Rocky Mountain football fans were hoping Jay Cutler would fall flat on his face in his return to Denver and facing the Broncos for the first time wearing a different uniform, but the cocky QB instead showed the Mile High faithful just what they're missing.
The Pro Bowl passer, who forced a blockbuster trade out of Denver last spring and became the Chicago Bears' first franchise quarterback since Sid Luckman, returned to Invesco Field on Sunday night and led his new team to a 27-17 preseason win over the Broncos.
Cutler disregarded the thousands of hecklers, including Broncos pass rusher Elvis Dumervil, in leading Chicago on three scoring drives, capped by a 12-play, 98-yarder just before halftime that gave the Bears a 17-3 lead.
The adversary he left behind, Broncos rookie coach Josh McDaniels, had a distressing home debut, as did Denver's new quarterback, Kyle Orton, who gashed his right index finger to cut short a middling performance against his former team.
Cutler threw for 144 yards and a score in a crisp 15-for-21 performance before calling it a night at halftime and basking in the glow of his successful return to Invesco Field, where just eight months ago he was a beloved figure, a Pro Bowl passer and the heir apparent in this town to Hall of Famer John Elway.
While fans came to jeer him, they also saw why they'll miss this immensely talented young quarterback.
"I thought it was going to be like this," Cutler said. "They got good fans here. A lot of boos – they got pretty loud there at one point. It was what we kind of prepared for."
At one point on the Bears' 98-yard TD drive, the jeers turned to cheers when Dumervil blew past left tackle Orlando Pace for a third time and put a hit on Cutler after he had released the ball. The personal foul gave the Bears (2-1) a first down at the Denver 14, but the riled-up crowd didn't care.
Two plays later, Cutler feathered a 6-yard pass to running back Matt Forte in the end zone.
Some of the night's catcalls were directed at McDaniels, the brash, 33-year-old rookie head coach who chased off his franchise quarterback shortly after replacing Mike Shanahan and now finds himself in a bitter feud with star receiver Brandon Marshall, whom he suspended for insubordination last week.
"He's such a talent, and he's such a good guy off the field, I just want to see him get back out there and start playing again because he's good for the game," Cutler said. "He's exciting for the game."
Wearing a hoodie like his mentor, Bill Belichick, McDaniels was hampered by an ineffective offense that committed multiple mistakes and plenty of penalties.
After his follow-through on an incomplete pass to Correll Buckhalter before halftime, Orton glanced down at his bloody finger, held it up for the sideline to see and then trotted off the field.
Although the bloody finger was captured by the NBC cameras for all to see, the Broncos announced Orton's problem in the press box only as "an upper extremity injury" and said he was questionable to return.
McDaniels told NBC that Orton's finger wasn't broken but that more tests were needed.
Orton was 12-of-16 for 96 yards – good numbers, sure, but in a half-dozen drives, he only led the Broncos (0-3) to a single field goal, not the kind of home debut he was anticipating after getting off to a rocky start in Denver.
Orton's poor performance in a stadium scrimmage three weeks ago spawned the catch phrase "Orton hears a boo," and he threw four interceptions in his first two exhibition games for the Broncos, including three against San Francisco in the opener and then a left-handed pickoff in the end zone at Seattle.
Broncos starting receiver Jabar Gaffney didn't play Sunday night after hurting his thumb in practice Friday and could be out a month. Denver lost right guard Chris Kuper to an apparently serious right leg injury when he was rolled up on in the first quarter.
Cutler received a rude reception from Denver's pass rush that hounded Chicago into three three-and-outs in the Bears' first four possessions.
But the Bears went ahead 10-3 on Forte's 1-yard run that followed Devin Hester's 54-yard punt return to the Denver 4.
When McDaniels replaced Shanahan in January, it looked as though the Broncos had the makings of a juggernaut with the 25-year-old Cutler and the offensive wunderkind hooking up in a town where expectations of a high-flying offense are a mile high.
But Cutler grew disenchanted with McDaniels after learning that the new coach talked about trading him for Matt Cassel, his former pupil in New England, and he said he wanted a fresh start somewhere else.
After several weeks of acrimony, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, miffed that Cutler wouldn't return his calls to talk about a reconciliation, ordered the quarterback's trade.
McDaniels shipped him to Chicago for Orton and a handful of draft picks.
Asked by NBC what he had learned from his trade, Cutler said: "It's a business. You never know exactly what's going to happen. There's coaching changes. There's player changes every day. You just have to stay in the game, and wherever you land, you land.
"I'm happy I'm in Chicago. We got a great thing going right now, and we just need to keep heading that way."
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