BOURBONNAIS — Tradition dictates that the day the Bears report for training camp at Olivet Nazarene University includes plenty of floppy hats and flimsy subject matter.
So it came as no surprise when general manager Phil Emery began his remarks Wednesday apologizing for not tweeting support for the Stanley Cup-champion Blackhawks and ended them expressing enthusiasm over Devin Hester racing a cheetah for a Nat Geo Wild television show.
"First I've heard of it. … I'm really kind of curious,'' Emery said, smiling.
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If I were Emery, I would prefer Hester focus on outrunning Bengals and Lions and, as a married man, the occasional cougar. But moving from the silly to the serious, it sounded as if Emery came to Kankakee County content in every way to trust veteran Bears such as Hester entering the final years of contracts let their behavior determine their futures.
"I do not anticipate that we will do any extensions of contracts during this season,'' Emery said. "I prefer the focus to be on the field in the present tense and our efforts to win championships.''
With as many as 12 starters or regulars whose deals expire in 16 games, Emery's decision to remove ambiguity from contract negotiations on Day One represented a calculated risk. It potentially improved the leverage of every Bears player the team wants back in 2014 after a big season. But, refreshingly, it also treats every player in a contract year the same way and underscores 2013 as a prove-it season for everybody on the roster under first-year coach Marc Trestman, including quarterback Jay Cutler. Especially Cutler.
Forget the implications for cornerback Charles Tillman or center Roberto Garza, two guys whose age makes them candidates to move on in 2014, or cornerback Tim Jennings and defensive tackle Henry Melton — who's outrageous $8.45 million franchise-tag salary created the Bears' cap hell. Emery's new policy statement on eliminating extension talk in-season revolved around Cutler, who signed his last contract, a five-year, $50 million deal, on Oct. 20, 2009 — Week 7. Apparently that won't happen this October even if Cutler starts fast.
"That's fine with me,'' Cutler said upon arriving.
With kudos to Emery, it has to be. If the Bears were convinced Cutler was their quarterback of the future, Emery would have had no message to send. But wisely the team seeks more proof, as Emery's declaration five minutes into his season-opening address confirmed.
Sure, Emery can blame the Bears being a mere $1.6 million below the salary cap, but his surprising directness ultimately dared Cutler to have a Joe Flacco-like season. Nobody's suggesting the Bears will spend Super Bowl week in a New York state of mind, but if Cutler responds to Emery's challenge positively, a berth in the playoffs or Pro Bowl could warrant reinvestment in No. 6.
"That's a problem I look forward to,'' Emery answered when asked about Cutler's possible payoff. "They have seen since I've been here. We will reward players on the upside and still improving and contributing, whether they are young or old.''
Somewhere on a golf course, Brian Urlacher snickers.
Patiently waiting his turn next to Emery in long sleeves, Trestman did little when he spoke to ease concerns about his ability to get through to a player who needs tough love as badly as Cutler. Trestman, for instance, insisted on calling Thursday's conditioning test "an accountability exercise.''
Can't wait to hear the first time Trestman calls benching a player enforcing rest. Will Cutler interceptions merely be good opportunities for offensive linemen to practice tackling? The surest sign of a new day in the Bears organization came when Trestman articulated daily player goals.
"We're going to do everything on multiple levels to allow them to self-actualize every day and don't worry about the big-picture,'' Trestman said.
Self-actualize? Dare I say Cutler's passes won't be the only things going over players' heads this season. At this rate, the Bears threaten to become the first team to have its playbook reviewed by The New York Times.
"What we're trying to do is create an environment in which every player can be the best they can be every day,'' Trestman said. "The only way to do that is for the guy next to him to try to do the same thing. Because of the interconnectivity of this game, you can't be the best you can be unless the guys around you are working at it.''
The real work begins Friday with the first practice of a season that, judging from Emery's comments, figures to end with the Bears either making the playoffs or beginning to rebuild.
"We know that road is hard,'' Emery said. "It's a dusty road, a long highway.''
It's a road you could call 2013 Contract Drive.