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Bears Tue Dec 31 2013

To Sign, Or Not To Sign -- The Jay Cutler Question

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for GB bears icon.pngWith Sunday's season ending loss to the Packers in the books, the time has come for the Bears to decide what direction to go as a franchise. They've got a general manager in Phil Emery who has been excellent in the free agency and trade markets while struggling to rack up large quantities of startable players from the draft. They've got Marc Trestman at the helm, who has turned the offensive into a scoring juggernaut, finishing second in the NFL in points scored despite some questionable clock management scenarios in many end of half/game scenarios. The combination is far from perfect, but each is still quite green when it comes to their respective positions.

Their biggest challenge -- one that will likely define the career of each -- is what to do with Jay Cutler, who will be 31 years old when he takes his first snap of the 2014 season. Should they let him walk and go another direction? Should they put the franchise tag on him and buy another year of evaluation? Or should the Bears ink him to a long-term deal like many franchises have done with their known quantity quarterbacks in the past few years. Before they can make any other offseason decisions and moves, they need to have a plan at the most difficult position in all of sports.

The answer is incredibly complex, taking into account the salary cap, relationships, draft prospects, surrounding talent, coaching, and much, much more. It's potentially a large financial commitment, and it requires looking at the situation from every angle imaginable to come up with an answer that isn't necessarily right or wrong. One thing is certain, the decisions made will have repercussions on the franchise for years to come, so it's more than worth the time to analyze the situation all the way through.

Age/Injury

At 31, Cutler is in what is typically a quarterback's prime. For a position that typically involves taking blind-side hits, QBs have a surprisingly long life span. Peyton Manning (37), Tony Romo (33), Tom Brady (36), Drew Brees (34) are just a few examples of quarterbacks getting paid despite being in their 30s. Sure, Cutler doesn't possess the talent that many of these guys do, but the point is that skill level as a quarterback doesn't necessarily diminish on typical pro-sports aging curves because you don't need elite athleticism to perform the duties at their highest level. His age is of little worry to an NFL team.

Injuries are a totally different story when it comes to Cutler. He's played in all 16 regular season games just three times in his career, and only one of those have come with the Bears. In his defense, he was one of the most beat up quarterbacks prior to 2013 because of the complete lack of talent across the team's offensive line, but even with a line that performed incredibly well this season when it came to sacks and QB hits, Cutler only managed to start 11 games because of groin and ankle injuries that didn't come from hard or overly awkward shots.

If the Bears sign him to a long-term contract, you can almost guarantee that there will be incentives that involve games started or games played in the contract. His toughness isn't of question for anyone that actually watches the Bears on a consistent basis, but it doesn't make sense for the Bears to commit years and dollars without stipulations built into the contract to protect the organization. If they do, they've made a huge mistake.

Strengths/Weaknesses

Few quarterbacks in the league throw harder than Cutler. It's the one strength that gets talked about non-stop when any quarterback discussion pops up involving his name, and it's a fact that can't be ignored. It's certainly not the most important trait a quarterback can possess, but it's a wanted asset.

Part of having that type of arm strength is the ability to get the ball to your receivers deep down the field -- a trait that is even more important when considering the size and jumping ability of the receivers the Bears possess. It also comes in incredibly handy in the redzone, where back shoulder throws on the goal line are nearly indefensible.

Cutler also is surprisingly athletic for his size, and does a good job climbing the pocket and delivering throws despite tremendous pressure. He's also not averse to pulling down the football and running, and is incredibly productive on the few occasions where he decides to do so.

He's also one of the better quarterbacks late in the game. He led the NFL in QB rating in the fourth quarter this season, and won a few early season contests on game-ending drives.

His weaknesses, like his fastball, can be loud at times. He tries to force throws too often because he knows he has elite arm strength, which can lead to bad interceptions and tipped passes that are easier for defenses to snare. Cutler's mechanics, mainly his footwork, can betray him when he doesn't step into his throws. Most of the time, it forces his passes high, which is the danger zone for interceptions unless the team is inside the 10-yard line.

Accuracy-wise, he's above average but won't ever touch the elite level because of his footwork. He stares down receivers more often than he should, and doesn't always get through his progressions because his focus remains on his main targets down the field. It can result in bigger plays, but also in bigger mistakes.

These are the physical aspects of his game that we can't see on television. Only the coaching staff and his teammates can tell you about his work in the film room and in the huddle, and this year, he's received rave reviews under Trestman in each of those aspects.

Salary Cap Situation

The Bears enter the offseason with the fourth most cap space in the NFL. The cap number is also expected to jump up by nearly $3 million to somewhere in the neighborhood of $129 million for the entire roster. That's the good news. The bad is that they only have 28 players under contract, with an insane amount of needs on the defensive side of the football.

With about $47 million in cap space, along with the options of cutting guys like Julius Peppers ($9.8 million in savings), Michael Bush ($1.8 million in savings), and Adam Podlesh ($1 million in savings), the Bears have a ton of options. The market is ripe with guys they can sign to rebuild the defensive line, and they'll be planning on bringing back many of their own free agents (Tim Jennings, Charles Tillman, DJ Williams, Roberto Garza, etc).

If the Bears were to sign Cutler to the franchise tag, it would mean a $16.2 million hit on the salary cap for a one-year deal. The benefit is that you don't have to commit long term to the guy and get to evaluate him in Marc Trestman's system surrounded by superb talent for another year. The downside is you have to do the same dance again next winter, only without the tag as a saving grace option. It's a viable solution, and one they might choose to pair with a quarterback in the draft to see if Cutler is really the long term answer. But with the team in desperate need of impact talent and depth on defense, drafting a quarterback with a highly paid one and a solid backup on the roster seems like overage when the problems are elsewhere.

An interesting maneuver the Bears could also pull, with the benefit of having a ton of cap space, is signing Cutler to a five or six-year deal that gives a huge base salary for the first year that is fully guaranteed; something along the lines of $20-25 million with a tiny signing bonus. The benefit for Cutler would be that he gets his money up front in the form of salary instead of a bonus, and the benefit for the Bears is the cap hits in the future would be much lower than is standard for franchise quarterbacks, and would also be able to part ways with him down the road if the situation doesn't appear to be working. The contract would likely have incentives based on games played because of his injury history, and would also allow the team to sign other players this offseason with small cap hits in year one, and larger hits in future years when Cutler's contract begins to descend.

Most teams don't sign contracts like this because they don't often have the kind of cap space the Bears find themselves with this offseason. They could do something clever like this that not only works to the team's long-term benefit, but also to Cutler's by guaranteeing the base salary in the first year or maybe two.

State of NFL Quarterbacks

Talented quarterbacks get paid a boatload of money. It's as simple as that.

There are four elite quarterbacks in the NFL -- guys who are clearly a cut above the rest. That list, in some order, is Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees. These are the types of players that every team in the NFL strives to get when they go after a quarterback in the draft. A decade worth of 32 teams employing quarterbacks, and these four guys are the only ones considered elite. That fact speaks to the rarity of truly franchise quarterbacks.

The next tier of quarterbacks is quite long (ignoring players in their first three years -- since we don't have a ton of data on them). There are players that teams can win a ton of games with, and it even includes multiple Super Bowl winners: Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Matt Stafford, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo. Every single one of these throwers is paid big money. Do they deserve it? Most definitely. It's the toughest position to play in the NFL, and if you have a bum playing QB, you have no chance to win the big games.

Ask Cleveland, Jacksonville, Oakland, Houston, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, or Buffalo if they'd like someone from that list. A guy they know they can go to war with each season and have a legitimate shot at the playoffs and maybe more. That's the goal all along: getting to the playoffs. From there, it's all about getting lucky. Joe Flacco has $100 million and a ring because a Broncos safety fell down. Sure, he played lights out in the playoffs otherwise, but he doesn't get the ring or the cash without help from an opponent.

Cutler is right there in that second tier of quarterbacks, and has a better career rating than a couple of the Super Bowl winners on there. You pay these guys for three reasons:

1. The elite QBs are nearly impossible to find (four in more than a decade).

2. Someone from the second group can play stretches of football at the elite level (E. Manning, Roethlisberger, Flacco), and possibly make the full-on leap (Brees).

3. Not having that tier of quarterback is a yearly death sentence.

Other Free Agent Quarterbacks

Michael Vick is the only other free agent quarterback who had a higher cap hit in 2013 than Cutler. The list of available guys after those two falls of the proverbial cliff. Chad Henne, Matt Cassel, Shaun Hill, Josh Freeman, and the bucket of yuck doesn't get prettier the farther down you go. If you have a guy from the top couple tiers, the standard protocol is to keep him because the free agent market is typically Death Valley when it comes to signal callers. The best names don't hit the market unless there are serious health questions (Manning, Brees) about them going forward.

