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.