Jay Cutler's Bonus Start in Week 17 Means Nothing for the Bears

Zach KruseSenior Analyst IDecember 23, 2014

Dec 15, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler (6) in their game against the New Orleans Saints at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

A season's worth of dysfunction will come to an appropriate conclusion when the Chicago Bears start previously benched quarterback Jay Cutler against the Minnesota Vikings in Sunday's season finale

Revived after a one-week timeout, Cutler will now start a game that means nothing for his future and nothing for the 5-10 Bears. In fact, him playing at all may be detrimental for both. 

Head coach Marc Trestman announced the move Monday in unison with revealing Week 16 starter Jimmy Clausen had suffered a concussion against the Detroit Lions and would be unavailable to play against the Vikings to finish the season. 

"Jay gives us the best chance this week, so that's why he'll be up," Trestman said. "David [Fales] will be in the backup role."

Trestman and the Bears believe Cutler provides the best opportunity to win a game that will determine whether Chicago finishes 5-11 or 6-10. That assessment is correct, but it's also off the rails—while the objective every week is to win, the Bears have passed the point where winning in the present outweighs future objectives. 

There appears to be little to gain for either side. 

Let's say, for a moment, that Cutler plays well Sunday, and Chicago beats Minnesota. Will the Bears really be swayed one way or another about keeping him around past this season by one performance? Cutler already beat the Vikings once this season. And he's generally played well against Minnesota over 10 previous starts (23 touchdowns, 93.2 passer rating). 

One game isn't going to change a career of created perceptions, in Chicago or elsewhere.

Jay Cutler: 2014 and Career Numbers
Cmp %Yards/AttTD/INTPasser Rating
201466.16.928/1889.5
Career61.77.2183/13085.3
Bears: 5-9 in games started by Cutler in 2014

Cutler has been through his share of head coaches, offensive coordinators, playbooks and philosophies. His numbers are slightly more aesthetically pleasing in 2014—he's completed over 66 percent of his passes with 28 touchdowns—but Cutler is still the same quarterback at age 31 that he's always been. The transformation expected under Trestman hasn't happened. 

Over his first 14 starts, Cutler produced a league-high 24 turnovers while also running an inefficient and at times uncompetitive offense. He found himself as the No. 2 quarterback in Week 16 as a result. 

Certainly, one week on the bench isn't the magic cure even if Trestman has remained in his corner. 

"I believe Jay can work his way out of this," Trestman said. "I've enjoyed coaching with him and working with him." 

The risk in playing Cutler outweighs the reward. 

Even an impressive performance against the Vikings wouldn't significantly alter his trade value. NFL decision-makers are unpredictable and often times unreliable as a collective group, but a meaningless Week 17 contest between two non-playoff qualifiers doesn't hold weight. At least it shouldn't in any process to move for Cutler.  

And unless a week of reflection on the bench changed his inner football being, Cutler isn't going to do anything transformational for the Bears staff against the Vikings. His future in Chicago probably doesn't hang on this one game. 

With little to gain, the Bears are unnecessarily risking a further financial commitment and the obliteration of his trade market by playing him. 

Professional football is a violent game with inherent risk. No team can coach or play scared of injuries. But injuries do happen, and in this case, the threat of injury to Cutler is a real one with real implications. 

According to Spotrac, $10 million of Cutler's 2016 salary guarantees if he's on roster on March 12, 2015. That's important.

A major injury suffered against the Vikings would eliminate his trade market and put the Bears on the hook for every guaranteed penny left in Cutler's deal. His 2016 salary is guaranteed against injury only, which means the Bears wouldn't be able to release Cutler before the March deadline and avoid the $16 million he is owed after next season. 

Essentially, a major injury would lock Cutler into Chicago's plans for the next two years.

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 15:  Ryan Groy #79 of the Chicago Bears helps teammate Jay Cutler #6 get up after he was sacked during the fourth quarter by John Jenkins #92 of the New Orleans Saints at Soldier Field on December 15, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The
Brian Kersey/Getty Images

The Bears will have options with a healthy Cutler. Those options include eating the 2015 guaranteed money and incurring a hefty cap penalty for just one year (release) or moving him for limited compensation to any bidder willing to take on the money (trade). Those avenues of divorce disappear if Cutler is severely injured. 

So to recap: The reward of Cutler playing well is fairly insignificant while the risk of injury would have far-reaching implications in terms of money and the future of Chicago's quarterback position. The professorial Trestman should be able to see this reality clear as day. 

Starting Cutler Sunday is also an obvious admission that sixth-round pick Fales is wholly unprepared to play in an NFL game. 

There would be no better time to get a look at a young quarterback than a meaningless Week 17 game. The 183rd pick in last May's draft, Fales began the season on the Bears practice squad but was promoted to the active roster on Dec. 13. While he's been in Chicago for nearly a full year, it's clear the Bears don't even trust him with a simplified game plan. 

It all adds up to a dysfunctional end to a dysfunctional season. 

The Bears will start Cutler in a meaningless game, with both sides having little to gain and much to lose in doing so. 

 

 

Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report. 

Follow @zachkruse2