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Now Or Never: Is 2013 A Make-Or-Break Season For Jay Cutler?

Summer vacation. It’s a time for kids to hang out in parks, stay up past their bedtimes and suckle down freezer-pops until their tongues turn blue.

For football players, the six-week break between June OTA’s and July training camp isn’t much different. It’s perhaps the only time all year that Sunday’s gladiators are allowed to chill out: no mandatory weight training sessions, no two-a-day practices, no coaches yelling over their shoulders after a botched play. Summer break is a time when rookies look for places to live in their new cities and veterans can save some energy before the grueling season. The only thing NFL teams ask of their employees during this time of unsupervised freedom is simple – please don’t get arrested.

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler spent part of his summer vacation checking an item off his to-do list: he tied the knot with girlfriend Kristin Cavallari. Instead of a chips bowl or fish tweezers, the Bears coaching staff got Cutler a gift that wasn’t on the registry. For the third time in as many years, the QB will work with a new offensive coordinator and a new playbook. However, for the first time in his Bears career, the playbook is not the work of a retread like Ron Turner or Mike Martz, nor from a miscast offensive line coach like Mike Tice. Instead, new head coach Marc Trestman, who built a successful career calling offensive plays both in the NFL and in Canada, is in charge. It should mean big things for Cutler and the Bears offense. (Technically, Aaron Kromer is the team’s offensive coordinator, though Trestman will be the one calling the offense.)

When asked about digesting Trestman’s offense in time for the Sept. 8 season opener against the Bengals, Cutler told the media, “It takes time. It’s every day, just trying to get better and trying to learn the offense so that it’s less thinking and more just reacting out there.

“Whenever you want to get into it, it’s a three-year process to learn an offense,” Cutler said. “It just is what it is. It takes time. It’s hard to go out there Year One and blow the doors off. But we’re going to do the best we can with the time allowed and we’ll see where we’re at.”

Familiarity breeds success, and the stats reinforce Cutler’s three-year claim. Of the top 10 scoring offenses in the NFL during the 2012 regular season, seven were helmed by quarterbacks who played in the same system for at least three consecutive years. Though some of those teams changed coordinators during that time, the basic principles and schemes remained the same each season. Cutler orchestrated an aggressive, free-wheeling attack under Martz in 2011, and a conservative, close-to-the-vest scheme last season with Tice. This season under Trestman, the offense is expected to be more up-tempo and willing to take more risks.

Many took Cutler’s admission, that it takes the same amount of time to learn an offensive playbook as it does to complete law school, as a plea for patience among restless Bears fans. Maybe it was. Unfortunately for the quarterback, he’ll be asked to pass the bar exam after one year of classes. Because the team’s front office has hit the restart button by hiring a new general manager and coach in the past two off-seasons, nearly every player on the roster is in danger of loosing their job. Cutler is no exception, as neither Trestman nor GM Phil Emery have any longstanding loyalty to him. There are no more excuses or coaches to take the fall; should this season be a disaster, Cutler may be looking for new employment.

The pressure on Cutler is two-fold, as his contract expires in 2013. The Bears passed on a quarterback during April’s draft and chose not to sign a QB during free agency, so it’s a safe bet that barring a severe injury or Caleb Hanie-type numbers this fall, Cutler will be back in 2014. Emery has even indicated a willingness to sign Cutler to a long-term extension. Even so, the franchise tag remains an option. Players don’t like being franchised (just ask Matt Forté), which means Cutler faces more pressure to thrive this season and force management to consider a long-term deal. A good season could mean a contract upwards of $12 million a year. A poor one could result in a shorter deal with far less guaranteed money.

Last season, Cutler looked well on his way to putting together the all-around campaign Bears fans have clamored for since the team traded him for Kyle Orton and two first-round picks in 2009. Reunited with his favorite target and former Bronco teammate, Brandon Marshall, Cutler completed more than 60 percent of his passes, threw 12 touchdowns, cut down on turnovers and had the team at 7-1 midway through the season. But the next eight games of 2012 turned into a nightmare. Cutler suffered a concussion in Week Nine versus the Texans, forcing him to miss the second half of that game and the following week’s matchup against the 49ers. By the time Cutler returned, Tice had scaled down the playbook and began forcing passes to Marshall. The team collapsed and Cutler finished the year with 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. The Bears missed the playoffs. Tice was fired at seasons end, as was head coach Lovie Smith.

Which of course brings everything back to Trestman, the new coach with the new playbook. Given the professional expectations and monetary implications for Cutler, 2013 is, without a doubt, a make-or-break season for the quarterback. He may have a new bride at home, but instead of taking three years to learn his playbook, it might be wise for the QB to spend his summer vacation doing what most kids are loath to do: study.

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