LAKE FOREST – Forget last season and the one before that and the one before that.
If you believe Jay Cutler, something is different about the Bears this fall.
“There’s a different energy in the locker room, especially offensively,” Cutler said before practice Tuesday at Halas Hall. “There’s a different confidence in this group.”
But a familiar challenge awaits Cutler on Thursday.
The Bears will visit the Green Bay Packers, which means that Cutler will square off against one of his closest peers. Yet while Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has developed into one of the league’s best quarterbacks, Cutler’s trajectory has flattened in recent years.
On paper, Cutler and Rodgers have much in common. Separated in age by about seven months, both players arrived to the NFL as first-round draft picks with big-play ability.
In six career regular-season starts against the Packers, Cutler is 1-5 with seven touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a subpar 67.5 passer rating. He fared even worse in his lone playoff appearance against the Packers two seasons ago, when he completed six of 14 passes for 80 yards and an interception before exiting the game because of a sprained knee.
While Cutler has struggled, Rodgers has enjoyed success against the Bears’ veteran defense. In nine career starts, including the NFC Championship Game two seasons ago, he is 7-2 with 15 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a passer rating of 98.0.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock included seven quarterbacks among the league’s elite. In no specific order, his group of seven included Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers.
All except for Rivers has won at least one Super Bowl.
“There’s another group right after that which I would put Cutler in,” Mayock said during a conference call this week. “[He] has all the tools to be an elite, Super Bowl quarterback.”
To date, Cutler’s big arm has not been enough for him to emerge as a top-tier quarterback. Nor has his quick feet or endless confidence.
In his seventh season, Cutler still has time to make the leap. He showcased his potential Sunday in a 20-point win against the Indianapolis Colts as he passed for 333 yards, including nine passes for 119 yards and a touchdown to wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
Behind Cutler, Marshall said, the Bears were capable of averaging 30-plus points a game.
“Jay seems excited about where we’re at right now,” Marshall said. “But the thing that I love about Jay, he’s never content, he’s never satisfied. So he keeps everybody on their toes. We get better every day with him leading us.”
But like Cutler’s career path, the Bears’ new-look offense remains a work in progress.
“We have to be careful,” Cutler said. “We’ve only played one game. We don’t have a lot on tape yet, so we’ve got to continue to work hard.
“But there’s something to be said for being confident about what you’re doing, and having a feel for what you’re doing, and going out there and expecting to do good. That’s what we try and instill in these guys.”