BOURBONNAIS — Confidence has been a theme of Jimmy Clausen's football career. Was he overconfident as a quarterback in high school and at Notre Dame? Was his confidence badly shaken after losing nine of 10 starts as a rookie with the Panthers and getting demoted? The subject has dogged him like a pass rush.
No wonder he smiled Wednesday when it came up again. The quarterback saw it coming, this time two days before his Bears debut in their exhibition opener against the Eagles at Soldier Field.
Clausen has been with the Bears only since June 5, but he believes in his ability to play well. And that self-assuredness is strengthening daily.
"I feel like I know the system — not to where I want to know it a year down the road — but I feel confident executing what the coaches call," he said.
That's a critical foundation for Clausen because the Bears don't question his physical ability. And as he begins a four-game exhibition schedule with an opportunity to regain a foothold in the NFL, those high stakes don't consume him.
Instead, he remains focused on incremental improvement. That has been the case since Clausen entered the competition against Jordan Palmer and David Fales to be Jay Cutler's backup.
He and Cutler huddled over the first weekend after Clausen signed and dove into the playbook together. They discussed terminology and concepts, two of the main components Clausen must master to win the job.
"He was very humble and just wanted to learn the offense and get a shot," Cutler said. "He has progressed really well, as quickly as he has learned the offense, not only spitting it out but making the necessary changes, and in the run game all the nuances that we have."
Bears coaches share that evaluation through 11 training camp practices. They maintain it's too early in the competition to draw conclusions, but Clausen proved himself a worthy candidate in a short time.
"You can tell he understands the game," Bears quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh said. "Most guys who go from team to team who understand football can learn language. That's really what it comes down to. How comfortably, how fast can you start speaking it."
Cavanaugh likes Clausen's mechanics. As a general rule, he doesn't tinker much with his passers. But Clausen holds the ball high, consistently turns his left shoulder perpendicular to his target and has good footwork. He has a sound follow through and Cavanaugh believes his arm strength is good.
With those boxes checked, Clausen must understand the scheme and make good decisions. As Cavanaugh put it: "For him, it's more system than fundamental."
And so it goes back to terminology. There was continuity in the Panthers' offensive scheme during the last three seasons of Clausen's four-year tenure there. Now he's training himself to process Trestman's language.
"It's a hurdle I'm still trying to get over," Clausen said. "There are a few concepts and a few routes that adjust for certain coverages that (I have had) the past three years. So it's breaking old habits, but you're not going to learn it overnight and it's a process. Each day out, each practice, each game out, it's going to get a little easier and feel a little more comfortable."
Clausen has one particular advantage he didn't have the first time he learned an NFL offense. Bears tight end Dante Rosario, who played for the Panthers in Clausen's rookie year, recalled a critical reason why Clausen struggled and the team finished 2-14.
"The support of guys around him wasn't enough," Rosario said.
The Bears, on the other hand, offer him a supporting cast that includes Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte and Pro Bowl receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
Clausen probably won't play with those weapons during exhibitions. But Bears coaches understand that the backup quarterback, whoever he is, will during the regular season if Cutler gets hurt.
That helps establish the criteria on which the backups will be judged during the preseason. Call it the Josh McCown formula.
"By no means are we looking for a superstar," offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said. "We're looking for a guy who can read a coverage and throw it to the correct guy, or work with the unit and make him successful."
Clausen gets it. He said he would consider his Bears debut Friday a success by getting first downs, putting the offense in the correct plays and creating scoring opportunities.
Those small steps would keep his confidence growing.
"Each day I feel like I'm progressing," he said. "That's what I'm trying to do, just get better each day. Obviously, there are going to be mistakes out there, missed throws and stuff like that. But learn from my mistakes and keep getting better."
Twitter @Rich_CampbellCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun