By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — Comforts can be few in the NFL, a sport that’s grueling and which features the brutal business aspect of contracts not being fully-guaranteed.
Leadership becomes such an important quality within each locker room. It can be overplayed at times from the outside, but don’t discount what having a steady veteran presence means to a young player trying to make it in the league.
In 2015, Hroniss Grasu was tasked with becoming the Bears’ future at center a year earlier than the front office would’ve preferred. He struggled, quite a bit. Having Matt Slauson there each day made Grasu’s transition a bit more comfortable. Then, the business side caught Slauson unexpectedly, with his surprising cut coming in early May.
Bears leaders like Slauson, Matt Forte, Jermon Bushrod and Antrel Rolle were all cast away this offseason. Just as Grasu was needing guidance, quarterback Jay Cutler stepped in.
“(Cutler) told me he believes in me and this team believes in me,” Grasu said. “When a guy like that, it shows he has confidence in me.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to help Jay. I’ll lay my body on the line for that man.”
Losses of key veteran players left a void for the Bears. Forte helped mentor Jeremy Langford, his eventual replacement, and Bushrod also helped guide a replacement in Charles Leno. Rolle was a captain and mentor in the secondary last season. But losing Slauson was particularly tough for some of the Bears’ young players. He was instrumental in the growth of three-time Pro Bowl lineman Kyle Long.
For Grasu, Slauson was the kind of guy who made his rookie season feel at ease, despite the struggles.
“It was rough,” Grasu said of Slauson’s sudden exit. “That was a tough one. It’s an eye-opening experience my first offseason in the NFL. He was one of my best friends so far in this league and a huge mentor for me.”
Cutler came to Chicago in 2009 as a 26-year-old cast among a core of Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Olin Kreutz — veteran mainstays who controlled the locker room. Cutler was viewed as an outsider.
The Bears are Cutler’s team now. He’s the big-money man and the centerpiece of their plans offensively, with general manager Ryan Pace supplying a supporting cast that can bring the Bears success. Now, Cutler is the guy who teammates are turning to for leadership, a role he has embraced.
In turn, Cutler is helping bring the younger players along. He’s helped Kevin White — the 2015 first-round pick and second-year receiver who has yet to play an NFL down — to learn the playbook, and the two are working on their quarterback-receiver rapport. Cutler and White have even spent time together away from the football field during this offseason, including a Super Bowl party, nights watching TV and even playing baseball together.
White believes that his relationship with Cutler can translate to the field. He’s heard the Cutler critics and feels the quarterback’s reputation is misconstrued by some.
“Jay’s a great leader, a great teammate,” White said. “He wants nothing but the best for us. He wants to win, and he wants to win now. The bad things (critics) say about Jay are not true at all. He’s a really good guy, a really good person once you get to know him. I’m excited for us.”
Jerrell Freeman’s first interception in the NFL came in his first game, a pick-six served up by Cutler in 2012. Now, the two are Bears teammates, and after Freeman put pen to paper, his first phone call came from Cutler.
In fact, Cutler spoke with many of the Bears’ newcomers added to the revamped roster this offseason, including a meeting to help sign backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. During OTAs, he’s constantly communicating with teammates and working out the wrinkles of Dowell Loggains’ offense.
The Bears promoted Loggains to offensive coordinator as a move that could help keep continuity for Cutler, and the quarterback is now working as an extension of the coach — on and off the field. Loggains appreciates Cutler’s approach.
“I’m looking forward to coaching him every day, continuing the progress we made and building upon that,” Loggains said of Cutler. “We definitely can be better.”
Cuts of key veteran teammates can bring down a locker room. The Bears were looking to get younger — and better — around their roster, but a drawback was that it created a leadership void. Cutler has helped create an atmosphere conducive to winning at Halas Hall.
Whether it’s watching TV with White on a weeknight or offering a confidence boost to Grasu, the Bears have seen Cutler making a difference as a mentor.