LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery defended Jay Cutler as a franchise quarterback Wednesday and shrugged off recent sideline incidents with left tackle J'Marcus Webb and offensive coordinator Mike Tice.
"He's a passionate player," Emery said. "He has great drive and energy. He's moving toward excellence. He does care and love his teammates. And he's a big part of what we're doing and the positive things that we're doing."
Even so, Cutler has been the center of attention for the wrong reasons lately even as his team has climbed into the early lead in the NFC North. And, fair or not, they've brought old questions about his leadership and demeanor back to the surface.
There was that ugly loss at Green Bay on Sept. 13 in which he berated and bumped Webb on the sideline and made some critical comments afterward. National analysts along with teammate D.J. Moore took issue with Cutler, who didn't help his cause by throwing four interceptions to go with the seven sacks he took.
Two weeks ago in Dallas, the attention again was on Cutler's sideline behavior. This time, Tice took a seat next to him on the sideline after a third-and-1 play failed, and the quarterback immediately got up and walked away as his coordinator began to talk to him. Tice brushed it off, saying he had been venting at Cutler. So did Cutler, who called it a non-issue.
Emery insisted he believes in his quarterback. He pointed out that Bears are 9-1 in Cutler's last 10 starts, including a 4-1 mark this year that has them tied with Minnesota for the division lead heading into their off week.
"Those stats say something, that we have a winner at a key position for our franchise," said Emery, in his first year as general manager. "And I said early in the year that I felt Jay was a franchise-level quarterback. I will continue to say that."
Emery, speaking for the first time to reporters since the season began, was asked about coach Lovie Smith and the possibility of extending his contract beyond the 2013 season. Emery said they have not discussed it and that he prefers not to negotiate during the season.
"There may be a situation where it's to the club's advantage and the player's advantage to do something during the season, but my preference (is) to wait until the end of the year until you have a full evaluation," he said. "That applies not only to our players but to our head coach and our coaching staff."
Smith's future has been a topic of conversation ever since the end of last season. Jerry Angelo took the fall after the Bears stumbled to an 8-8 finish following a 7-3 start and was fired as GM.
Smith got a reprieve, with the Bears mandating that Emery keep him for at least one year, and the way they have been playing, they just might be securing their coach's long-term future. But when asked specifically if they will discuss an extension after the season, Emery called it a "private matter" and reiterated: "Any talk of extensions with players, with coaches, staff — our preference is to do that post season."
Emery was also asked about Brian Urlacher, who is working his way back from a knee injury and still isn't quite up to speed.
"This guy has a tremendous role in terms of the communicating of our defense and making it all fit together," Emery said. "And I think he's doing an outstanding job with that. And I think that's a big part of why we're playing well. From a physical aspect, I do see a guy that's gotten better each week working back through the injury."
Emery also shot down the idea of bringing in Plaxico Burress or Terrell Owens to beef up the receiving corps, with Alshon Jeffery sidelined by a hand injury, saying, "We feel very good about our wide receiver depth."
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