Two Important Questions About the Jay Cutler Deal

Pic via Rafer Weigel on Twitter/@raferweigel

Pic via Rafer Weigel on Twitter/@raferweigel

So, quite a morning for the Bears. If you were able to see the press conference this morning, you were on the cutting edge of breaking news, as Phil Emery announced a seven-year deal for Jay Cutler. The terms are reportedly $126 million, with $54 million in guaranteed money. (That’s from Ian Rapaport. Brandon Marshall was actually first to tweet the total contract value; between this and his other correct Cutler predictions this year, maybe we should start taking him more seriously.) As always, it’s important to remember the difference between big NFL deals and big MLB/NBA deals; had Jay signed this contract in one of those two sports, he’d be getting every dime. As it is, he’s guaranteed to get his $54 million over the next three seasons, (the contract carries an average annual value of $18 million, for those of you who, like me, are not math-inclined) and then things become much more flexible again from the Bears perspective. It’s a convoluted system, but the important facts remain: Cutler will be in Chicago for the foreseeable future. The Obsessive Jay Cutler Watch was over before it began, really. Now that it’s complete, it seems like there are two very important questions to ask about the deal:

Is committing to Cutler the right decision for the Bears?

If you’ve read this blog for awhile now (and as it’s only been up for a month, “awhile” basically means “since the beginning”) you can probably guess that I do think it’s the right decision. I think I most accurately summed up my feelings on it in this post, mostly this final paragraph:

“Why take that chance? To me it seems that if there was ever a situation in which a team SHOULD be willing to spend money to ensure quality quarterback play, it’s this Bears team for the next few years. Cutler isn’t Brees, Rodgers, Brady, or Peyton Manning. But the Bears aren’t getting any of those players to replace Cutler, and odds are they aren’t going to luck into the next one, either. They have a player who by most accounts is in the tier of quarterbacks just below the top group from a talent standpoint. He will be 31 next season; that gives the Bears at least four prime years left to work with. Trestman obviously believes in him. The window for what has the potential to be a Super Bowl-winning offense will be open for a span of time that would coincide with Cutler’s deal. For a cross-sport analogy, look at the Cubs rebuild. When have they said they’d be willing to spend big on a free agent? When they’re ready to compete, and that free agent can fill a need. The Bears are ready to compete. Jay Cutler certainly fills a need. And as I noted near the top, NFL contracts carry a lot less risk; this isn’t going to be a Robinson Cano albatross in eight years. Given the makeup of the team and their competitive timeline, it seems to me as though extending Cutler would be a low-risk, high-reward move, that would set the Bears up with a competitive offense for the foreseeable future.”

I wrote that on December 13th, and nothing has really changed for me since then. The Bears right now have one solid, bankable, predictable strength: the offense. The defense is is a big question mark. By removing Cutler, and betting on Josh McCown+rookie quarterback X, you’re adding another question mark to the equation. That would lower the team’s floor drastically, and in my opinion it would lower the ceiling as well.

Did the Bears spend too much?

Even in the world of partially-guaranteed contracts, 7/$126/$54 is a big number. Signing a quarterback to a big money extension is not the dream scenario; the dream scenario is getting great play out of a quarterback on a rookie deal, allowing the team to fill in around him. (Seattle, Indianapolis, San Francisco, and Carolina being current prime examples.) The problem with that is that it’s nearly impossible to do. Andrew Luck was regarded as a once-in-a-generation prospect, so his performance is no surprise. Russell Wilson is a nice player, who fits what Seattle’s defensive-led team can do. Colin Kaepernick plays a similar role to Wilson, although his level of play has not quite lived up to the expectations he set for himself last season. Cam Newton was another #1 overall pick. Is it possible the Bears could have moved on from Cutler and hit the lottery in the draft by finding an NFL-ready, franchise quarterback with the 14th pick, capable of stepping in and leading an offensively-driven team? I guess so. But the odds of that scenario coming to fruition seem so slim (Washington thought they’d done it with RG3, but things don’t look nearly as promising there right now) that you can’t afford to gamble on it.

Three teams I mentioned (other than the Colts, who have the best quarterback of the bunch) have outstanding defenses. One (or even two) years of focusing strictly on a defensive overhaul does not mean the Bears could become the Seahawks, 49ers, or Panthers defensively. So what’s the percentage play? Is it to boot a very talented quarterback out of town, or is it to bank on the strength of the team carrying you? The Bears have talked openly about their desire to be like the Saints, a model that emphasizes a focus on the offense as the strength of the team. If you want to do that, is it better to go halfway (the McCown scenario, or finding some other mid-tier free agent) or to fully commit, as Phil Emery did to Jay Cutler?

I think that if you’re going to do it, you have to go all-in. And if you’re going to commit to Jay Cutler, you’re going to have to pay the going rate. Did they overpay? I don’t think so. I think the deal is commensurate with his status in the league; as I noted above, he’s not Manning, Brady, Brees, or Rodgers. But he’s right in the next group, and considering similar salary, I’d much rather pay him this money than Flacco, Stafford, Ryan, or Eli Manning. Is there a chance the deal looks bad in a few years? Of course. That’s true for any long-term, big money deal. But that doesn’t mean you should never do them. Basically, it boils down to this: if the Bears front office and coaching staff believe Jay Cutler is the right fit for the offense, then you pay him to stay. Getting it done now has the added bonus of setting the table for the rest of the offseason, and allowing Phil Emery to focus on the defensive side of the ball. (It also frees up the franchise tag, should the Bears wish to use it on another player; I’m not sure if there are any candidates, though.)

When pressed about this issue, I’ve always said I thought Cutler would be back. Personally, I’m excited; he’s the best quarterback I’ve ever seen in a Bears uniform, and by the numbers he’s probably the best in franchise history. He has his detractors, for various reasons; many of them tired, outdated, obsolete. Phil Emery was quick to cite Cutler’s leadership this season, even in the face of adversity. He’s been universally praised by his offensive teammates, and by the coaching staff. He even played through a severe injury this season, if you want to drag out the never-true “lack of toughness” narrative. He’s not a perfect player, by any means. His long-term health is a question-mark, for me; he took such a ridiculous beating behind the Bears “offensive line” in years prior to this season that I wonder if his durability will be affected. He does occasionally throw the ball into non-existent windows, and he does sometimes hold the ball too loosely in the pocket. Those are all fair criticisms.

But here’s the key: there are no perfect players. We’re not evaluating this deal in a vacuum, where it’s “Jay Cutler vs. the abstract ideal of a perfect quarterback”. We’re evaluating it in reality, and relative to what’s available to the Bears for the next few years, I’m very much on board with the deal.

Jay Rigdon is the editor and lead writer at Bleacher Nation Bears, and can also be found @BearsBN on Twitter.

30 responses to “Two Important Questions About the Jay Cutler Deal”

  1. Myles

    Completely agree.

  2. jh03

    I think this was a very fair deal. I’m happy.

    Does anybody know what Jennings and Slauson signed for yet?

  3. BWA

    Hey Jay,

    I’d be curious to know where the Bears stand with salary cap space over the next couple of years, especially with this signing in place. Do you think there is any chance we let Peppers go to free up money to shore up the defense with a few other quality players?

  4. Chicago4Life

    This is very well stated. I am not a huge Cutler fan, but I understand that he is the best player available and risking a draft pick that hasn’t been drafted in a year where we really need to spend those picks on defense, just doesn’t make sense either. The amount of time is long, but they had to make sure Cutler was coming back and maybe overpaying is what was needed. I know this, it shrunk our cap to $36 million or so and we still have 25 guys we need to sign. There is a lot of work to do. Peppers restructured or cut should help. Maybe we can extend Briggs and backload a little more. This doesn’t look good for Tillman returning.

  5. Matt

    I really don’t know how this works, but it sounds like all of the guaranteed money comes in the first three years of the deal, so even if things don’t work out there’s very little cost to making a change a few years down the road.

    Along that same vein, though, what’s the cap hit? Will it be $18M a year? Do we know that yet?

    1. frank

      I heard on the radio that the cap hit isn’t quite as much as it would’ve been had they franchised him, but I don’t know how they came to that conclusion.

  6. Ryan Barnes

    Here’s my two cents worth…I’d really like some feedback.

    Realistically, which teams would have been seriously interested in Cutler? I think there are about 7 teams (Titans, Jags, Bucs, Browns, Vikings, Raiders, Bills) that would have shown interest in Cutler, and it would have been 3 teams (Vikings, Bucs, Raiders) that showed serious interest. I honestly believe that the Jags and Browns are SO far away from contention that throwing more than 5 years and almost $20 mil per year makes zero sense for franchises on a guy that will be 31 this upcoming season with some injury history. I sense that the Bills and Titans would not throw that money at a QB yet, and would rather see what EJ Manuel and Jake Locker can do for at least one more season before then seeing the FA QB or draft have to offer. I’d go as far as to say the Bucs would not be interested even, because of the progressive improvements that Glennon made in his rookie year, after a tough start in a rocky situation post Josh Freeman. The Raiders would have likely been prepared to make a good offer and the Vikings DESPERATELY need a better QB.

    If (while using my logic that you can fully disagree with if you choose) the primary teams to be interested are the Raiders (unappealing landing point if I were Jay given that division but that’s just me) and the Vikings, it would come down to the Bears or the Vikings. Skillset around the teams would favor the Bears slightly IMO. Peterson, Patterson, Jennings is not half bad though. Marshall, Jeffrey, and Forte to me is slightly better.

    Ultimately, it looks like the Bears were caught up in a bidding war over a top 15 QB with multiple teams after the top QBs were already taken. I just don’t see why in the world the Bears offered the length of contract when as I’ve stated above, there simply wasn’t likely to be a market for the guy more than 5 years and/or $15-20 mil per. Would the Vikings have offered him 8/144? I surely wouldn’t have thought so….Can anyone help me understand why BOTH the high $ per year AND the length? (Yes, I know about guaranteed money issues and length not being guaranteed, but my point is: who else would have offered him close to that much money and length?!?!?!?!?)

    1. frank

      In addition to what Jay said, I believe that the Texans would’ve jumped at Cutler, since they were a Super Bowl contender as late as a season or two ago. And although the Browns didn’t win a lot of games, they had a fairly strong defense and might’ve taken the risk that Cutler could improve the offense enough to get them into contention (provided they don’t hire Josh McDaniels as their coach). I also think that the Titans’ willingness to bench Locker shows that they’d be in on Cutler too, though it is hard to judge how far they’d be willing to jump.

  7. jh03

    I’ve seen a lot of people say they should have used this 17-18 mil and spent it on defense, and just resigned McCown.

    Here’s my thought process on this, and let me know if I’m off.

    Like you noted above, there’s a dramatic dropoff in what we can expect from the offense when Jay isn’t behind center. Do the defenders you can sign for that 18 mil make up for the loss in value you can get from Jay? I don’t think so. But, for the sake of argument, let’s just say it equals out.

    Second point would be: You can get upgrades defensively in the draft for cheap. When you go value per dollar, wouldn’t you think you’d get more signing Jay and then drafting defense, rather than drafting a QB and signing defense? I really don’t think it’s close. I think this is the smarter play in terms of money and value no matter what way you slice it.

    1. ssckelley

      QB’s of Cutlers caliber do not come along very often and I did not want to see the Bears returning to that QB carousal that they had before. It appears this offense is going to have to step up and carry the defense for a while and I believe in investing in your strength. So to me it makes no sense to take money away from the offense in order to spend it on the defense. What you will end up with is an average offense and, maybe, an average defense.

      The Bears could easily be like the Saints or the Broncos and simply out score the opposing team. We have seen teams with outstanding offenses win Super Bowls with below average defenses (2009 Saints come to mind).

    2. frank

      Makes sense to me. I also believe that it may be easier to integrate certain positions, a rookie defensive lineman for example, into your scheme than it would be to integrate offensive players. In that case, drafting for defense also brings quicker returns.

  8. Greenroom

    Great write-up, Jay. I am not a huge fan of Cutler, but he is/was the top QB available. I hope we have some cash for some Defensive free-agents. I can only see this offense getting better and better. I never thought in my life-time I would see an offense as good as the 85 bears, as far as this team is concerned. We get some healthy defensive players and a few free agents or draft picks, we are going to roll. Go Bears~

  9. Matt

    Consider:a guy with no WR’s outside of his RB (Forte) until last year, the worst O-line in the league until this year, with Kellen Davis as his primary TE (ugh) until this year, a new O coordinator every other year…

    STILL is the Chicago Bears’ all-time leading passer.

    Given that, I think it was in the Bears best interest to keep him around.

    1. mdavis

      awesome points.

      and i have all the confidence emery can turn this D unit around in a year or two. just look at the O. hell, if they make this D middle of the pack avg next season, they are gonna win some more games.

      1. frank

        Average would be good–they would’ve made the playoffs this year had the defense been merely bad rather than “I’d-rather-gouge-my-eyes-out-with-spoons-than-watch-them” horrible.

  10. J.F. Edwards

    I think we need Tillman. I hope they find a fair number. What’s his status?

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  12. hansman

    “But here’s the key: there are no perfect players. We’re not evaluating this deal in a vacuum, where it’s “Jay Cutler vs. the abstract ideal of a perfect quarterback”. We’re evaluating it in reality, and relative to what’s available to the Bears for the next few years, I’m very much on board with the deal. ”

    That is an awesome point and I am totes gonna steal it.

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