LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Earl Bennett remembers that awful pain he felt the first time he hauled in a pass from Jay Cutler.
His hands were bright red. The laces were "eating my fingers up." Bennett was a freshman at Vanderbilt and already, he was getting quite an education. Lesson No. 1 — wear gloves.
It didn't take him long to figure out, either, that Cutler was a winner. Finally, the numbers just might back that up.
The Chicago Bears are guaranteed to finish above .500 at 9-3 heading into this week's game against the New England Patriots, and that means Cutler will have his first winning season since he was a high school senior in Indiana catching the winning touchdown in the state championship.
Just don't expect him to wax poetic about it.
Cutler said he's more focused on the task at hand, with one of the NFL's top teams visiting on Sunday and the Bears trying to end a three-year playoff drought.
"I'm not worried about it," he said. "We've got to worry about the Patriots and try to get to the playoffs."
Not since he caught the winning 12-yard TD off a lateral to give Heritage Hills High in Lincoln City the Indiana Class 3A championship has Cutler led a winning team. It didn't happen at Vanderbilt, where he set school career passing records for yards and TDs. It didn't happen in Denver, either.
It's happening now, though, after an impressive turnaround that came just when the season appeared to be slipping away.
The Bears have won five straight since the bye after stumbling into it on a 1-3 skid and are a game ahead of Green Bay in the NFC North.
They've caught some breaks, getting weaker teams like Buffalo, Minnesota, Miami and Detroit during this stretch. The Vikings were in disarray, the Dolphins and Lions down to third-string quarterbacks. Even that impressive win over Philadelphia came against a team that was missing its top two cornerbacks.
Yet, there's no debating the Bears are looking better at the moment.
They're blocking better. Their play-calling is more balanced as offensive coordinator Mike Martz has found his rhythm in his first year with the Bears. They're moving the pocket and Cutler is taking less of a beating, even if his 41 sacks are a league-high.
Nineteen of those came during that brutal stretch before the break, starting with that nine-sack first half in a loss to the New York Giants that left him with a concussion. He did not play the following week in a win over Carolina and continued to take a pounding in back-to-back home losses against Seattle and Washington.
But the Bears did some soul searching during the bye. They went away from the seven-step drops and started treating the running game as something more than an afterthought.
The execution improved and so did the results.
Cutler isn't trying to force as much lately, particularly in the past two games. He has completed 35 of 47 passes without an interception in wins over Philadelphia and Detroit, posting ratings of 146.2 and 117.0, respectively. A third straight game with a 100 rating or higher would match a career high he set early last season.
"I think he makes a lot of good decisions," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "He's very accurate with the ball. He's made great plays, with scramble plays to keep plays alive with his legs — both to throw and to run. Has made some big third-down conversions running. Spreads the ball around. He uses his backs, tight ends, receivers. He gets the ball to everybody. I don't know how much more he could do, really."
Cutler's talent has never been in question, with his rifle arm and quickness. The doubts have always centered on his attitude, his decision-making and whether he had the makeup to lead a winning team.
In Denver, coach Mike Shanahan encouraged him to take chances and was willing to accept a few extra interceptions if the payoff was something spectacular. It often was, with Cutler throwing for more than 4,500 yards and making the Pro Bowl in 2008, but it didn't necessarily translate into wins.
The Broncos went 9-7 in his 2006 rookie season, but Cutler sat out the first 11 games before leading them to a 2-3 mark over the final five.
They went 7-9 the following year, and what happened after that 2008 season is well-documented. Shanahan got fired, and Cutler's relationship with then-new coach Josh McDaniels quickly soured over a failed attempt to land Matt Cassel.
That led to a blockbuster deal with the Bears and soaring expectations in Chicago that crashed and burned in a 7-9 flameout last year.
"He's definitely a winner," Bennett said. "You can look at how he leads the team during the game, how he makes sure the offense is run properly. He's one of those guys that wants to win and he'll do everything he can to help the team out."
NOTES: Cutler had little to say about McDaniels' firing, other than this: "None of my concern. I'm worried about the Patriots." ... LBs Pisa Tinoisamoa (knee) and Nick Roach (back) sat out practice on Wednesday, as did Chester Taylor. Smith said he's not ruling out Tinoisamoa playing on Sunday after he underwent minor arthroscopic surgery.