LAKE FOREST, Illinois — Maybe if more of his former teammates and coaches were still there, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler would feel a twinge of nostalgia about Sunday's matchup against Denver.
It will be his first meaningful game against the Broncos since their high-profile breakup. But as for any sentimental feelings, desire for revenge or any extra motivation?
"I thought about it in the shower a second ago," Cutler said Thursday. "It's so far removed. The coaching staffs have changed. The only player I can really think of that was on the team with me was (offensive tackle) Ryan Clady."
Cutler comes into Sunday's game playing about as well as he ever has and is a big reason why the Bears (4-5) are even thinking about a playoff spot in a season when few thought they had a shot. They have won two in a row and four of six after an 0-3 start.
Cutler has cut back on the turnovers after leading the league last season, and appears to be thriving in his first year under offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
He was particularly steady last week in a 37-13 win at St. Louis, posting a career-high 151 passer rating. Now, here comes AFC West leader Denver, the team that drafted him out of Vanderbilt in 2006.
A 2009 preseason game aside, this will be Cutler's first appearance against the Broncos since they dealt him to Chicago before the '09 season. That trade came on the heels of the most prolific season by a Broncos quarterback — and one high-profile clash with coach Josh McDaniels.
Cutler threw for a franchise-record 4,526 yards, 25 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in 2008, only to wind up in Chicago after his relationship with the Broncos soured in a big way. Cutler already wasn't thrilled when Mike Shanahan got fired and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates left for Southern Cal. But things really took a turn for the worse after Cutler learned McDaniels talked about trading him to Tampa Bay in a three-way deal that would have brought McDaniels protege Matt Cassel from New England.
Once Cutler found out, the divorce was inevitable.
He got dealt to the Bears for Kyle Orton, two first-round picks and a third-rounder. Cassel wound up getting traded by the Patriots to Kansas City.
Cutler's arrival sent expectations soaring in Chicago, where the last franchise quarterback was Sid Luckman, but the return wasn't quite what the Windy City envisioned.
He clashed with offensive coordinators and continued to make mistakes at the worst possible moment. Last year, in particular, was a debacle. Not only did Cutler leading the league with 24 turnovers, the Bears went 5-11 under Marc Trestman.
New general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox made Cutler wait until March before announcing he was their quarterback going forward, further fueling speculation about his long-term future with the team.
"Jay is a wiz and he is a bit of a nerd , and he picked it up probably faster than a lot of these guys," right tackle Kyle Long said of Gase's schemes. "Jay was teaching pretty much everyone in the building."
Cutler's 95.3 rating is easily a career high, and he has just five interceptions compared to 18 last year. He's played eight games this season and through eight a year ago, he was picked eight times.
It helps that the Bears are more committed to the run and attacking opponents with screens. With the ball getting out of his hands quicker, opponents aren't getting to him at the rate they did in the past. They still have sacked him 12 times, but that's a steep drop from 38 a year ago.
How much of the credit goes to Cutler versus Gase? Running back Matt Forte said they both deserve it.
One thing about Gase, though, is his approachability.
"He's real approachable as an offensive coordinator," Forte said. "Some offensive coordinators, they have a stubbornness to them, I would say. He's a real open type of guy and easy to talk to so I think that helps a lot."
As for Cutler?
"You get to see Jay shine in his true role as a leader and a quarterback and a captain of this team," Long said.