With Jay Cutler secure, defense becomes paramount

And aside from glaring changes in personnel, the big, unanswered question is future of embattled coordinator Mel Tucker

For 96 minutes of football therapy Thursday at Halas Hall, Bears general manager Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman transparently testified about their team as if they had raised their right hands and taken oaths.

Emery and Trestman ranged from sounding overly optimistic to the point you wondered if the Bears really missed the playoffs to being brutally honest about why they did. The two men praised the Bears' newly minted $126 million man, franchise quarterback Jay Cutler, as openly as they pointed out Julius Peppers "had an 8-8 season," according to Emery.

They acknowledged the joys of what Emery called "a rolly-coaster season" and the truth that hurt about the worst defense is Bears history, for which the GM accepted blame. In a news conference that resembled a corporate leadership seminar by the time it ended, they covered everything from Cutler's career statistics to the final, fateful 46 seconds against the Packers.

But for all Emery and Trestman did say about the state of the Bears, it was what they didn't about defensive coordinator Mel Tucker that left the deepest impression in the context of this offseason.

Nothing ranks higher on the priority list than reinventing the Bears defense. Trestman heaped effusive praise on Tucker, claiming he did "an outstanding job." But given several chances to kill speculation over Tucker's status, Trestman offered only ambiguity.

"I don't want anybody to read into anything that we're doing: Everything is on the table and we're going through a very thoughtful and methodical process," said Trestman, who had yet to speak to Tucker.

It doesn't matter how media members interpreted Trestman's message; Tucker figured to read into the answer and find reason to wonder where he stands. Wouldn't you?

Emery and Trestman spoke of going younger on a defense where only newly re-signed cornerback Tim Jennings and linebacker Lance Briggs have job security. They entertained ideas about changing to a 3-4 scheme. They candidly discussed what to do with 'tweener Shea McClellin, a first-round disappointment who commands too much attention in Chicago for a guy on a defense with bigger problems. They committed to fixing the defense — but stopped short of declaring who will run it.

On a day when the Bears, as expected, invested heavily in Cutler to solidify the offense, hedging on Tucker kept the defense in a welcome state of flux. No news was good news for those who think the defense badly needs a change Trestman might be mulling.

"A coach once told me, one I really respect, that decisions will be made when we have to make them," said Trestman, given authority to hire and fire his staff by Emery.

A consensus on Cutler came quicker for Trestman and Emery, who was sold after three games. Thursday's announcement carried more significance than surprise. It was a matter of when, not if. As much as the city has debated Cutler's contract, truth is, since training camp Bears officials consistently have complimented the 30-year-old enigma. He emerged as the only player among the 30 with expiring contracts the Bears had to re-sign to remain serious contenders.

To hear Trestman, not prone to hyperbole, describe how his evaluation of Cutler focused more on character and personality than skill suggested he observed a maturing leader the Bears believe can lead them to a championship.

Indeed, guaranteeing $54 million to a quarterback with one playoff victory represents a risk. But if you consider the Super Bowl window open for the next three years — the realistic, manageable length of a seven-year contract spread out for the salary cap — that's the market rate for quarterbacks with Cutler's potential. The deal also makes more sense than gambling on an unproven alternative, or even Josh McCown, in an offense full of elite playmakers.

If history is any indicator, Bears negotiator Cliff Stein will finagle the cap so Cutler's deal doesn't prohibit the pursuit of difference-making defensive free agents or McCown. McCown, a priority, would have been proud of how relaxed and sincere his buddy was in a slick suit and tie. Exuding more likability than ever, Good Jay confessed he never considered testing the open market because of how much he wanted to stay in Chicago — and win.

"You get to a certain point … what's the most important part of your career?" Cutler said. "Do you want to say 'Hey, I made X amount of dollars' or 'Hey, I won championships'? ''

Harder to answer was the question posed Emery about whether Trestman's 8-8 team was closer to the Super Bowl, one year later, than Lovie Smith's 10-6 team that cost Smith his job.

"Yes, we are," Emery said.

All depends who's running the defense, which the Bears couldn't say even on a day they said so much else.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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