BOURBONNAIS – Something seemed different about Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on Thursday.
It wasn’t the haircut. We’ve seen those sideburns and lightly gelled brown locks before.
It wasn’t the clothing. His black V-neck T-shirt fell in line with his Hollywood casual collection.
It was something about the pace in his steps and the tone of his voice.
At no point did the Bears’ franchise quarterback roll his eyes or mumble something under his breath. Not once did he start – and finish – a response with “whatever.”
Instead, Cutler looked his questioners in the eye and spoke like a leader.
See: NFC Championship Game. Green Bay Packers 21, Chicago Bears 14.
It was Jan. 23, the day when countless amateur doctors questioned the validity of Cutler’s knee injury and the contents of his heart.
He watched the second half from the Bears’ sideline, shrouded in an overcoat, while backup quarterback Caleb Hanie took the field.
“I’m still not over it,” Cutler said Friday at Olivet Nazarene University. “I still hate to think about it, and I hope the rest of the guys are the same way.
“I hope we have a little chip on our shoulders going into this year. We were close, but we weren’t close enough. We’ve got to get better in all three phases.”
The first day of training camp always is filled with wild optimism and talk of rejuvenated players. Coaches swear up and down that their team is better than the year before.
Everyone is healthy. Everyone is happy. Everyone is ready for a monster season.
Yet Cutler’s energy seemed legitimate. He spoke and acted as if he had something to prove.
“Yeah,” Cutler said, confronting the concept head-on. “This whole team does, not just me. We fought tooth-and-nail last year and got to the NFC Championship Game and [when we] went out, I think everyone had a sour taste in their mouth.
“Offensively, we’ve got to get a lot better. That defense carried us all year. They were a Super Bowl defense. They had enough to make it happen, and offensively, we’ve got to catch up to them.”
For that to happen, somebody on the Bears’ offense will have to take the lead.
Guess which Bears player was the first to pull up into ONU’s parking lot this week?
“Jay Cutler was the first guy here,” said Bears coach Lovie Smith, a steadfast supporter of his quarterback. “There has to be one guy that’s the first guy to show up to camp. That was Jay.
“You guys saw Jay. He’s in the best shape he’s ever been in in his life. You can just look at his body and tell, and of course the numbers say that, too. I know he can’t wait to get out there on the football field.”
It’s true that Cutler looked leaner. But more important than his muscles is his mindset.
How did he cope with the wave of criticism, including so much from fellow NFL players?
“I didn’t read that much,” Cutler said. “I kind of got away from it a bit.
“A lot of my toughness and everything else was questioned, and that’s all new to me. It’s never been an issue for me. I’ve never been questioned about it. I didn’t really know how to react to it.
“I know that anyone who’s ever played with me or coached me has never questioned that, and I know the guys in the locker room aren’t going to,” Cutler said. “You can’t get caught up in that stuff.
“There’s going to be stuff coming at you left and right, and you’re going to have to take it as it is and move on.”
So will the Bears, who finished 30th out of 32 teams in total offense last season.
“We are expecting a lot from him, but not just Jay,” Smith said. “That’s the thing that I’m excited about. We have a lot of weapons to go [through]. Our offense has gone through a facelift, and I like the way we look right now.”
The addition of wide receiver Roy Williams should help, and young tackles such as J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi have the potential to patch up a porous offensive line.
Yet the greatest determining factor in the success of the Bears offense this season will be Cutler.
One day into training camp, he seemed to be up to the challenge.
• Tom Musick covers Chicago sports for the Northwest Herald. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow the Bears Insider on Twitter @bears_insider.