By Dan Durkin-
Editor’s note: This is the seventh part in a series that takes an all-encompassing look at the state of the Bears’ roster. Click here to read breakdowns of the other positions.
(CBS) There’s a parable that says, “To those whom much is given, much is expected,” and it applies perfectly to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler’s 2014 season.
Less than a week after the 2013 season ended, former general manager Phil Emery signed Cutler to a seven-year, $126-million extension with $54 million guaranteed last January, signaling the organization had identified its franchise quarterback at least for the near future.
Prior to the Bears converting $5 million of Cutler’s base salary into a signing bonus to create cap room for the Jared Allen deal, his $22.5 million cap figure for the 2014 season was the highest in the league. That’s quite a haul for a quarterback with one career playoff win on his resume.
The structure of the deal was unusual, as it contained no signing bonus. Rather, his guaranteed base salaries were triggered via roster bonuses – his base salaries in 2014 and 2015 (totaling $38 million) became fully guaranteed last March, $10 million of his 2016 base salary becomes fully guaranteed on March 12 of this year and the remaining $6 million of his 2016 base salary becomes fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2016 league year.
It’s hard to understand how the Bears came to such a lucrative conclusion given that Cutler played in only 11 games in 2013, going 5-6 and posting a slightly-better-than-average 89.2 passer rating. The franchise tag was a viable (and cheaper) option that would’ve given the team another year to assess his play.
Cutler finished the 2014 season 5-10 as a starter and led the league with 24 turnovers. He also found himself in a situation he’d never faced in his career since becoming a full-time starter, being benched in favor of Jimmy Clausen for the team’s Week 16 matchup against Detroit.
Clearly, the outcome of Cutler’s 2014 season is nowhere near what the team had in mind, but to be fair, nothing went right for the Bears last season. However misaligned the preseason expectations of the team were, it’s undeniable that the team underachieved last season, which falls on both personnel and coaching.
Consider the teams that played this past Sunday in the Super Bowl. Other than New England’s Rob Gronkowski, which tight end or receiver would be considered an obvious upgrade over what Cutler had to work with in 2014?
Coaching was clearly an issue for the Bears last season. But when looking ahead and assuming the decision has been made to keep Cutler in the fold — which is the right choice given the slim alternatives in free agency (where Mark Sanchez is the best option) and a weak crop of draft prospects – new Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains are the best combination he’s had since turning pro.
In what likely amounts to Cutler’s last stand in Chicago this fall, there are simply no more excuses.
Cutler’s leadership has been questioned by teammates, so perhaps it’s just not in his nature. Leadership is innate. However, Cutler must find a way to command the locker room and huddle and exhibit better decision-making when the ball is kicked off. If he’s to find sustained success, there can be no more locking in on his primary read or letting his mechanics go to waste because he trusts his arm strength to fit a ball into a passing window no matter how tight.
General manager Ryan Pace saw firsthand in New Orleans what a championship quarterback looks like, having been a part of the personnel department that signed Drew Brees as a free agent in 2006. Pace knows the profile of what he’s seeking in a leader and signal-caller, so he must start and keep swinging until he connects.
The only other quarterback under contract for the Bears is their 2014 sixth-round pick, David Fales, who didn’t see the field last season. Clearly, Pace has to add competition to the mix at quarterback, but of the available options, none are an upgrade over Cutler.
Franchise and championship-level quarterbacks make the players around them better through leadership and skill, while minimizing the times they put the ball in harm’s way.
Nine seasons and 121 starts (including playoffs) into his career, the discussion can no longer be about Cutler’s physical talents, which are vast. It’s about results.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.