Bears quarterback Jay Cutler's first NFL mentor, after the Broncos made him their first-round draft pick in 2006, was Mike Shanahan, who was in his 12th season as Denver's head coach.
Shanahan, a former quarterback at East Leyden High School in Franklin Park and at Eastern Illinois University, liked Cutler from the beginning.
"We had a natural athlete that I thought did a fantastic job at Vanderbilt," said Shanahan, whose Washington team will host the Bears Sunday. "He had a lot of pressure all the time on him, yet he sat in the pocket and made the throws he had to make in the SEC to give Vanderbilt a chance to compete. That really stood out to me. Just a very intelligent, very smart guy that worked extremely hard and had all the things that you look for in a quarterback."
Shortly after Marc Trestman was named the Bears' head coach on Jan. 16, he sought Shanahan's input on the quarterback he had inherited -- a quarterback who had yet to live up to his potential in four seasons with the Bears.
"He asked me about Jay and my experience with him," Shanahan recalled. "I shared with him exactly what I thought of (Cutler), and there was nothing but positive. I'm a big fan of Jay Cutler's."
Trestman expected that he would get honest answers from the straight-shooting Shanahan, and he was pleased with what he heard.
"We talked in generalities, and basically Mike said, 'You're really going to enjoy working with Jay. He's a smart guy, he wants to work, (and) he wants to learn. He's coachable. It wasn't a long conversation, but it was reassuring to hear it from him. And I didn't have any reason to think that he wasn't going to tell me exactly what he thought because I've never known him to do anything other than that."
After an up-and-down four years here, Cutler is off to the best start of his eight-year NFL career. But his performance isn't different from what Shanahan observed years before, the coach told Chicago media during a conference call Wednesday.
Cutler moved into the Broncos' starting lineup for the final five games of his rookie season, and posted his highest single-season passer rating (88.1) as a full-time starter the next season. He made his only Pro Bowl in his third season (2008), which was his last season in Denver, as well as Shanahan's finale there.
"That's the way he played for me," Shanahan said of Cutler, who is eighth in the NFL with a 95.2 passer rating. "He had well over 600 throws (in 2008) and 11 sacks in all those throws. He got rid of the ball very quickly and distributed the ball well."
Shanahan is one of just 13 coaches with multiple Super Bowl wins, and he's 11th in league history with 176 victories, including the postseason. He says there's one important difference in this year's Cutler and the quarterback who struggled the previous four seasons in Chicago.
"Supporting cast," Shanahan said. "You have to have a system that you believe in, and Jay picks up any system very quickly. And (then) you're trying to get the best supporting cast to give your quarterback a chance to be successful. That's what I see that they've done to give him a chance to utilize his talents."
That's what Shanahan had done back in Cutler's NFL infancy, and it was something Trestman and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh took note of early last off-season.
"Matt and I looked at just about everything in '07 and '08 and where he was at at that time," Trestman said. "And I talked to Mike (Shanahan) over the winter in Arizona. I thought they had done a great job and had elevated his game early in his career. He was playing at a high level there with a supporting cast. He had three very good receivers (and) a good line. They were protecting him, giving him a chance to make some plays."
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