With Cutler, Chicago Bears now look like contender
By ANDREW SELIGMAN
AP Sports Writer
A top young quarterback. An elite offensive lineman. And, maybe, one big playoff push.
The Chicago Bears showed they're serious about contending in the NFC, trading for quarterback Jay Cutler and signing free agent tackle Orlando Pace on Thursday after missing the postseason for the second straight year.
"I can't sit here and tell you we're pristine," general manager Jerry Angelo said.
They are more polished, though.
The Bears acquired the top passer they've lacked for decades by landing Cutler and a fifth-round draft pick from Denver in exchange for quarterback Kyle Orton, along with two first-rounders and a third-rounder. They also filled a hole on the offensive line by agreeing to a three-year deal with Pace, a seven-time Pro Bowl pick with St. Louis.
Just like that, the offense got a different look. How different?
That remains to be seen, but change certainly was in order after the Bears went 9-7 last season and missed the playoffs again.
Now, they have a Pro Bowl quarterback who threw for a Broncos-record 4,526 yards, 25 touchdowns with 18 interceptions and figures to give them the stability they've lacked since Sid Luckman was calling signals in the 1940s - all because Cutler's relationship with the Broncos crumbled.
He asked to be dealt last month after his relationship with Josh McDaniels soured when the new 32-year-old coach talked to other teams about trading him. Cutler and his agent didn't think McDaniels was up front with them about the trade talks.
Two meetings designed to clear the air only escalated the tension, even though McDaniels kept insisting Cutler was his guy. The coach said at last week's NFL owners meetings he would do everything he could to fix the relationship. But instead of a truce, there was a trade.
Broncos owner Pat Bowlen issued a statement Tuesday saying Cutler would be dealt after the team was unable to reach him for 10 days. Cutler denied that on Wednesday, claiming he was never contacted and did not want to leave Denver.
Either way, the quarterback is headed to the team he grew up cheering in Santa Claus, Ind. And he'll be joining several teammates at Vanderbilt, including tackle Chris Williams and wide receiver Earl Bennett.
Angelo said he has no concerns about his new quarterback and added: "We felt that (Cutler) is a very good person, a good leader," Angelo said. "He had some things that happened in Denver. We recognized those, but we treated them as just speed bumps, part of the growing process. He's highly competitive, he's highly emotional. That just comes with the territory."
In Denver, Cutler refused to be taken down by diabetes or John Elway's legacy, but one obstacle he couldn't overcome was a poor defense. That explains his 17-20 record as a starter, yet it also masks a 13-1 mark when the Broncos held opponents to 21 points or less.
Whether the Bears' defense will contain opponents is anybody's guess.
The dominant unit that led the 2006 team to the Super Bowl has been rendered mediocre the past two years by injuries and poor play. Angelo acknowledged he'd like to shore up the secondary.
The same goes for the wide receivers.
If Pace stays healthy and Williams develops the way the Bears anticipated when they drafted him in the first round last year, Cutler should be well-protected. He'll be working with promising running back Matt Forte and solid tight ends in Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark, but the wide receivers were a glaring weakness. They had trouble getting open, hanging onto the ball, and were a big reason the offense ranked 26th in the league last year.
Given a bigger role, Devin Hester struggled while trying to be the No. 1 receiver and saw his production on special teams plummet after two record-setting seasons. Even though he led the team with 665 yards receiving, he had no touchdown returns and was only running back punts by the end of the season.
Drops were an issue for Rashied Davis, and Bennett - a third-round pick last year - didn't catch a pass.
Now, the Bears have a rifle-armed quarterback after making one of their boldest moves.
The Broncos, meanwhile, barely are recognizable.
The firing of coach Mike Shanahan started it, and the ill feelings mounted when Denver tried to acquire Matt Cassel, McDaniels' pupil in New England. The Patriots wound up trading him to Kansas City, and now, Cutler's in Chicago.
The Bears got a great but often petulant passer who is halfway through the six-year, $48 million contract he signed as the 11th overall pick in the 2006 draft. His salary cap number for next season is just over $1 million.
The Broncos now have Orton, fellow newcomer Chris Simms and Darrell Hackney at quarterback.