As the Chicago Bears enter the stretch run of the season, a very complicated question presents itself: Should the team commit to quarterback Jay Cutler or send him on his way this offseason? There's no easy answer to this question, and there's a major case to be made for both scenarios.
The Case to Keep Cutler
When Jay Cutler came to the Bears in a blockbuster trade in 2009, his offensive weapons consisted of Matt Forte, Devin Hester, Greg Olsen, Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox. For years the front office has tried to improve that relatively average lineup, and it's clear that in 2013 they have.
As well as drastically improving the offensive line, general manager Phil Emery has finally surrounded Cutler with offensive weapons that can put crooked numbers on the scoreboard. Receiver Brandon Marshall is a perennial Pro Bowler, and second-year man Alshon Jeffery is developing into one of the more talented receivers in football.
Add tight end Martellus Bennett to that, and the Bears have one of the more formidable offenses in the league. That's why letting Cutler go would feel like a waste. He spent years under center as the team slowly put talent around him, and it would be a shame if he was let go right as the team finally has that talent.
Over the course of his Bears career, Cutler has a record of 38-26 and led the Bears to an NFC Championship berth in 2010. In fact, the Bears have only had one losing season with Cutler under center, and in 2011 they were 7-3 before finishing 8-8 after losing Cutler for the season. While he's only led the Bears to one playoff appearance, injuries have kept him from adding another trip or two to his résumé.
Complicating things even further is that before injuring his groin against the Redskins, Cutler was having his best statistical season as a Bear. In eight games this season, Cutler is completing 63 percent of his passes, which is just under his career high, and he has thrown 13 touchdowns to eight interceptions.
Over the past couple of seasons, Cutler has struggled with injuries, but over the course of his career, injuries haven't been a major problem. Since he became the full-time starter in Denver in 2007, Cutler has played in 96 out of a possible 108 games.
It is this year's injury that has presented the Bears' front office with a conundrum. With the outstanding play of backup Josh McCown, it seems like there is a plan that is a cheaper alternative to signing Cutler long term.
The Case for Letting Cutler Go
The biggest reason that there is even debate over Cutler's future in Chicago is backup Josh McCown's play in Cutler's absence. The 34-year-old has thrown for 13 touchdowns and only one interception to go along with a total QBR of 85.72, which is the best mark in the NFL.
Clearly McCown has been the beneficiary of the arsenal of weapons that the Bears possess, but he also doesn't force throws in the same way that Cutler does. As a result, the Bears don't turn the ball over, and they give their young and injured defense more of a chance to rest.
When both are completely healthy, Cutler is a more talented quarterback, but McCown has shown the Bears' front office that signing him to a two- or three-year deal may be in the best interest of the franchise.
Clearly, McCown would be in line for a much smaller paycheck than Cutler. That money could be used on the plethora of defensive players that become free agents for the Bears as well as on free-agent defensive players from other teams around the league.
Cutting defensive end Julius Peppers would really help the salary cap situation as well, but signing McCown and drafting a young quarterback may allow the Bears to map out their future further down the road and provide a clearer picture of the team's future.
A former high school football coach and veteran in the league, McCown would be a great mentor for any young quarterback that the Bears decide to bring in. Seemingly with a couple years of good football left in him, McCown could hold down the fort for the next couple of years as a young quarterback develops behind him.
Bears' Quarterback Draft Options in 2014 and 2015:
- Derek Carr (Fresno State) 2014, projected mid-first-round pick
- Blake Bortles (UCF) 2014, projected late-first- to early-second-round pick
- AJ McCarron (Alabama) 2014, projected second-round pick
- Bryce Petty (Baylor) 2015, ranked third among 2015 QB draft class
- Cody Fajardo (Nevada) 2015, ranked fourth among 2015 QB draft class
It seems that with a couple years of seasoning, the top draft picks listed above could learn the offense from McCown and head coach Marc Trestman. By the time that McCown is ready to hang up the cleats, a young quarterback could be ready to pick up the offense, which is full of weapons.
By taking this course of action, the Bears would have their quarterback situation figured out for seven to 10 years as opposed to three to four. That, of course, is contingent on selecting the right quarterback to succeed McCown when the time comes.
Where the team is right now, not re-signing Cutler may be in its best interest. It allows the team to take a young quarterback and develop him behind a perfect mentor in McCown. More importantly, it allows the team to spend more on an injury-depleted defense that needs all of the help that it can get.
As of right now, the Bears' offense is performing at a championship-caliber level. The defense is light-years away from that point, and saving on Cutler could help push the defense closer to formidability. As a result, the Bears surprisingly could become a championship contender more quickly by letting Cutler walk at the end of the season.
As was announced earlier today by Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune, Cutler will start against the Browns this Sunday. With the Bears sitting at 7-6 and in a tie with the Lions for the NFC North division title, Cutler has a chance to put all controversy to rest.
Should Cutler come out of the gates firing and send the Bears to their second playoff appearance since their Super Bowl berth in 2006-07, there will be less of a debate as to his future in Chicago. The next three weeks may go a long way in determining Cutler's fate in the Bears' organization.