It wasn't too long ago that the Chicago Bears were in desperate need of a franchise quarterback. The Bears slogged through re-tread after re-tread, third stringer after third stringer, washed up veteran after washed up veteran until they traded for Jay Cutler in 2009.
Has it worked out? Absolutely not. Fans believed that the troubles were over and that Cutler would be a perennial Pro-Bowl quarterback who would regularly throw for 4,000 yards and 25 TDs. The team would be a playoff regular and maybe even hoist a Lombardi or two.
But life isn't so easy. The team has rotated through offensive coordinators as often as they once did QBs. There has been very good play and very poor play.
Cutler has a 34-22 (.607 winning percentage) record with the Bears, he has thrown more TDs than INTs every season and has led the team to one playoff berth and one playoff win.
Over the weekend, Steven Schweickert wrote about the chances that the Bears have already made up their minds about Cutler. I think that may or may not be true but that the Bears are going to end up with Cutler because there isn't any other option. Cutler is a franchise quarterback and he will be the man for the Bears for the foreseeable future.
There are only so many ways to find a QB and recent trends show that QBs are considered "franchise level" with similar or worse career resumes than Cutler's.
Finding a Franchise QB
The first thing a QB-needy team must do is find their franchise quarterback. There are three ways to do this:
1) Draft one - Usually the best quarterbacks are found at the top of the first round. Obviously talent evaluation is not perfect but over recent years it has been the best QBs taken in the top of the draft who have performed the best quickly. Matt Stafford, Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Joe Flacco. There has been talent found in the second round as well, namely Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton. While there have been busts like Blaine Gabbert, Jimmy Clausen and Tim Tebow, the first two rounds of the draft is still the go-to spot for a franchise QB.
2) Sign one - Now franchise QBs are not found in great quantity in free agency but it does happen. Drew Brees is probably the best example of this route but even that was seven years ago.
3) Trade for one - This can be a bust for teams or work greatly in their favor. The Texans traded for Matt Schaub, the Raiders for Carson Palmer, the Chiefs for Matt Cassel and the Bears for Cutler. Just this past offseason the Chiefs traded for Alex Smith.
Cutler and the Bears
So the Bears traded for Cutler and the results have been mixed. But if Marc Trestman and Phil Emery don't like the results of this year, what will they do?
If they decide they need to replace Cutler which of the three routes would they take?
If they want to draft one, in order to have a shot at one of the best, most talented and promising prospects, the team would really have to tank. The 2014 class is relatively deep at the QB position but if the Bears turn in a 7-9 season they may have to settle for a prospect who wouldn't be ready to play as a rookie, at least not without suffering another playoff-less season of growing. Even if they do decide that there is a franchise prospect worth trading up for, it will cost several high draft picks (look at the Redskins-Rams trade for RGIII) and that's only IF a team is willing to part with their pick.
If they want to sign one, the pickings will likely be slim. 2014 scheduled free agents include Michael Vick, Dan Orvlosky, Tavaris Jackson and Josh Freeman. There is no way Matt Ryan reaches free agency. So unless they want a reclamation project like Freeman or a veteran to hold down the offense for a year or two, signing one doesn't look like a great option. Pat Devlin will be an exclusive rights free agent and he was considered a sleeper prospect last year so if Miami passed on signing him he could be intriguing but there is no telling if he is ready to lead a team.
There is no telling who will be available through a trade if they wanted to go that route. Usually a hot trade commodity isn't known very far in advance, typically it happens when a back up lights it up for an injured franchise player (a la Schaub for Vick or Cassel for Tom Brady) or when a solid QB loses his job to a young player (like Smith for Kaepernick). This route usually costs at least a couple high draft picks plus a new contract for the acquired player.
None of these options appears to be great for the Bears. They don't want to be at the top of the draft, Emery values picks too highly to part with a lot of them and frankly, too many recent picks haven't worked out and the roster is still aging, so trading away picks that can be used to bring in young, fresh talent is more necessary than trading for just one guy, unless you really believe that one guy can overcome everything else. Trading picks for a higher pick to grab one guy or trading multiple picks for a guy on another team is something you do when you're a franchise QB away from greatness. The Bears are not in that position.
They have a QB who is above serviceable but the rest of the roster is not quite young enough to mortgage as many as two-three high draft picks for a player who might not lead the team to the promise land in year one. They are better served to stick with Cutler for that.
Cutler is the best bet to win now.
Recent Contracts and Cutler
This NFL offseason has seen two quarterbacks sign questionable contract extensions: Matt Stafford and Tony Romo.
In March Romo signed a seven-year, $119.5 million deal with $55 million guaranteed. Romo, 33, is 55-38 as a starter (.591 winning percentage) and is 1-3 in the postseason in three berths. His last playoff appearance was 2009.
Stafford is 25 and a former number one pick. One of the last pre-2011 CBA draft picks, his cap number was going to be extremely prohibitive to the team so they signed him to a massive extension. Stafford is 17-28 as a starter (.378 WP), has one playoff appearance and lost it.
Cutler has a better winning percentage than these two players and comparable postseason work. He just turned 30.
Argue about labels all you want but Cutler is a franchise QB. He may not be elite but it doesn't matter. Franchise QBs are hard to find and teams will stop at nothing to lock them up. There are questions about Stafford, there are questions about Romo.
Joe Flacco may still not be considered elite but he signed a six-year $120.6 million contract, won a Super Bowl and has a .675 winning percentage (54-26 record, 9-4 postseason). He won the QB lottery by having his contract expire the same year he won the big one.
A franchise QB, in a simple definition, is one that a team believes can lead it to a Super Bowl. Flacco is certainly that. I believe Cutler is that. He is not a "win because of him" but more of a "win with him" player, which is how I feel about Romo.
Franchise QBs are very difficult to find, unless you are sure you can develop a guy like Kaepernick, or that you can get a Russell Wilson, Luck or RGIII, then drafting one is a dicey proposition. If you want to mortgage your future (again) for a player that could turn out to be a Schaub at the best, Cutler 2.0 if all things are equal and Cassel at worse, then go for it. If you want to wait and hope a team lets a franchise guy walk, then be my guest.
But the only and best option the Bears are going to have is to extend Cutler.
It's the only option that makes sense and frankly, using the extensions of this offseason as a barometer, Cutler is more likely to be a value than Stafford or Romo. He is younger than the latter and is better in Ws and Ls than the former. If Cutler can't lead the Bears to the conference championship game or better, then he'd be in line to get Romo/Stafford money, which, again, would be an incredible value for the team.
Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears, I now pronounce Quarterback and Franchise. For better or worse, for Super Bowls or high draft picks, for wins or losses.