was in the middle of the field.
Cutler probably never will be as revered by teammates as Urlacher was, but he has more clout in the locker room than ever.
"When I got here, it was a very well-established locker room with great guys and a bunch of great leaders," Cutler recently told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It wasn't a situation where you could just come in and be vocal and be an immediate leader. You had to work yourself into it."
Cutler, with a little help, is doing that. And if he continues to listen to the good advice of a well-intentioned coach, the boy finally might become the man.
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Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.