Why the Cutler deal was the right move

January 3rd, 2014 - 9:45 am

So here we are. After a full year of speculation and scrutinization regarding Jay Cutler’s development under Marc Trestman and whether the Bears should have extended his contract to keep him in Chicago, we now have a resolution.

Cutler is staying in Chicago through 2020.

At least, that’s what public opinion will tell you. Little do people realize that it’s not the length of a contract that matters, it’s the dollar figure that counts.

The NFL, a far superior league than most of its professional counterparts, has got contracts right. Whereas in the NBA, a team is on the hook for a player’s full contract (Bulls fans are well aware of this as they’re wondering whether Derrick Rose can or will ever live up to the huge contract in spite of two knee injuries), in the NFL a team is only on the hook for the guaranteed money of the contract, plus any base pay for a given year of service.

What does all this mean? In layman’s terms, only $54 million of Cutler’s contract is guaranteed, an appropriate sum for a good quarterback in a league that is short on supply at the position.

Furthermore, ignore the seven years reported on Cutler’s contract. The only way Cutler remains with the Bears in 2020 is if the Bears win the Super Bowl by then — or are extremely close.

Here’s why: as reported by Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com, the bulk of Cutler’s contract is front-loaded, meaning he’ll make his most money in the first three years of the deal.

This is a fair balance given two reasons.

First, Cutler will be entering his prime here in his early 30s under a proven offensive coach and quarterbacks guru in Trestman. I expect — as do the Bears and most football pundits — that Cutler’s best years will take place in these next three years.

Second, the Bears’ offensive Super Bowl window is right now. Their team Super Bowl window? It’s not here yet because the defense is so poor. But the offense is as good as any in the league outside of Denver, and their second-place finish in scoring and eighth-place finish in total yards backs that up. The offense’s Super Bowl window is here because of the dynamic receiving tandem of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, the best combo of wide receiver teammates in the NFL. They also have an emerging playmaker in tight end Martellus Bennett, a solid slot receiver in Earl Bennett, and one of the best and most versatile running backs in the NFL in Matt Forte. This offense is stacked … and they won’t be around forever. But they are here for Cutler in his three-year window.

With that said, that debunks the philosophy that so many fans had regarding re-signing backup quarterback Josh McCown to a cheaper deal and drafting a quarterback to build around. McCown — despite his proficient and efficient performances in relief duty this season — is not a Super Bowl quarterback. He’s a backup for a reason and has hopped around the league because teams know it. And trying to win a Super Bowl with McCown during this current offensive Super Bowl window would not have worked. Plus, he’s not even sure he wants to keep playing in the NFL anymore, having recently suggested retirement.

Likewise, handing the reigns over to a rookie quarterback likely would have squandered this offensive Super Bowl window as well. First, it destroys offensive continuity to replace Cutler for a young guy. Second, there is always development time required of rookie quarterbacks. Third, if you’re one of those who suggested the Bears draft a rookie QB to be the starting quarterback, you’re putting your full faith and trust in GM Phil Emery to draft the right guy. Chances are, you’re also one of the fans who is criticizing Emery for picking Shea McClellin. You can’t have it both ways.

Given the Bears’ draft position, they’re out of the running for the cream of the crop quarterbacks in this year’s draft. Name me an example of a recent NFL quarterback who was not drafted at the top of the draft (like Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Carolina’s Cam Newton). Chances are, you can’t name many because it’s difficult to land a solid quarterback in the later rounds of the draft. The Patriots hit the lottery with Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft and the Seahawks appear to have hit the mark with their selection of Russell Wilson in the third round of the 2012 draft. But there’s no guarantee of drafting a better quarterback that Cutler, and the Bears couldn’t afford to take that risk by handing this solid offense over to an unknown commodity.

Finally, let’s discuss dollars. Those who were against the signing of Cutler will likely point out that the Bears could have used his money on fixing a horrendous defense. But while Cutler’s 2014 base salary of $22.5 million is indeed a high mark, it’s not going to inhibit the Bears from upgrading this defense.

For starters, there is a chance the Bears cut ties with Julius Peppers, which would free up room to sign two players to upgrade other positions. Then, the Bears have so many expired deals on that side of the ball that they have the ability to go out and fix the defense at any position they want without being constrained by big salaries on bad players. The fact that the Bears sort of have a blank slate to work with is a good thing. Furthermore, the Bears almost made the playoffs with one of the worst defenses in the league. If this team just upgrades to an “average or below average” defense, it can still contend in the playoffs for a Super Bowl. But, I have faith in Emery to make this an “average or above average” defense within the next three years of the Bears’ offensive Super Bowl window.

After Cutler’s high 2014 base salary, it drops to $15.5 million in 2015 and $16 million in 2016, both reasonable figures for a quarterback that will be in his prime in a great offense. The Bears will be able to work in salaries for free agents that kick in after the 2014 season.

For those of you who don’t like Cutler, or don’t like his deal, fear not. As I’ve mentioned before, Cutler will not last to 2020 at the age of 37 unless the Bears win the Super Bowl. At which time, if they do win the Super Bowl, chances are that you will like Cutler by then (or at least respect him) and will want the Bears to keep him, anyway.

But if Cutler does fail to take the Bears to that coveted Super Bowl title during his — and the offense’s — Super Bowl window, the Bears can cut him after any year thereon out. At which time, they can hand the reigns over to a young backup who they are likely to draft to develop, anyway. As Florio also put it in the aforementioned article: “It’s a very good deal under the circumstances, it keeps [Cutler] in Chicago for the next three years at $18 million annually, and it gives the Bears the annual right thereafter to decide whether to keep him or to walk away.”

The deal, in my eyes, is win-win for the Bears and Cutler, and no “available” quarterback out there is a better fit for this current explosive offense over the next three years than Cutler.