The dance restarted this week, slow as it went, but it was a dance nonetheless. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, perhaps in an effort to avoid the confrontations of the past, referred to Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall as “another player.” Hall, who in 2010 picked off Cutler four times in a game and shortly afterward suggested Cutler didn’t understand football, tried to play it equally cool.
“What kind of answer do you want him to say?” Hall said after Thursday’s practice at Redskins Park. “I don’t know what you want Jay to say — ‘Oh my God, I’m scared of this guy!’ I don’t know what you want him to say besides: ‘Hey, he’s another guy.’ Whether he believes that in his heart or not, I mean, that’s what he has to say.”
Hall and Cutler understand they have a history, beginning in 2008 and intensifying with Hall’s big performance two years later, and whether the words are cutting or passive-aggressive, they can’t avoid each other. Now the feud has high stakes, with each player putting together a solid season. Cutler is on pace for a career-high 32 touchdown passes and could eclipse 4,000 passing yards for the first time since his Pro Bowl ’08 season. His interceptions and sacks are down, and depending on the day, anyway, his attitude is up.
Hall, meanwhile, is a bright spot in an otherwise weak Washington secondary, and a month before he turns 30, the veteran’s skills remain sharp. He saved a touchdown Sunday in Dallas, batting away a pass in the end zone, his third deflection of the season.
“It’s starting to come together,” said Hall, whose defense has played well recently but whose team is 1-4. “Obviously, you know, we still aren’t doing everything we can do to win games, but it’s starting to come together piece by piece.”
When the Bears interviewed Marc Trestman in the offseason for their vacant head-coaching position, the former Canadian Football League coach sold a message of building around Cutler. The quarterback is talented but moody, and other than 2008, when he excelled with the Denver Broncos under Mike Shanahan, Cutler has been an underachiever.
So Trestman met with executives and ownership during his interview, sure, but he also spent 90 minutes with Cutler. What could he do to win the quarterback’s trust? How could the team better support him? They kept talking, and when their time was up, Cutler was sold — and so was the organization.
“I wasn’t really looking for anything,” Trestman recalled this week. “We just had a conversation that was about personal lives and probably a little bit more about football — just X’s and O’s and protections, route structure, fundamentals, things like that. But it wasn’t anything that was real substantive. It was just a general conversation.”
When Trestman took the job, he still made time for Cutler. More than that, he made it clear to those in the personnel department that without a comfortable quarterback, none of them had a chance. So the Bears brought in left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson and added tight end Martellus Bennett, a clear indication of a new emphasis on supporting Cutler.
With 1,630 passing yards and 12 touchdowns, the comfort has translated into his best start in years.
“He’s just trusting everybody that’s around him, from the receivers to the offensive line to the coaches,” said Trestman, whose team is 4-2 in his first season. “I think that’s the biggest thing for him this year; he can trust everybody to do their job, and he can feel like he doesn’t have to do a whole lot. It doesn’t feel like the whole team is on his shoulders.”
The free agent signing of Bennett not only gave Cutler a 6-foot-6 target alongside receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, but the free-spirited Bennett has so far kept Cutler’s mood afloat. Which, in the past, has been the quarterback’s loudest criticism: When things don’t go his way, he stands on the sideline and sulks, something his teammates and coaches noticed.
Bennett, who dabbles in painting and working on a cartoon about a dinosaur, said this week he has established a friendship with Cutler and along with Marshall has instituted a “no demons” policy. If a play goes sideways or someone is frustrated, the residual effects mustn’t be seen.
“We always say: ‘No demons today,’ like picking each other up,” said Bennett, who occasionally has lunch with Cutler. “And if one of us isn’t having a great day, we just help them get going. So if anyone were to have any type of bad body language, we all do a good job of picking each other up.”
Three years ago, the demons were following Cutler, and the most sinister one was Hall. In a game at Soldier Field, Cutler hurried throws and misread the Washington defense, and when the mistakes added up, there was Hall celebrating — on his knees, his hands up — four times, tying an NFL record for interceptions in a game.
Hall rooted himself in Cutler’s mind that day and the time since, starting a feud that, however it shows itself, remains. And with each side playing impressive football, Sunday’s matchup will draw attention even if the unlikely dance partners won’t admit it.
“It’s not me versus Jay. It’s the Washington Redskins versus the Chicago Bears,” Hall said. “And they’re playing good football. . . . He probably feels good with his guys going up against us, and we feel the same way.”
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