Having passed over the river on Brian Urlacher, the focus of fans must undoubtedly shift to the key player that will make or break their season. Jay Cutler has wanted the pressure on him since he joined the Chicago Bears in 2009. It took four years, a new general manager and a new head coach but he finally got his way. The only question left is does he have the time to act on it?
New GM Phil Emery loves to keep his methods and intentions a secret throughout the off-season. So far though things couldn't be clearer. Half the roster is either signed to a one-year deal or in the last year of a contract. Names like Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Matt Slauson, Henry Melton and Major Wright are in the same boat as Cutler. If they want their big pay day, they will have to earn it in 2013. That means playing well and reaching the playoffs. Fans and media can dance around it all they like. It won't matter. The Bears were good enough to reach the post-season last year at 10-6. On paper at least they've improved since then with additions like Jermon Bushrod and Martellus Bennett in free agency and Kyle Long, Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene from the draft. This team is younger, faster and still experienced enough to win.
Yet nothing changes. Everything rests on Cutler having a great season. Last year was his worst as a Bear in a lot of statistical categories. Excluding 2011 where he only played ten games, his 3,033 yards, 19 touchdown passes, and 58% completion percentage were all career lows for his time in Chicago. Emery saw the problems from the outset. He knew the only way Jay could succeed was having someone in charge who could get the most out of him. That was why the Bears hired Canadian league coach and former coordinator Marc Trestman. His history tutoring quarterbacks is long and successful spanning a half dozen teams. The kicker is, outside of Steve Young he's never had a quarterback with the physical talent Cutler possesses.
Does that mean Chicago is married to this relationship? No. It does however mean Jay has every opportunity to succeed. His offensive line has improved as have the receivers. The coaching staff is revamped with a number of proven offensive minds and the defense should move along just fine under veteran coordinator Mel Tucker.
So what if Cutler plays well but the Bears still miss the playoffs? This is probably the $64 million question. Based on a black and white outlook, it's clear Chicago is very open to offering a new contract if he plays better than last year. Still, if the numbers don't reflect the mark of a top ten quarterback they are far more likely to use the franchise tag, pay him $15 million for another season and use a high draft choice on a possible replacement. The same could happen if he doesn't play great but the Bears make the playoffs anyway.
A long-term extension of any kind must come when certain parameters are filled. Cutler must not only put up the numbers that mark a franchise quarterback, Chicago must win because of him. That is how the last three Super Bowl champions did it. That is how teams will do it in the future. The time of leaning on the defense and getting off the bus running are gone. The deficiencies around Cutler have begun to disappear, as have his excuses.