This is a mistake.
No, what the Bears gave Jay Cutler isn’t a ridiculous amount of money for a quarterback in today’s market. As 7-year, $126-million contracts go, Cutler’s is actually awesome for the Bears. Get through the three years and $54 million that’s guaranteed, and the rest of the deal, according to Pro Football Talk, is a series of one-year team options.
This is a mistake because for at least three years, the Bears are stuck with Cutler at quarterback. And I’ve become convinced that he’s not the answer.
Cutler’s passer rating (89.2) was a career high in 2013. His completion percentage (63.1) and QBR (66.1) were easily his highest in five years in Chicago and were both the second-best such marks of his career. Without question, this was Cutler’s best statistical season as a Bear.
So what? It should have been.
All of the excuses that were used to justify Cutler’s pedestrian production in past years were no longer relevant in 2013.
We used to say that no quarterback could succeed behind the Bears’ offensive line. The 2013 line was vastly improved, if still imperfect. Football Outsiders ranks the Bears just 20th in its primary run-blocking metric, adjusted line yards, but they ranked fifth in adjusted sack rate, which is Football Outsiders’ primary pass-protection measure. In 2010, the Bears were last in adjusted sack rate; they were 31st in 2011.
We used to say that Cutler had no weapons around him. Now his supporting cast includes, what I’d call, the NFL’s best pair of wide receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett round out an elite collection of skill-position talent.
We used to say that the play-calling of Ron Turner, and then Mike Martz, and then Mike Tice was holding Cutler and the Bears back. Their hire of Marc Trestman as head coach was made primarily to give Cutler the best possible coaching.
With all of these improvements, I would certainly hope Cutler’s production would be better. It was, but it still wasn’t great. He had a lower QBR than Colin Kaepernick and Nick Foles. He averaged fewer yards per attempt (7.38) than Kaepernick and Phillip Rivers. He had a lower rating than Sam Bradford and Matt Ryan.
And in all three of those categories, Cutler finished significantly worse than the guy who filled in when he was injured, Josh McCown. In the same offense, with the same cast surrounding him, McCown had a 66.5 completion percentage, an 85.1 QBR and a 109.0 rating in eight appearances, including five starts.
My argument isn’t that McCown is the solution for the Bears, nor is it that he’s a better quarterback than Cutler. I believe neither of those things to be true. I think McCown’s season was an unsustainably strong stretch of play for a quarterback who was placed in a perfect environment.
But in the NFL, a 224-attempt sample shouldn’t be dismissed as entirely irrelevant. It’s nearly half a season. And it’s evidence that a quarterback who embodies replacement level can thrive in this offense.
Shouldn’t a quarterback who is being paid like a star, then, produce at a superstar level in this offense? Cutler didn’t do that in his 355 attempts. He’s never done it for an extended stretch with the Bears. The only thing he’s produced at a league-leading level is excuses.
The people justifying the extension have almost uniformly done so by saying the Bears would have been hard-pressed to find better than Cutler. I agree that there’s no great alternative about to hit free agency, and that it would stink to use their top draft pick on a quarterback when they have so many defensive needs.
But the beauty of the Bears’ offensive situation is that you don’t need a perfect Plan B. Re-sign McCown, or another mediocre veteran, and draft a guy to compete with him. Trade up if you love Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel; otherwise try to find a bargain later on. Hopefully, either this offseason or a bit further down the road, you’ll find a real long-term solution.
It would be one thing if there was reason to believe there’d be a huge chasm in production between Cutler and these easily achievable alternatives. My argument is that there’s not. You might be spending an additional $10 million a year for the same thing.
And what happens three years from now if Cutler’s continued to be what he’s been since he came to Chicago – inconsistent, mixing his flashes of brilliance with all-too-frequent mistakes? What then?
Per Pro Football Talk, Cutler is due just $12.5 million in 2017 and $13.5 million in 2018. If Cutler isn’t a disaster between now and then, it will be hard for the Bears not to keep him at those prices. So there’s a good chance they’ll do then what I feel many analysts are doing now – talking themselves into Cutler because there’s no easily-identifiable alternative.
The cord should have been cut now. The Bears should have gone cheap at the most important position in sports – until they found a guy who was worth spending big on. Cutler – the guy who I was thrilled to get, the guy whose jersey still hangs in my closet – has proven to me he’s not that guy.