LAKE FOREST – More than once Tuesday afternoon, Jay Cutler was asked to address his physical stature and whether he agreed with Bears coach Marc Trestman's assessment that his starting quarterback appeared bigger and stronger.
On both occasions, Cutler snickered at the notion that his 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame has changed after missing five games last season with what he deemed as two "freak injuries". But one thing became increasingly clear as Cutler spoke – he may be as comfortable as he has ever been.
Cutler has found a comfort zone – both with those around him charged with protecting him and with an offensive scheme that the Bears grow more confident in with each passing day. For only the second or third time in his nine-year NFL career and for the first time since he arrived in Chicago six years ago, Cutler will operate with some familiarity in an offense that ranked second in the NFL in scoring and eighth in total offense.
Now in Year 2 of the Trestman system, Cutler continues to move forward.
"We did some good things last year," Cutler said after the first day of Bears minicamp workouts. "We're still in the learning process, but guys are much more familiar with what the concepts are and with the formations and everything."
As productive as the Bears were last season when they averaged 27.8 points a game, Cutler insists that he and his teammates "weren't sure what kind of team we were last year." Playing first under Cutler – who missed time with a high ankle sprain and a groin injury – and then under backup Josh McCown, the Bears made major strides in Trestman's first year at the helm despite missing out on the playoffs for the third straight year.
The Bears have spent the offseason – as Trestman calls it – "trimming the fat", taking what players feel most comfortable with while considering what plays were successful, taking opinions from coaches and players a like to build on last year's success.
As collaborative of an effort as improving the offense under Trestman was, it is Cutler who remains at the center of it all. Trestman said Tuesday, the combination of Cutler's experience and the fact that he is "incredibly smart football-wise" has put him in a better position to take the Bears offense to the next level.
"Each of these plays we have, there's a lot of different answers against a lot of different looks and coverages," Trestman said. "I think (Cutler) is in a place now because he's had so much experience on these plays that he can utilize the entire play to find the right answers."
The fact Cutler is able to do that while surrounded by familiar faces and building off his previous experiences – both with the Bears and previously in Denver – has made preparing for the second year working under Trestman's schemes much easier.
"(Playing quarterback) is problem solving and after you do it for a few years, you know what the answers are already," Cutler said. "You're not guessing. You know what the calls are, you know why the call came in and you know what you want to get to if there is a problem.
"We're growing in that direction, but at the same time, we're still figuring some stuff out. We had some areas we struggled in and we weren't perfect so we've got to keep working and keep trying to get better."
But before Cutler could focus on making the Bears better, he had to get better himself.
While saying he didn't do anything out of the ordinary to return to full health, Cutler said he started his strength and conditioning training earlier than he normally does, trying to recover from the two injuries that forced him to miss time.
"I just wanted to get my whole left side back to even with my right side," Cutler said. "I feel good...It takes some time – I wasn't really feeling great until the end of March, really right before we started. So it took a little bit of time."
Cutler's comfort level with an offensive line that improves all of its starters will also play a role in him taking the next step in his development. Cutler was sacked only 19 times – albeit in four less games than in 2012 when he was sacked 38 times. He now feels confident in his offensive line, which – he admitted Tuesday – hasn't always been the case during his time with the Bears.
Now between a new comfort level with the offense and with the line of protection in front of him, Cutler hopes to be more durable than he has in the past.
"I was straight until I really got here for a while and it was a hit parade back there," Cutler said. "It takes its toll from time to time, but with the offensive line we've got now, the guys are doing everything possible. Last year was last year and it was kind of two freak injuries and I don't really foresee that happening again."