The stories of Cutler's texting instead of looking people in the eye are part of who he his. His best football friends tend to be other quarterbacks or position coaches. His foundation is run by his sister Jenna and a friend from Cutler's Vanderbilt days named Mark Block. "I have a very tight circle of friends, people I trust and people I care about," Cutler says. "They respect me, and I think they're gonna protect me as well. It's been that way for a while."
Protecting Cutler means understanding that he would rather be viewed from a distance. A college teammate praised Cutler to SI, then e-mailed to ask that his quotes not be used. Cutler's best friend from Vanderbilt, strength and conditioning coach John Sisk—who's now at Furman—said "he may get mad at me for talking to you" before offering this nugget: "I think the world of him."
The desire for protection probably explains Cutler's reaction when he learned that the Broncos had considered trading him in 2009. New Denver coach Josh McDaniels wanted to work with quarterback Matt Cassel, with whom he'd had a successful partnership in New England. Cutler felt a trust had been broken, saying that he was "upset" and "shocked."
Should Cutler have understood that trades are part of life in the NFL? Maybe. But a man who doesn't want any endorsement deals is unlikely to say, "I understand this is a business." The Broncos were paying him millions, but he felt betrayed. Vanderbilt pays him nothing to throw to senior receivers on the school's Pro Day, but Cutler does it.
After weeks of bickering with McDaniels, Cutler finally forced a deal to Chicago. The Bears have yet to surround him with either high-caliber skill players or a competent offensive line. In football terms, they have not protected him. The front five (and offensive coordinator Mike Martz's pass-first scheme) turned Cutler's body into a science experiment last year. But Cutler has yet to complain about it. To him, that's just football.
Cutler's career, so far, seems designed to create equal numbers of believers and doubters. He led the Bears to the NFC championship game last year, but it was his first winning season since high school. He may have the strongest arm in the NFL, but his mechanics are inconsistent.
One of his coaches in Denver, the highly respected offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger—who is now recovering from his second round of chemotherapy after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year—says, "I think he is one of the few guys in this league that can carry a team on his back and win a Super Bowl." But Cutler's career numbers (104 touchdowns, 79 interceptions) don't match up to that praise.
The 28-year-old Cutler has only begun to mine the depths of his talent. He did not play in a true passing system until his senior year at Vanderbilt. His footwork has been sloppy, in part, because Cutler is so talented. "I could get away with it," he said. "In [Chicago's] system I cheated a little bit, getting away with stuff, not getting my footwork completely right."
During the lockout, with no coaches at his side, Cutler went to work. He lost a little weight. He started bending his knees more when he throws. He organized workouts with his teammates and refined his passing game. Martz, who questioned Cutler's footwork in January, raved about it in training camp. So did quarterbacks coach Shane Day, who calls Cutler "a model quarterback."
Cutler says he is "absolutely" as excited as he has ever been to play football. The Bears are good enough to talk about the Super Bowl with a straight face. They buoyed their receiving corps last month by signing former Cowboys Sam Hurd and Roy Williams. And Chicago also drafted a left tackle of the future in 6'7", 316-pound first-rounder Gabe Carimi.