Shortest path to top for Bears includes Cutler
After a remarkable 97-minute news conference in Lake Forest on Thursday morning, during which the general manager and head coach spoke with an honesty rarely seen in today's sporting world, Phil Emery chuckled at reporters as they sorted through the dozens of identical digital recorders placed on the lectern.
"It's like marking a deck. You gotta put a little scratch on there," Emery laughed. "I got two uncles who knew how to mark a deck, believe me."
In the NFL, however, there is no rigging a hand or stacking the deck, but Emery's job is nevertheless to take down the pot as soon as he possibly can, and it involves -- at the same time -- knowing when to ante up, when to pay to see more cards and when to muck it.
A process that began last week with the signing of Robbie Gould -- arguably the NFL's best kicker -- continued Thursday with contracts for free agents Jay Cutler, Matt Slauson and Tim Jennings, retaining their franchise QB, a key cog in the offensive line and their best corner.
If you've been paying close attention this season, none of those moves is a surprise and it signals much about the Bears' off-season plans.
As has been documented here for nearly two months, Marc Trestman was convinced after the Detroit game Nov. 10 that Cutler was his guy, the head coach even referencing Thursday that contest as a defining moment.
It would have been shocking had the GM disagreed, considering that he hired Trestman to determine first whether the Bears could win a Super Bowl with Cutler, and only then find someone else if Cutler wasn't the right man.
Slauson was a no-brainer after the trouble the Bears took to rebuild a line that figures to improve next season, and Jennings has been the Bears' best corner, which is no slight on Charles Tillman, who has fallen victim to age and injuries.
The Bears would like to have Tillman back at an appropriate price, but the fact that it hasn't happened already suggests Tillman might see if Lovie Smith is willing to overpay him in Tampa before Tillman settles for less than he believes he's worth.
But, of course, Cutler was the big news, and his deal was no less polarizing Thursday than has been his five-year stay in Chicago, which was extended by at least several more years and perhaps as many as seven.
The simple explanation is that rather than start over with a new QB, Trestman believes the fastest path to the Super Bowl includes traveling that road with Cutler, who has the physical skills and football intelligence necessary to win big in the NFL.
Now, it's up to Trestman to continue molding Cutler into a QB who can make the big plays without the big mistakes, or the coach will have wasted critical time and franchise cap space.
The QB signing was not a revelation, but there were some throughout the long morning of questions and answers.
On offense, the Bears have already done most of their work, but Emery indicated he would like to bring back veteran center Roberto Garza, who wasn't great this year but would provide stability at a position that is both crucial and has no immediate answer on the roster.
It's no secret that the Bears need a lot of help on defense, and Emery hinted that the old and busted would soon be replaced by young and fast, meaning several underperforming veterans will be looking for work -- many of them in Tampa.
Trestman and Emery left the door open to a 3-4 defense, something they've denied out of hand in the past, and admitted the coaching staff is still being evaluated, which leaves defensive coordinator Mel Tucker in limbo.
"Everything," said Trestman, "is on the table" while they continue the debriefing process, including a possible shift of Shea McClellin to linebacker in whatever defensive scheme they choose.
While sounding completely delusional in defending McClellin, the brain trust otherwise clearly stated a plan that makes sense.
Though they didn't say it last off-season, the Bears were perfectly transparent in building an offense in an offensive league, while allowing an aging defense to fall into disrepair, knowing they couldn't possibly compete for the big prize until they had an offense.
This off-season will be spent putting enough pieces in place to give the Bears a mediocre defense that doesn't have to be great in order to support an offense that was eighth in the NFL in 2013.
If the Bears can do that, while the offense becomes NFL elite, they will be in a position in 2014 to think about winning the NFC, something inconceivable only 12 months ago.
Trestman, for one, ends every day wondering if the Bears have gotten closer to a Super Bowl.
Thursday night his answer when he looked in the mirror was yes.
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