At the end of last season, Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman faced a decision that probably will make or break their futures with the team.
Jay Cutler's contract was up, and they had to decide whether to make a several-year commitment to the quarterback; use the franchise tag and go year to year at a potentially higher cost; or part ways and start anew at the position and as a franchise as a whole.
This could not have been an easy call. Cutler can throw the ball with anyone in the NFL, is above average athletically, and he'd won more than he'd lost in his five seasons with the Bears (41-29 record, .586 winning percentage). But he'd also taken Chicago to the playoffs only once, was prone to game-changing mistakes (only an 84.0 passer rating in six seasons) and lacked natural leadership skills.
Emery and Trestman basically went all-in. They signed Cutler to a seven-year contract that averages $18.1 million. The deal fully guarantees Cutler $38 million for now, and with future guarantees totaling $16 million kicking in March of 2015 and '16, the Bears more or less are committed to him for three seasons, maybe four.
There's plenty of reason to question the decision. Cutler is a talented but erratic player who hasn't been a big winner and turned 31 in April. And Green Bay Packers fans likely rejoiced at the signing. Cutler is 1-7 with a 65.1 passer rating against the Packers since being traded to the Bears in 2009.
Other teams facing similarly tough calls signed their quarterbacks to contract extensions this offseason, but their commitments aren't as steep as Chicago's. Cincinnati signed Andy Dalton to a new seven-year contract in training camp, but with only $17 million fully guaranteed, it probably could get out of it next year if it really wanted. Same with Kansas City, which guaranteed Alex Smith $19 million as part of his new five-year contract.
Yet, when we contacted two NFL scouts last week for their opinions, both backed the Bears' call. If nothing else, it's a stark reminder of how difficult it is in the NFL to find a quarterback who gives you a chance to win.
"If you don't want to pay (Cutler), that's fine," one scout said. "Don't pay him. But who are you going to play? You going to play (backup Jimmy) Clausen? You going to play Tim Tebow? What are you going to do? That's the reality.
"You just say, 'We've got to do a better job coaching him. We have to clean up some deficiencies in his game, decision making, we have to do these things with him. And if we do, we can win with him.' Not everybody has an Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. If you have one of them you're going to sleep a lot better on Saturday nights. But if you don't have one of them, you're in a world of hurt. You're going to be firing general managers and firing coaches and firing coordinators. Just ask Cleveland how that works, and Miami, all these teams that haven't had a quarterback in years."
The other scout at first suggested he would have used the franchise tag on Cutler. But the more he thought, the more inclined he was to have invested heavily if he were in Emery's place. The scout's only hedge was that he's never worked with Cutler.
"I don't know his personality like (the Bears) would, and whether his personality fits with the locker room," the scout said. "That's one of those things you have to take on an individual basis, how everything is handled daily. But just on talent alone, he's got enough that you'd say, 'Can we find something better? And if we can't, then this is a guy we need and take our chances from there.' "
The Bears' decision means the Packers are likely to see Cutler twice a season for the next three or four years. And the degree to which Cutler can break the high-risk habits of his past will go a long way toward determining whether the Bears will be strong contenders for the NFC North Division title.
Emery's decision to invest heavily in Cutler appears to be as much an endorsement of Trestman's quarterback coaching as it is of Cutler. Trestman was a quarterbacks coach and/or offensive coordinator in 14 of his 17 seasons as an NFL assistant, and Emery clearly thinks Trestman has connected with Cutler and can continue to improve his fundamentals and decision making.
Last season was Trestman's and Cutler's first working together, and in Cutler's 11 games in 2013 — he missed five games because of a torn groin muscle — he had his career-best passer rating, though at 89.2 he finished only 13th in the NFL. His 3.4 interception percentage was about the same as his career mark of 3.5.
Trestman's highly personal approach to working with the position had a more profound effect on former backup Josh McCown, who last season had by far the best season of his 13-year career. McCown put up a 109.0 rating and 3-2 record as a starter while Cutler was out. McCown's previous best rating was 74.9.
Cutler's new contract means Trestman's future is tied to his quarterback, which should further Cutler's trust in his coach.
"You have to keep reining (Cutler) in," one of the scouts said. "He gets a little lackadaisical. He can become undisciplined with his feet, and that gets him in trouble. At times he has a difficult time giving up on a play, he doesn't know when to throw it away and move on. He's battled the injury deal and hasn't been able to stay on the field. Those are all the negatives."
Cutler's 2-1 record this season mirrors his play. He threw two interceptions in the Bears' opening loss to Buffalo and hasn't thrown any since. He led a comeback win at San Francisco after trailing 17-0, and had a 94.7 rating in the Bears' over the New York Jets last week.
One of the scouts has watched film of all three games.
"The Jets really came after him the other night," the scout said. "The (Jets') plan was to create pressure and get after his (expletive). They brought a lot of six- and seven-man pressures, a ton. He sat in there and made some really good throws. I thought he showed great resilience.
"He's always had the talent and arm talent. He's struggled a little bit with his demeanor and his presence at times, his frustration has gotten the best of him. But Marc Trestman is really working that part of his game. He's really tried to smooth that out, and Jay's responded. He's playing really well right now."
Both scouts rated Cutler in the top half of the starting quarterbacks in the league, but not the top 10. One of the scouts agreed to compare Cutler to all the starters and rated 10 clearly ahead of him: Rodgers, Brady, Manning, Brees, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan.
The scout gave Matthew Stafford a slight edge over both Cutler and Cam Newton, and had all of them ahead of Joe Flacco, Tony Romo and Dalton, among others.
"It's like the good Jay and the bad Jay," the other scout said. "If you get the good Jay for 55, 56 minutes a game, you're probably in good shape. But you get the good one for 40 minutes, 45 minutes, and he goes south and he starts getting careless with the football, they're not good enough to overcome that. Most teams aren't."
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