For Cutler, an avid Bears fan growing up ("Jim Harbaugh, Tom Waddle, Curtis Conway, I loved those guys from [the early '90s]," he says), it was the best possible resolution. He was working out at his alma mater, Vanderbilt, when he got the news, and "he had a huge smile on his face," says John Sisk, Vandy's strength and conditioning coach. "It was like it was draft day for him."
Cutler drove from campus straight to a Nashville shopping mall to buy a suit for the press conference at Soldier Field the next day. "I had to make sure to look good," he says. From that moment, he has been trying to repair his image. He hired Chicago entertainment lawyer and Oprah Winfrey adviser Jeff Jacobs to manage his off-field affairs and start a foundation. He also put off chasing endorsements. "After the trade there were a lot of opportunities to do commercials and marketing stuff, but that just wasn't on the top of my list," he says. "First I want to prove myself a little bit on the football field and get rid of some of the questions and skepticism about me."
Cutler has also played it low-key in the locker room. "This is a veteran-dominated team, with guys like Olin and Lach," he says of center Olin Kreutz and linebacker Urlacher. "How guys look up to you, that's something you have to grow into. You can't force it. I know I have to earn the trust."
The first week of training camp, the bonehead Cutler reemerged when he compared Bears and Broncos fans in a radio interview, saying "Denver's like a six, and Chicago's like a nine." A now-popular YouTube clip of a young Broncos fan burning a Cutler jersey captures the Denver reaction. "Jay, you have proven the media correct," the 10-year-old says. "You're an immature, selfish crybaby." Cutler is not looking forward to the Bears' Aug. 30 preseason game in Denver. "All the hoopla, it won't be fun," he says.
For now, in Bears country, there is only love. How long that lasts will depend on how quickly Cutler can adjust to a crop of inexperienced receivers—the top five on the depth chart have a combined 145 career catches. He also must contend with type 1 diabetes, which he discovered he had last year. As often as four times a game he had to check his blood sugar with a finger prick. "I'm going to have to stay on top of things," he says. "I've been checking it three or four times, and that's just during [a two-hour] practice."
At full strength he might be the best young quarterback in the game. "A lot of guys with great arm strength don't have the accuracy," says Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner. "Jay has both. But what's overlooked is that he also moves very well. When a play breaks down, he can create things with his feet."
Cutler's weakness has been his unwavering belief that he can make a big play with his will and his arm. He has thrown 32 interceptions over the last two years, and in the preseason opener last Saturday in Buffalo he was forcing throws into heavy coverage. (He had one pick in 10 attempts, but two other passes could easily have been intercepted.) But he's entering only his third full season as a starter and is ahead of where many of the greats, including Elway, were at this point in their careers. "I can't think of three quarterbacks in the NFL with more talent," says former Bears QB Erik Kramer, who holds Chicago's single-season records for passing yards (3,838) and touchdowns (29). "He's got more ability than Peyton Manning. The Bears have never had anyone even close to him."
Whether Cutler has matured enough to thrive as a quarterback in Chicago is another matter. What happens if he and the Bears stumble out of the gate? They open at Green Bay on Sept. 13, host the Super Bowl champion Steelers a week later and then travel across the country to face Seattle. And what happens when Cutler hears his first boos at Soldier Field? Does he turn on the Chicago fans the way he did on the Denver faithful?
"I can't remember a Super Bowl quarterback talking about his arm strength or calling out fans from a team he just left—Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger would have none of that," Kramer says. "The question is whether Jay sees the big picture, that this isn't about Jay. That it's about the Chicago Bears and winning a Super Bowl. Does he see that? We're about to find out."