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Trestman takes small steps to start long race as Bears coach

He looks focused on sideline against Panthers, but offense is a work in progress

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

10:55 PM CDT, August 9, 2013

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Standing alone at the 5-yard line before Friday night's exhibition opener at Bank of America Stadium between the Bears and Panthers, jumpy coach Marc Trestman bounced up and down several times like someone trying to loosen his calves.

Dressed in khaki pants and an untucked white polo over a matching long-sleeve shirt, Trestman swung his arms and stretched his back. He rotated his neck. Except for having a number pinned to his chest, Trestman looked like a guy preparing for a long race — and in many ways he was.

It started on a muggy, 84-degree night in North Carolina with a 24-17 loss, and where it leads will depend on more than just Trestman. But he was the Bear making the most intriguing debut. More than seeing Jermon Bushrod dig in at left tackle or rookie Kyle Long stand (too) tall at right guard, more than watching rookie Jon Bostic make his first of many active starts at linebacker, observing Trestman piqued my curiosity.

He already had surprised onlookers in Bourbonnais with a practice pace as constant as a Twitter feed. As general manager Phil Emery warned, Trestman's professorial exterior masked a deep passion for the game. Would that frenetic approach carry over on game day? Ultimately, Trestman will be judged by substance, not style, but that can't be measured until the games count and demeanor indeed matters for a coach trying to gain credibility. Remember that fans routinely read Lovie Smith's face like it had postgame traffic reports written all over it.

Oddly, this was the first time in almost 10 years and 150 games that somebody other than Smith manned the sideline for the Bears. Trestman had not coached in an NFL game since Jan. 2, 2005, when he was on the Dolphins staff. Asked in a pregame interview on WBBM radio about the personal significance for a guy who spent the five previous seasons coaching north of the border in the Canadian Football League, Trestman demurred.

"I haven't really had a chance to think what it means to me,'' Trestman said.

That seemed hard to believe for somebody as introspective as Trestman, but he backed up his words by looking as focused on presiding over his team during the game as he sounded before it. His team committed only two penalties through three quarters. The Bears got in and out of huddles like a group that had emphasized tempo. But it didn't take long to test Trestman's trademark poise. He saw something on the Bears' first offensive play Chicagoans have seen too often: a Jay Cutler interception. It was like singing happy birthday and dropping the cake.

"It was an unfortunate start,'' Cutler acknowledged.

Telegraphing a quick slant to Alshon Jeffery, Cutler threw a pass Panthers cornerback Josh Norman read quickly enough to pick off. A cynic might say the Bears had asked the Panthers not to bat down passes or make interceptions, a la Trestman's practice policy, and they simply ignored the request. Truth is, Jeffery ran the route feebly enough to share the blame. That Cutler took responsibility for the play bodes well. No matter who was most responsible, nobody would have blamed the coach reputed as the quarterback whisperer for muttering not-so-niceties under his breath.

He didn't. Instead, Trestman responded no differently than he did later after Cutler's first completion; a studious stare at the play sheet, a nod of encouragement and a quick conversation more measured than manic. So began the delicate but proven process of converting Cutler from an enormously talented but erratic quarterback into an efficiency machine. That's the main reason Trestman is here and Bruce Arians — or Smith, for that matter — isn't.

All the first exhibition game 30 days before the season opener did was remind everybody how extensive the job is for an offense a long way from clicking. Protection issues that plagued the Bears last year persist. The biggest highlight being Bostic's 51-yard interception for a TD was so 2012.

As Trestman rolls up his long sleeves to mold this into his team, what the coach says publicly about Cutler — "Jay made some great throws,'' Trestman said illogically — matters much less than how the quarterback responds to coaching. Cutler ultimately never did with Ron Turner, Mike Martz or Mike Tice. If he doesn't with Trestman, the next offense he learns will be on his next team. It's that simple.

In fairness, getting a healthy Brandon Marshall into the lineup and right tackle J'Marcus Webb out of it — J-Webb Nation suffered another security breach when Panthers end Charles Johnson threw him around before a sack — will hasten Cutler's improvement in Trestman's offense.

After three series in the first game introducing a new era, the only direction to go is up.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh