BOURBONNAIS — Last year, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler arrived at Olivet Nazarene University in a sleek sport-utility vehicle, what someone drives when he wants to make an impression — the perfect metaphor for Cutler's contract season of 2013.
On Wednesday, Cutler drove up in a Dad-mobile.
"It's not a minivan, it's a conversion van," the new father of two clarified.
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Olivet Nazarene University, 1 University Avenue, Bourbonnais, IL 60914, USA
Halas Hall, Washington Road, Lake Forest, IL 60045, USA
Whatever it was, Cutler's white van was long enough that confused kids would have been forgiven for approaching the side door to buy a Dreamsicle. More functional than flashy, the unremarkable ride underscored the sensible approach Cutler brought to his ninth NFL training camp that will require him to steer the Bears away from nonsense.
"We have to be careful," Cutler said. "I don't think you ever say, 'This is the year.' You just never know. There's a lot more we have to prove. We haven't done anything yet."
Those are cautiously optimistic words likely to fall on deaf ears in Chicago, where Bears hype has built enough to make Cubs prospect Kris Bryant feel neglected. Both general manager Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman acknowledged the Willis Tower-level expectations for a team coming off an 8-8 season with a historically bad defense.
"Our players feel it," Trestman said.
They are best ignoring it, as Cutler encouraged. Nobody denies the Bears have improved, but defensively they had nowhere to go but up. They drafted well. They reported healthy, other than guard Kyle Long suffering from a virus. But it seems premature for Chicagoans to start planning side trips to the Grand Canyon around Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona.
An 11-win season with a playoff victory represents a realistic goal for a team relying on so many players in their 30s, such as Jeremiah Ratliff and Jared Allen, to rebuild its defense. To make the playoffs for the first time since 2010, managing expectations could challenge the Bears as much as beating the Bills in Week 1.
"Our talent is better," Trestman said. "Now we have to turn paper into performance."
A year after Trestman arrived for his first training camp as an NFL head coach, confidence has replaced curiosity for a team hearing Super Bowl talk from Lake Forest to Las Vegas. Returning all 11 offensive starters will do that. Nobody anticipates much mystery on the practice fields this year, at least not offensively. Everybody expects mastery.
Is it warranted?
The excitement obvious on Day 1 resembled training camp 2007, months after the Bears lost Super Bowl XLI. They returned 20 starters. They lauded chemistry and continuity. Then they went 7-9, reminding us how silly preseason predictions can be because of injuries and the unpredictability that makes the NFL so irresistible.
Perhaps sensing how comfort can create complacency — a bigger enemy than the Packers — Emery established competition as the focus for a team that must remember it has accomplished nothing. Emery addressed typical minutiae such as whether to keep nine or 10 defensive linemen, who will emerge as the backup running back and if local favorite Jordan Lynch will make the roster. But everything about Emery's message revolved around his quest to see the Bears compete for the open jobs.
"The number one theme for me," Emery said.
If Emery means it, defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton will get legitimate chances to earn starting roles as rookies, as offensive linemen Long and Jordan Mills did a year ago. And rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller will feel heat from veteran Kelvin Hayden.
And quarterback Jimmy Clausen will receive every opportunity to supplant Jordan Palmer as Cutler's backup — even though the best option could be recently released Kyle Orton, at the right price. And linebacker Shea McClellin truly will have to beat out Jon Bostic. And No. 3 receiver Marquess Wilson will be pushed by somebody with more than two career receptions, even if that player isn't yet on the roster.
"Of the three camps (as GM), I'd say this one has the most competitive level," Emery said.
The most compelling battle comes at safety, where Emery described veteran Adrian Wilson like he was 24 instead of 34. Wilson boasts 162 starts and four Pro Bowls on his resume but missed 2013 with an Achilles injury.
He joins the usual suspects at a problem area: presumed starter Ryan Mundy, veteran M.D. Jennings, rookie Brock Vereen and Chicago's favorite whipping boy, the injured Chris Conte. Emery spoke of the Bears safeties being interchangeable, which last season meant one could be just as bad as the other.
Finally, the secondary has options. Again, the Bears have opportunity.
"I still think it's a hungry group," Cutler said.
He sounded like a man committed to making sure the Bears don't get too full of themselves.