If the Bears were to let Cutler walk, they'd have to sign one of these guys to help keep the seat warm for an unknown rookie quarterback. Drafting QBs is an incredible gamble that has burned not just the Bears in the past (Rex Grossman, Cade McNown), but countless other franchises have set their team back years by choosing a guy who didn't turn out to be any good. Sure, there's a chance Josh McCown might be still be around, but he'd then be one hit away from having a guy like Jason Campbell running the team again. The risk level for letting go a quarterback of Cutler's caliber is incredibly high when looking at it from this angle.

Draft Needs

If the Bears let Cutler go (or even if they just saddle him with the franchise tag), it means they have to take a quarterback early in draft. This draft is considered to be a good one for quarterbacks, but all that means is the entire crop is thought to be better when compared to other years. You don't get to take five signal callers and choose the best one in camp, you pick one and invest your franchise in it. Get it wrong, and you've wasted away four or five years. Need you be reminded of the names that might pop up under center if things go badly?

The Bears defense was the worst in franchise history in 2013, and the Bears would probably be better off using all of their high picks on that side of the football. They not only lack starting caliber players, but they also don't have guys that you are comfortable with in a pinch. Guys like Chris Conte and Major Wright aren't even players you'd want to turn to when an injury comes along, and so you're already looking at the possibility of needing four new safeties going into 2014. That means draft picks are going to be used to fill some of those gaps, and it makes spending one of those picks on a QB less and less likely.

Current Roster State

You wouldn't have said it a year ago, but the offense the Bears have put together is built to win a Super Bowl right now. The team is loaded with weapons at receiver, tight end, and running back, and the offensive line is good enough to keep whomever is playing quarterback clean for long enough to make plays.

Combining the second highest scoring offense with even a competent defense could make the Bears even more potent when trying to put points on the board, and would obviously keep other teams from lighting up 30 or more points on a weekly basis. If the Bears were to move on from Cutler, they'd likely have growing pains on offense, which could be disastrous if the defense doesn't improve. If the defense gets better, but the offense suffers under a rookie quarterback, it would be an incredible disappointment.

Relationships

Even though Cutler isn't liked by many people outside the organization, he does get a lot of love from many people on the inside. Brandon Marshall, Martellus Bennett, Marc Trestman, Phil Emery, the entire offensive line -- the guys that work with Cutler on a daily basis all are behind him at every turn.

Marshall is especially important because of his history with Cutler going back to Denver. He loves playing for him (partly because he gets thrown to a ton), and you aren't sure if you'd get the Pro Bowl caliber Marshall without Cutler on the squad. He's lost his mental toughness in situations where the quarterback isn't great, and a move away from Cutler would absolutely be a downgrade for 2014.

Cutler's closest compatriot, to many people's surprise, is actually Josh McCown. The two have gotten extremely close the past couple of seasons, and McCown is fully supportive of Cutler as the starting quarterback, and has said so every time a microphone has been put in front of him. McCown fully intends to play next year, and would like to stay with the Bears if at all possible. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Bears signed both guys, because there is a belief that each of them is better with the other by their side.

Coaching

Cutler had his best year in Chicago in 2013, and the jump in performance can be attributed to better talent around him combined with the coaching of Trestman. The 'Quarterback Whisperer' got more consistent mechanics and performance from Cutler than he had ever shown before, and they seemed to be on the same page from the first day they met.

Cutler hasn't had a consistent offensive mind around in during his years in Chicago, and could benefit greatly going into a season with complete knowledge and continuity of the offense he ran the previous season. He could show even more improvement with more work from Trestman, and could finally become the player that everyone has dreamed off when they see his arm.

Speaking of the 'Quarterback Whisperer,' it's funny that many people use Josh McCown as the reason why the Bears shouldn't sign Cutler long term, saying that Trestman can make due with almost anybody at quarterback. Yet each and every time he was asked, Trestman clearly stated that Cutler was the starter, McCown was the backup, and if healthy, Trestman wanted Jay to start because he gave them the best chance to win. There was never a second where Trestman hinted otherwise. When given the option of which quarterback to go with, he always chose Cutler. He sees the talent there, and wants the best quarterback on the field on a weekly basis.

Conclusion

When taking everything into account -- the answer to whether or not the Bears should sign Cutler to a long-term contract is pretty clear. Sure, you may not like him personally, but it makes the most sense for the franchise now and in the future to pay him to stay. The money doesn't matter so much as the security of having a top ten caliber quarterback in the fold. The Bears went nearly 70 years without a QB that could be considered top ten in the league. Giving up on Cutler now could spiral the franchise into another lull that is unbelievably frustrating for a fan base and a front office to swallow.

Emery and Trestman want to keep their jobs for the long term too. And their best route would be to stick with Jay Cutler for years to come, so long as the deal is reasonable, and includes some injury protection for the organization.

 
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